All it took for tennis to shed its stuffy, elitist reputation was a long-haired sex symbol with a cocky attitude, a few Canon commercials and a zippy tagline. Image, it turned out, was indeed everything. Today, the tennis craze is in full, uh… swing.
"The Capital Classic is but one tournament in a Gay and Lesbian Tennis Alliance tour that stretches from Munich to Sydney," says Mike Grable, co-director of the Capital Classic Tournament to take place in Washington this weekend.
This year will mark the tournament's tenth anniversary, making it one of the older gay tennis tournaments in the country. And being as gay as a pair of white shorts, the tourney involves plenty of social interaction.
"I won't say there hasn't been a player or two over the years who didn't get a little carried away with the competitive side of things, but generally anyone who heads down that road will get a gentle reminder that this is just fag tennis, and there's no need to get like that," says Grable.
"Those people are -- happily -- few and far between," he continues. "I've played tournaments in Florida, Boston, New York, Dallas, and you see the same people over and over. So you want to get along with them."
The Capital Classic includes two parties, the draw party being the one that is open to the public. This year, the party will take place at Hamburger Mary's and Titan, and will include an episode of Feygele Feud hosted by Ester Goldberg. These parties are a big part of the reason why Grable and others enjoy the gay tennis circuit. His rule of thumb: "I only go to tournaments in cities I'd like to spend time in."
The parties also function as a sort of insurance policy. Blow your match, and at least you can hit the bars early.
"It's about camaraderie and friendship," says Grable. "I play on a mixed doubles team with a bunch of my straight neighbors. That's all fun, but the social component to Capital Classic is as important as the tennis."
The rules of the game are identical to the U.S. Tennis Association's, though unlike professional men's singles, which is often best out of five sets, they play three. As Grable says, "We would kill ourselves."
The low-pressure mentality makes the Capital Classic appealing for a wide range of players, from those who can nick the serving box line with an ace to those who have just recently learned how to keep score. Five skill levels -- Open, A, B, C and D -- ensure that newbies won't get smoked in two matches.
"We take anyone who wants to play," says Grable.
"Anyone" includes participants from up and down the East Coast, California, Canada and even Europe. Grable estimates about two-thirds of the participants are members of the Capital Tennis Association, D.C.'s gay tennis league.
Still, about nine out of ten participants are men, "exactly the reverse of what you'd expect to be stereotypically true," he says.
"We do have a women's doubles league on Monday nights in the summer for the first time. And we always have women on our board. We try really hard, but there's never been much interest."
The tourney doesn't pay for itself. Raffles for donated items and drill sessions help with funding. The organizers also depend on support from community establishments.
"The Eagle has been trying to get sports teams in on Friday night for their club bar," says Grable. "They donate the shots and the kegs. We just stand there and take the money."
Not exactly an aristocrat's sport anymore. Culminating on Sunday with the finals between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., the Capital Classic is guaranteed to be a good time this year, both on and off the courts.
Capital Classic X runs September 13-15 at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center at 16th and Kennedy Streets NW. The draw party will take place at Titan, 1337 14th Street NW, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. All are invited. Feygele Feud begins at 9:30 p.m. For more information visit www.capitaltennis.org.