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Last week, tickets went on sale for the quarterfinals of the Fed Cup, an international women’s tennis tournament that is generally billed as the female version of the Davis Cup. On the weekend of July 19, an American team captained by Billie Jean King and featuring Venus Williams will take on Italy’s squad, led by somebody named Sylvia Farina Elia, currently ranked No. 28 in the world. The event will take place at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center, the 7,500-seat tennis stadium in Rock Creek Park. According to organizers, this will be the first time the Fed Cup has played in D.C. in its 40-year history.
The announcement that the Fed Cup would be played here came as a surprise to Jack Nelson, a longtime resident of the 16th Street Heights neighborhood that borders the park near the stadium. And not a happy, fun sort of surprise.
“This just shows how you can’t trust anybody,” says Nelson.
Nelson was part of a group of community and parkland activists who, over the years, fought first against the building of the stadium and later against its use for anything other than one professional tennis event per year. The stadium was built in the late ’80s on national parkland at a cost of over $11 million, primarily with money from the Washington Tennis Foundation, which has run the stadium from the start. (The group changed its name to the Washington Tennis and Education Foundation, or WTEF, in 1998.) The venue is named after its biggest benefactor, the now-93-year-old William H.G. FitzGerald, ambassador to Ireland during the first Bush administration.
Since 1969, the Rock Creek site has hosted a stop on the men’s tennis tour, now called the Legg Mason tournament. Before the FitzGerald Center was built, that event was held on clay courts in front of a few hundred spectators, who sat on wooden bleachers and generally didn’t disturb the local residents. The original FitzGerald deal, worked out between the foundation and the National Park Service with plenty of community input, allowed for the new stadium to hold one event per year.
But once construction was finished, neighbors were concerned that with so much money invested in a then-state-of-the-art stadium, the foundation would try to book more events.
They were right. In 1989, the foundation attempted to make the FitzGerald Center an annual stop on the women’s circuit, then called the Virginia Slims tour, and also hinted at booking rock concerts and other entertainment events. That sparked an uproar among local activists.
“The community finally went along with the building of the stadium, with the understanding that it would be only one tournament a year, nothing else,” says Nelson. “Then, the foundation people start saying, ‘Hey, we have all these costs, and we have to do more than one event a year.’ The community went crazy, because they knew they were hoodwinked. But that just started a long, drawn-out fight.”
Rather than fight, the Virginia Slims switched and took D.C. off its calendar. So Nelson, then head of the 16th Street Heights Civic Association, and other community activists figured they’d won and that the one-tournament rule would stay in place.
“I remember that the only deal was for one tournament per year,” says Nick Clark, an environmental activist who, while working for the National Park Conservation Association, helped fight to limit the use of the stadium. “That’s what everybody thought the deal was, and if that deal ever got changed, nobody told me.”
The WTEF, however, says that there was nothing in its agreement with the National Park Service to stop it from booking the Fed Cup and the Legg Mason in 2003.
“We can have two tennis tournaments per year. That’s our deal. It’s always been that way,” says Wanda Pierce, now in her third year as the WTEF’s executive director.
So who’s right? Is it one or two?
Well, both groups are right. In January 1997, after a federal environmental-impact study, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued its Rock Creek Tennis Stadium Record of Decision. That decision, according to the document, “allows for one professional tennis tournament to be held annually at the tennis center.”
However, later in its decision, the department says that it will consider requests from the foundation to
hold “a second large-scale tennis event” on “a case
by case basis under certain special circumstances.”
For such a request to be granted, according to the decision, “the Washington Tennis Foundation will have to submit details of their proposed event and evidence that the event will provide a significant sum certain in advance to be applied to the direct
benefit of Washington Tennis Foundation programs for youth, seniors and special populations.”
Steve Lebel, concessions program manager for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, says that means the foundation has to guarantee that the tournament will bring in money directed for its teaching programs. Lebel, who approved the foundation’s request to hold the Fed Cup, says that the amount of tournament money earmarked for charity is “protected” information, which he will not disclose. WTEF’s Pierce also refuses to divulge the amount.
The 1997 record of decision includes other criteria that must be met before a second tournament can be approved, however. It stipulates that, regardless of the size of the charity’s windfall, the National Park Service will “prohibit concurrent events at both the tennis center and Carter Barron Amphitheatre,” the concert venue that is also run by the National Park Service and shares parking with the stadium.
As of early this week, the National Park Service’s Web site, on its “Summer in the City” page, listed a free concert featuring Emil de Cou conducting the National Symphony Orchestra in a program of film music at Carter Barron on July 19. That’s also the opening day of the Fed Cup tournament.
But the concert won’t take place under the stars after all.
“The Fed Cup took precedence,” says Lebel. “We notified the National Symphony [that its Carter Barron date was canceled]
as soon as Washington was awarded the Fed Cup.”
So the July 19 concert will instead be held under the rafters, at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Passes to that event are still free, according to the symphony.
Tickets for the Fed Cup, meanwhile, will cost you anywhere from $75 to $220.Dave McKenna