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Tuesday, January 2, 2007
Updated: January 8, 6:00 PM ET
Ford: Tennis enthusiast while in White House

By Bonnie DeSimone
Special to ESPN.com

President Gerald R. Ford took the oath of office in August 1974 after the resignation of Richard Nixon and served for a little more than two years. His tenure coincided with a time when American tennis popularity was ascendant and tennis stars were among the brightest constellations in the celebrity galaxy.

A gifted athlete, Ford was best known for his youthful exploits as a University of Michigan football center and for his enduring passion for golf. But his dogged enthusiasm for tennis was apparent during and after his short stint in office, even though he was then already in his 60s.

So it was fitting that the Indian Wells Tennis Garden served as a staging area as Ford's fellow residents in the Palm Springs, Calif., area gathered to honor him after his death last week at 93.

(L-R) David Kennerly, Donald Rumsfeld and former President Ford.
(L-R) David Kennerly, Donald Rumsfeld and former President Ford.
Thousands of people queued up in the vast tennis center parking lots from 4 p.m. Friday until 6 o'clock the next morning to take shuttle buses to nearby St. Margaret's Episcopal Church, where Ford's casket lay in repose. They returned to the tennis facility after paying their respects and wrote personal messages in guest books for the Ford family.

Steve Simon, chief operating officer of Indian Wells, estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 people passed through.

"We were honored to help," Simon said Tuesday. Indian Wells is the site of the annual two-week Pacific Life Open tournament, which features top ATP and WTA players.

It was only natural, given the times, that tennis had a place in the Ford administration. In the summer of 1975, Ford invited Wimbledon winners Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King to the White House. The president issued a proclamation declaring the last week of June 1976 to be National Tennis Week. His son Jack briefly dated Chris Evert.

When original "Saturday Night Live" headliner Chevy Chase made a career out of exaggerating Ford's occasional clumsiness, Ford showed he was the ultimate good sport by inviting the comedian to the White House for a game of tennis.

Ford did shank a few golf balls into the gallery, smacking a spectator or two with an errant shot. It often has been reported that he did the same to his doubles partners. However, the story appears to be a myth that confuses Ford with Spiro Agnew, his predecessor as vice president.

(Agnew whacked then-Peace Corps head Joseph Blatchford with a serve in May 1970 at a charity event. According to a May 1989 Washington Post story by Marci McDonald, the incident prompted Nixon to joke that he should send Agnew into then-war-torn Cambodia armed with a tennis racket.)

Actually, Ford was proud of his athletic skill and determined not to embarrass himself when he played in public. In spring 1978, he sought out ageless champion Pancho Gonzalez and asked for instruction in preparation for a tennis event in Houston. On May 9 of that year, Ford wrote Gonzalez to thank him:

"Good news. John Newcombe and I defeated Dick Stockton and Jim Baker 6-1. I played well enough to help a little. A few disasters at the net, but the serve and volleying went well. Again, I'm most grateful. You were most helpful."

What occasional player can't relate to that?

Ford stayed on the lookout for good players in Washington. Harvard University economist Roger Porter was a young aide to the president when Ford discovered that he had been a top player in his home state of Utah, lettering at Brigham Young University. Ford promptly enlisted Porter as a doubles partner.

In an interview with the Deseret Morning News last week, Porter recalled the time Ford arranged to play doubles on the White House courts with a man he'd just nominated to head the Central Intelligence Agency. Porter said Ford hoped to help his friend relax before grueling Senate confirmation hearings. The man in question? George Herbert Walker Bush, who would become the 41st president (and arguably the most accomplished tennis player ever to serve in the office).

In McDonald's exhaustive 1989 Post history of tennis at the White House, she reported that in one match, Bush, newly returned from his stint as an envoy to China, walloped one too many overhead winners past Ford for the then-president's liking. "George, didn't you do anything else in China but play tennis?" Ford is said to have inquired.

Ford helped put a fledgling ski resort in Vail, Colo., on the map when he bought a home there, but he also spent time at his mountain retreat in the nonsnowy months. Former University of Arizona coach Bill Wright, Vail's director of tennis from 1972 to 1999, told the Denver Post this past spring that he conducted one memorable session with Ford.

"There were Secret Service guys all over the place," Wright said. "They actually stopped the traffic on I-70 because the courts were next to the highway. He hadn't played much tennis, but he was a good athlete."

Perhaps the most telling tennis-related anecdote about this modest president comes from his friends Bill and Ruth Getzen of Sarasota, Fla., who hosted the Fords in their home for two nights during the 1976 campaign.

"He was no slouch," Ruth Getzen said Tuesday. "A good, steady player."

John Lawrence, the pro at Sarasota's Field Club, arranged for several members to play with the president. When Ford arrived for the casual match, Bill Getzen told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last week, he and others were stunned by one sight in particular.

"I couldn't believe it -- the president of the United States brought his own can of tennis balls," Getzen said.

Bonnie DeSimone is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.