What do ambassadors and grass tennis courts have in common? Well for one, they can both be found in Washington, DC. And several ambassadors, who were former tennis champs, value the time they spend on the grass courts.
On the morning of June 18, diplomats, executives and tennis enthusiasts gathered for a practice drill at the residence of Arthur Sinodinos, Australia’s ambassador to the United States. The court, known as White Oaks, is one of the nation’s few private grass courts.
“We do these kinds of things frequently, and it’s a great way to get people together, to exercise, to compete and build friendships,” said Coach Kathy Kemper, professional tennis player-turned coach who led the practice. “I’ve been a big believer that recreating with people is a great way to build trust.”
Kemper was joined on the court by Bosnian ambassador Bojan Vujić —ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina—along with Irish ambassador Daniel Mulhall; Elizabeth Sinodinos, wife of the Australian ambassador; Phoebe Kapouano, wife of European Union Ambassador Stavros Lambrinidis; Dr. Joanna Breyer, wife of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; and Shaun Modi, CEO of Capitol Artificial Intelligence. The event included tennis drills for 90 minutes followed by lunch.
Notably, playing on the grass surface requires more concentration than a regular hard surface. These courts are so rare that most people won’t ever get the chance to play tennis on professional grass in their lives.
“It’s much faster, which means you have to be on your feet quicker than on the hard court,” said Vujić. “It’s more slippery, but the bounce is unpredictable. You never know what could happen.”
Many of the players have some degree of experience on grass as former professional tennis players. Breyer, for instance, played tennis at Oxford and went on to compete in junior Wimbledon tournaments, while Vujić spent most of his life as both a professional tennis player and coach, competing in the Davis Cup for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1995 to 1997 and for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2004 to 2006.
Vujić said it was an easy transition from tennis star to diplomat: “Through my tennis career, I had the chance to meet a lot of people. And I am now enjoying my life as an ambassador.”
Kemper also spent several years as a professional tennis player in college before coaching Georgetown University’s Women’s Tennis Team from 1978 to 1990. Since then, she has coached celebrities, politicians, diplomats and everything in between. Kemper is also CEO of the Institute for Education, a DC-based nonprofit that fosters technology and innovation education while working with global leaders.
“I think [tennis and IFE] are great compliments with each other,” said Kemper. “In tennis, you can build friendships and then expose people to what you are doing [professionally].”
This practice hopes to inspire many more tennis events at the Australian residence. Last October, Sinodinos hosted the Kangaroo Cup, a spinoff of famous tennis tournaments for the DC diplomatic community and friends of the embassy.
“We had a couple silver plates to make it look like Wimbledon and just to emphasize it was the Kangaroo Cup, we had a guy dressed as a kangaroo— it shows how serious we were taking it,” said Sinodinos. “We are hosting groups and individuals, but that was the first big tournament that welcomed lots of people. We want to make it an annual event.”
The June 18 practice ended with some competition. Breyer, who has been the IFE International Round Robin champion 11 times, won the point simulation game with a score of 27. Mulhall came in second with 14, and Kapouano came in third with 13. The group plans to get together for tennis again before the summer is up.
“In competition, you are giving it your best and focusing and learning the strategy,” Kemper said. “I think the older I got, the more I got into coaching adults, and the more I realized the whole other aspect of self-diplomacy and networking and using the sport as a tool to build connections.”