Big Shots on Courts: It's Not Just a Game

What does it take to break into the inner circle of banking policy big shots?

A powerful serve, snappy ground strokes, and an hour of court time could be the clincher.

Sure, a post in the Treasury Department, a seat on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. board, or a Federal Reserve Board appointment is a good start. But powerhouses in banking and finance let off steam and cement friendships on the tennis court.

Consider FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman and Comptroller of the Currency Robert L. Clarke: Their professional relationship is often stormy. But on the tennis circuit, they're a tight doubles team.

"There's a lot of chances to get mad at each other," Mr. Seidman says. "Playing tennis together defuses that."

The roster of Washington tennis buffs includes a who's who of banking and financial policymakers. From the Federal Reserve Board, there's Chairman Alan Greenspan and Wayne Angell. At the Treasury Department, Secretary Nicholas Brady, Deputy Secretary John Robson, and Assistant Secretary Jerome H. Powell are avid players.

What's the draw? Why do these guys play tennis together?

|A Closely Knit Group'

There's no mystery about it, says Richard Breeden, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and a fixture on the tennis circuit. "We work together all the time; we're all friends. It's a pretty closely knit group."

But isn't there more to it? Isn't this powerful, influential crowd's fascination with tennis a metaphor for ... something? "I'm not going to help you with your sociology homework," Mr. Breeden scoffs.

Shop talk simply never comes up, swears Donald Ogilvie, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association. "Unlike golf, you don't talk. You're trying to catch your breath most of the time." The ABA runs tennis tournaments at its major meetings to give bankers a chance to volley with their regulators.

Sweating as an Attraction

"Work comes up every now and then, but mainly I just go out there to play tennis, have fun, and sweat," says Mr. Robson, who is noted for his competitive spirit and tremendous court coverage.

When the match is over, players sometimes talk business over a cold drink, said Kathy Kemper, coach at one of the crowd's hot spots, the Mount Vernon Tennis Club. "I see deals percolating," she said.

Some have been playing together for years, like Mr. Brady and David O. Maxwell, former chairman of the Federal National Mortgage Association. They were squash teammates at Yale University (class of '52) and still meet regularly for tennis.

Going for the Kill

The competition is intense. "Tennis isn't fun if you don't go out to win," says Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. "It's a gladiator sport where you try to vanquish your opponent."

"They take it very seriously, but then they take everything seriously," said coach Kemper. "These are type-A guys."

No kidding.

Last year, Mr. Greenspan collapsed at a dinner after a vigorous tennis match on a steamy afternoon. Rumors about the Fed chairman's condition touched off a minipanic in financial markets.

Heightened Precaution

Mr. Greenspan wasn't seriously ill, and he got back on the court a few days later. He didn't agonize about possible market reaction, but he did change one thing, a spokesman said: "He takes water with him now."

Hip surgery sidelined both Mr. Brady and Mr. Seidman - but not for long. They're back on their games, and Mr. Brady, in particular, is a feared opponent. "He has tremendous reach. Superb volley. An excellent player," Mr. Breeden says.

Mr. Brady also enjoys access to the capital city's top court: at the White House. Nobody brags about having played there, for fear of not being asked back.

Refreshments at White House

"The White House court is in excellent shape, but it's a standard hard court surface," offers one diffident lobbyist. "There's a little refrigerator where you can get soda pops - no beer."

The Federal Reserve Board boasts a very fine - and popular - tennis court right in its backyard. But here's a secret: It's not the central bank's private domain. The land is owned by the Interior Department, and anybody can troop over to the Fed's guard desk to reserve court time up to a week in advance.

Fellow regulators don't hide their envy: "It's a severe defect of the SEC building that there is no tennis court," Mr. Breeden says.

"I thought of putting a court on the roof of the FDIC building, but it didn't seem security would allow it," Mr. Seidman says. Then he considered building a tennis court at the FDIC's new training center in Northern Virginia. But he scrapped that idea when he learned there are courts in an adjacent park.

Prowess on the tennis court is definitely an entree to the corridors of power.

Diane Casey, the IBAA's executive director, rues the day she turned down an invitation to play Mr. Greenspan, because her game was weak. That prompted her to take lessons. "When I'm good enough to play tennis with the chairman, I'll know I've arrived," she says.

Secret of a Reporter

New York Times banking reporter Nathaniel Nash played tennis with banking policymakers all the time - and picked up plenty of scoops in the process. "Nathaniel Nash is an awesome player," one regulator marvels - and he's sorely missed now that he has moved to the Times' Buenos Aires bureau.

Among the policymakers, tennis has clearly edged out golf as the sport of choice. "It's more exercise in a shorter of period of time," says Peter Monroe, president of the Resolution Trust Corp. Oversight Board. "It's more of a go-go sport, and there is a lot of camaraderie on the court, unlike in golf."

In fact, there's more than a hint of disdain for such leisurely pastimes: "I wouldn't be a golfer even if I had all the time in the world," sniffs one regulator.

PHOTO : READY TO VOLLEY: Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan has played the game to the point of collapse.

PHOTO : BROTHERHOOD OF THE RACQUET: Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, holding racquet, and David Maxwell, front row, third from left, have been racquet buddies since their days at Yale in the early '50s.

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