Tennis hall of famers, Wimbledon champions, and top ranked international players gathered for one final match last week in, of all places, a basketball gymnasium.
At George Washington University’s Smith Center, a couple of years removed from their outdoor days down at the Southwest waterfront, the eight-year-old Washington Kastles continue to build their reputation in the 40-year-old World Team Tennis League: five straight championships and six in seven years. Under head coach Murphy Jensen and owner and founder Mark Ein, this tennis team continues to build a dynasty as they work on winning hearts (and ticket buyers) in the District.
The biggest question, despite the success, is what’s next for the franchise? In an already saturated sports market, tennis is not the easiest sell. An average of just over 3,000 fans show up per match.
“As opposed to everything else I do in my life, this really doesn’t have a financial return component,” says tech-millionaire Ein. “The reality is I’ve actually continued to invest in the team. I really use completely different metrics to measure success here than I do in anything else—and financial success is not one of them.”
This season, the Kastles set a single-game team record for attendance, with 4,400 people filling up the Smith Center. The 2010 post-Gilbert Arenas Wizards, for comparison, averaged five times as many fans as the Kastles did this year.
Billie Jean King—hall-of-fame player, founder of the WTT, and owner of the Philadelphia Freedoms—convinced Ein it was a good idea to invest in and create the league’s first ever D.C.-based team, in a city that has always had a love for the sport, Ein says.
With a hand in the community and the other in the business world, Ein brings out an atypical crowd together to watch an unorthodox tennis match.
“The biggest compliment I’ve gotten, and I’ve actually gotten it a few times, is people look around our stadium and say it’s the best melting pot of our community that they’ve ever seen,” Ein says.
The roster has a similar, global feel too: Players include Leander Paes, an Olympian for India and holder of a career Grand Slam in men’s doubles, and Switzerland’s Martina Hingis, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member who won the Wimbledon mixed doubles final with Paes as her partner in July. Serena Williams was supposed to play again for the Kastles, but had to back out at the last minute with an elbow injury; her sister Venus, however, was on this year’s lineup.
All of this talent comes together inside an air-conditioned basketball gym. Some wish the conditions weren’t so… comfortable.
“Please tell [Ein] to go back outside,” says Carmela Goodall, a longtime fan and U.S. Tennis Association volunteer. “I’m telling you this is what people talk about… it’s fake tennis indoors.”
Others, from businessmen to families, love the situation, though; matches have no rain delays and quality seats as a result of reconfiguring the lower bowl of the Smith Center.
“It’s much more intimate, and for the kids it’s a great experience being so close,” fan Debo Sarkar says. “I can’t imagine getting seats this close to the action at say FedEx Field or even at the Wizards.”
For now, a move outside is at a standstill. The Kastles are locked in for one more season, with an option for both GW and the Kastles at the basketball gym, both Ein and GW’s Athletic Director Patrick Nero say. A new home could be considered—maybe their own stadium—but that’s talk for another time, Ein says. Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, home of the Citi Open, is a venue too big for a WTT team that needs just one court for competition.
Instead the Kastles are working toward their goal of running what Ein calls a “world class event,” something which features male and female mascots, cheerleaders, a hype man on stilts, and a D.C. legend of a sideline PA announcer.
That person, Wes Johnson, sits courtside. He was recruited, along with other members of game operations, from the Capitals where he’s been the PA voice for the past 16 seasons.
“I get to go a little Kastles crazy with the fans, and they all worry about me when my face starts to get red, but that is the team color so why not,” Johnson says.
If Johnson is the voice of Kastles, then Leighton Condell—the man on stilts with a microphone—is the face of the franchise. He’ll scream into the mic the team’s “Refuse to Lose” slogan and get a nearly sold-out Smith Center crowd to have a great time.
“The Kastles are the most winningest team in D.C. that a lot of people don’t know about,” Condell says. “It’s our job, it’s Mark’s job, it’s my job to put the word out to let D.C. know that they do have a championship team and they’re really, really good. They’re actually great.”
When the gym cleared out after the championship, Ein paused for one final huddle. He and his employees posed for group photos and then Ein gathered them up. From the view above, you could make out his balding head and his suit jacket in a sea of red employee shirts. When the huddle broke, the owner was all smiles. Another year, another championship. If his slice of the D.C. sports scene was small, it didn’t feel like it now.
Photos by Josh Solomon