For the handful of people in charge of saving the U.S. economy, it’s been a grueling season. The last eight months have featured endless back-and-forths, tense stalemates, and spirited confrontations. Larry Summers, the president’s chief economic adviser, has drawn blood with his lacerating quips. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has dropped expletives to signal his frustration. Even their aides have gotten in on the action.
And, in those rare instances when the wonks get a break, they step outside their conference rooms, loosen their ties, and do the same thing all over again. On a tennis court. For years, Summers, Geithner, and a variety of deputies have stared each other down from opposite sides of a three-foot-high net. These tennis relationships have played out on courts from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Davos, Switzerland, and on pretty much every flat surface in Washington, D.C. It turns out that tennis is the unofficial sport of the Obama financial team. And, if you want to understand the way its members go at it behind closed doors, it’s worth watching them go at it with tightly strung rackets.
Start with Summers, the famously blunt former president of Harvard. It’s not hard to deduce the on-court approach of a man who, as a young professor, favored such expressions as, "Here’s why what you’re thinking is wrong," and who believes the way to respond to a financial crisis is with overwhelming force. "Basically, he hits the crap out of the ball," says Jon Gruber, an MIT economics professor who began playing with Summers in the late 1980s.
A quick look at Summers suggests diving for drop shots isn’t really his game, though opponents say he’s deceptively agile. The typical Summers point will start with a cannon-like serve. If the return is weak, the bulky six-footer will cut the ball off and swing for a difficult angle. Each additional shot is more likely than the last to either be out or un-returnable--the shorter the rally the better. As a player, "Larry is very tenacious … like his personality," says Summers’s sometime coach, Nick Bollettieri. "I don’t think Larry ever smiles." (Adds Bollettieri: "I told Larry if he has enough money, I can still get him to another level.")
It may come as a surprise that the normally understated Geithner--his trademark verbal tic: "I don’t know anything about this, but …"--would play a similarly incautious game. But, decked out in tennis shorts, Geithner is wont to let it rip. "He’s a little different on the court than Tim Geithner the central banker," says one colleague. "When he isn’t playing well, it’s because he’s going for it and missing, not because he’s being too careful." Though nearing 50, Geithner is a natural athlete with a runner’s physique. He can materialize at net so quickly it feels like he served from mid-court, and the sight of his five-foot-eight-inch frame almost dares an opponent to lob him. This is generally not advisable, as Geithner has more impressive ups than you expect to find at a G-20 summit. One hallmark of a game with the Treasury secretary is an unusual number of overhead smashes. Geithner was, after all, a Summers protégé.
Since the inauguration, Geithner, Summers, and several other senior economic officials--including Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin and Assistant Secretary Alan Krueger--have played roughly half-a-dozen doubles matches. (Various members of the group rotate in or out on any given day.) The star of these outings is Gene Sperling, a top Geithner aide who, early in the administration, became known as the "undersecretary of everything" for dispatching the many thankless tasks circumstances had thrown his way. As a teenager, Sperling’s scrappy baseline play won him a tennis scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he broke the will of more powerful opponents by chasing down every shot. So far this year, the team with Sperling on it has taken all but a single set.
This is not for any lack of effort. In February, Geithner and Sperling teamed up against Summers and Krueger for a match at Washington’s Rock Creek Park Tennis Center. Geithner and Sperling took the first set 6-3 on the strength of their aggressive net play, forcing Summers and Krueger to scramble defensively. There was talk of switching teams once the set ended, but the idea was promptly nixed. "We thought we’d come back," says Krueger. He and Summers proceeded to lose 6-3 all over again.
Most of these tennis ties date back to the 1990s, when the men filled out the upper ranks of the Clinton economic team. But it took the Bush administration to usher in the golden age of Clintonite tennis. Not long after leaving office in 2001, Summers and a Treasury colleague named Lee Sachs spent a long weekend refining their strokes at Bollettieri’s world-famous tennis academy in Florida. (Among the illustrious alumni: Andre Agassi, Boris Becker, and Anna Kournikova.) "He and I were making the adjustments to post-government life," Summers recalls. "His father lived down there, and we decided to try it for several days."
The trip soon became an annual ritual, with Geithner, Sperling, and several other former colleagues joining in. Each March, the wonks-in-exile would present themselves to the Bollettieri instructors for two days of extensive drilling. In one particularly taxing exercise, the campers would hit a forehand approach, then charge the net to take two volleys before sprinting back to the baseline--one after the other in a whir of circular motion. Imagine the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker; then imagine that the dancers are middle-aged men of roughly average dexterity, and you have the idea.
Well, most of the idea. "Those guys are very, very competitive. Put that in there. Holy shit," says Bollettieri. "There’s no friendship on the friggin’ court. They want to beat the shit out of everybody." And how do they stack up? "Sperling is better than any of us," Summers says. "I was probably second-best at hitting the ball, but I don’t move as well--I’m not as fast. So I would say Geithner or I were probably second-best."
As it happens, ranking the members of Obama’s economic team has been a Washington pastime from the get-go--albeit according to influence rather than their ground strokes. Geithner is widely believed to have beaten out his former mentor for his current job, and the press has seized on any sign of discord. "Mutual acquaintances say that the longtime friendship between Mr. Summers and the 47-year-old Mr. Geithner has been strained," The New York Times wrote this summer in an exhaustively reported account. The piece was replete with verbs like "forcefully debated," "clashed," and "collided"; a major subplot was a sharp-elbowed struggle over access to the president.
There’s something to be said for this storyline. So far this year, Summers has grilled Geithner over his reluctance to nationalize banks. He’s prodded Treasury officials to make sure the stress tests were tough enough. (An Easter Sunday meeting on the subject ran five or six hours.) For his part, Geithner reportedly lobbied the president to reappoint Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke--with whom he’d worked closely during the financial crisis--even though Summers’s desire for the job was well-known.
But these tales of intrigue can miss a more subtle dynamic: The members of the economic team are close confidants. They spend evenings at tennis camp discussing children and career moves. They decorate their offices with pictures of each other in tennis garb. It’s only every now and then, when they reach a point in a match that will separate winner from loser, that their competitive pride kicks in. Conventional wisdom aside, the men aren’t enemies or frenemies or even rivals. They’re more like … frivals.
Late this summer, at a tennis court in Washington, Geithner teamed up with Sperling to take on Krueger and another colleague. Krueger’s team notched a commanding 6-1 win in the first set, then Geithner and Sperling stormed back to a 4-1 lead in the second. That’s when the trouble started. "I hurt my hand too bad to keep playing, and Tim really hurt his back," recalls Sperling. But neither wanted to throw in the towel. "We stayed on the court for another thirty minutes negotiating who was going to look weak and use their injury as the excuse to end the match." Finally, they agreed to call it quits so that neither would be crippled. Every frivalry has its limits.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.