Fifteen-Love

Summers bests FM editors in unlikely tennis-court clash of the titans

David E. Stein

Ben Wasserstein shows off his on-court skills

“The Summers Tennis Watch has begun...God save us all.”

—FM, October 10, 2002

Thus started the Summers Tennis Watch. And with each passing week, tension mounted. The Harvard community held its collective breath, waiting to see if Larry Summers and FM’s Ben Mathis-Lilley, Ben Wasserstein and Kenyon Weaver would meet on the court. The odds didn’t look good. Our first proposal to Summers’ office, sent almost a year ago, had received a polite but firm “no.” Our second proposal, sent in the fall, had received a polite but firm complete lack of response. Hoping to turn up the heat, we inaugurated the Summers Tennis Watch, a relentless if ostensibly futile Summers-provoking campaign in the pages of the magazine. It seemed very unlikely that the president of the world’s most prestigious university, a former Cabinet member, a man profiled by the likes of “60 Minutes” and The New Yorker, would pay heed to a semi-weekly barrage of juvenile insults (“You’ll be begging for hippies to take over your office when we’re done with you!”) and insulting juvenilia (see illustration of Summers, paunch out, barraged by tennis balls) from the staff of a shoddily distributed and quasi-pornographic student publication. As we noted in a moment of bitter self-reflection during week three:

“Mass. Hall sources have been unable to ascertain whether University President Lawrence H. Summers will accept FM’s offer to play an informal match of doubles tennis, whether he has even heard about FM’s offer to play an informal match of doubles tennis or, for that matter, whether he has ever heard of FM Publisher Kenyon S.M. “Backhand” Weaver ’03.”

But we would never give up, no, not ever, at least not until week five when we started to really let things slide. When our term as FM editors ended in December, it appeared that our weak lob of hope had been crushed by the overhand smash of Presidential indifference. The Summers Tennis Watch seemed as useless as the doubles alleys in a singles match. And then, out of the blue, the word came...the Prez was ready to play. Incredibly, as the following Nixon Tapes-esque transcript of a Crimson interview with Summers shows, three “journalists” whose greatest previous accomplishment was the periodic production of “Gossip Guy” had peer-pressured the former Secretary of the Treasury:

MAN: And the last [question] is that the [FM editors] still want to challenge you to a tennis match. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] They promise that this isn’t a sarcastic thing [OVERLAPPING VOICES].

MAN: Wasserstein and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

SUMMERS: I’ve been trying to say yes to this for six months. And—

SUMMERS: And you guys have been, and the system has been [OVERLAPPING VOICES], I don’t think the system trusts Fifteen Minutes.

SUMMERS: But they’re having the, they’ve been having like the When Will Summers Play Tennis Watch in every issue. [LAUGHTER] It’s making a fool out of me. It’s hard for me to believe it can get that much worse. So, Lucy, could you make sure that we get a tennis game scheduled in Fifteen Minutes?

WOMAN: [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]

When we heard that “woman” had said “[unintelligible phrase],” we knew. The Summers Tennis Watch was over. The Summers Tennis Game was on.

Ben D. Mathis-Lilley ’03

Age: 20

Tennis Experience: Varsity doubles, junior and senior years of high school. “We were in Michigan’s Saginaw Valley League, which included Midland, Saginaw and Flint. The other school from Midland beat us all the time. When we played Flint, we usually had to explain the rules of tennis. We beat them sometimes.”

Signature Shot: Weak backhand groundstroke into bottom of net.

Last Tennis Game: Two summers ago. Barely defeated extremely out-of-shape roommate, who smoked cigarettes during changeovers.

Cabinet Positions Held: President (St. Brigid’s Elementary School).

President of Harvard University: No.

Ben C. Wasserstein ’03

Age: 22

Tennis Experience: Junior Varsity, sophomore and junior years of high school. “No one was cut from JV. I only played exhibition games. I wasn’t allowed to play senior year, because seniors can’t be JV.”

Signature Shot Combination: First serve—long. Second serve—long.

Last Tennis Game: August ’01. Played younger brother. Lost.

Cabinet Positions Held: President (Dalton High School).

President of Harvard University: No.

Kenyon S.M. Weaver ’03

Age: 22

Tennis Experience: Couldn’t make it onto the high school team. Consistently bests relatives.

Signature Landing Point of Overhead Smash: Way long.

Last Tennis Game: July ’02. Schooled elderly aunt and uncle.

Cabinet Positions Held: Senate Student-at-Large (Lamar High School).

President of Harvard University: No.

Lawrence H. Summers

Age: 48

Tennis Experience: Varsity in high school. Has played consistently since then; a star of the Beltway tennis circuit when he lived in Washington DC. Hits with the Harvard men’s and women’s teams.

Signature Shot: Overpowering slice serve.

Last Tennis Game: The previous weekend. Practiced with Nick Bolletteri, the world’s premier tennis coach.

Cabinet Positions Held: Secretary of the Treasury (United States of America).

President of Harvard University: Oh yes.

The Game: An Oral History

Ben W: Before the match, most of my prep time was devoted to obtaining a collared shirt, sweatband and racket. My blockmate was willing to lend me his little sister’s girly racket. Frankly, it felt so right in my hands. I also asked some friends for strategic advice. One of them told me that we should tell Larry that we were playing “doubles tennis” and then actually play “Hit Larry in the Crotch.” We didn’t do that, but the next time the three of us play tennis with a former member of the Cabinet, we’re totally gonna.

Ben M: Ben and Kenyon told me I needed a collared shirt and a sweatband. The sweatband was no problem, but the only short-sleeved shirt with a collar that I own is really heavy and not at all conducive to exercise. In addition to limiting my range of arm motion, thus severely hindering my groundstrokes, it led to excessive perspiration. Altogether, though, the sweating just added to my overall aura of manly intensity, which I think really impressed the ladies who were watching.

Irin Carmon ’05, FM associate editor and female courtside observer: Ben Mathis was just drenched in sweat. It was totally gross. He also kept winking at me after he double-faulted. I thought about leaving.

Kenyon: I was told directly by a family friend to “kindly let Summers win.” I told them that wasn’t going to be necessary. For the match, I decided on my East Hampton Point collared shirt and a pair of white shorts; anything less would be unseemly.

Peter Hopkins, FM associate editor and observer: Kenyon’s white shorts were really short. They were the highlight of the match for me.

Ben M: We had been warming up for awhile and were starting to wonder if Larry would stand us up. But at about 8:10 he showed up wearing a matching black and white Nick Bolletteri Tennis Academy warm-up suit, and mentioned that he’d spent the previous weekend at tennis camp. This worried me, since I’d actually spent the previous weekend at camp too—Camp Miller High Life.

Rachel Dry, FM chair and observer: It was pretty funny how Summers, a middle-aged man, looked so much sharper, fitter and better than the 20-year-olds. Apparently he’d just been to tennis camp. The only camp Mathis had spent any time at recently was, I don’t know, Camp 16-Ounce Budweiser. He didn’t shave, and I’m not even going to mention the sweat. Wasserstein’s socks didn’t match, and I think his collared shirt was child-sized. Also, I don’t think most people play tennis in khaki shorts held up by a leather belt. Kenyon’s outfit was actually pretty sharp but, well....he still looked like Kenyon, you know?

Ben W: I had played both Ben ML and Kenyon before. Given how things turned out, I guess maybe this was a misreading, but my sense was that they were both terrible, terrible players. I was clearly the best of us three. So I volunteered to be on Summers’ team because we figured that it would be really awkward for Summers’ teammate to crap it up. Unfortunately, we were all too right about that. ¡Ay!

Kenyon: I’ve seen the two Bens play, and I think I could probably beat them individually. I was clearly the best of us three. So, naturally, the team I was on was going to win. The question was, who should play with Summers? Wasserstein volunteered.

Ben W: The first thing Larry said to me once we went to our side was, “If we win, you graduate with honors.” I tried to think of something that was also friendly and jokey as a response. What I said was, “Ha ha! Uh, yeah.” Perhaps remembering that he was playing this game because we’re an irreputable media outfit, Summers quickly said that I’d probably get honors even if we lost. I said “We’ll see about that, ha,” a goddamn ace compared to my earlier banter.

Ben M: During my high school career, my doubles partner and I had an uncanny connection. Before the match I was wondering whether Kenyon and I would be that in sync. Short answer: no.

Ben W: Summers asked me which side I preferred, which was nice of him. I said I had no preference, and he took forehand. If I had taken forehand, there probably would have been some other awful consequence, but as it was, playing backhand meant that if a game went to deuce, mine would be the final point. So what happened is I would screw up, and then the game would be over. This happened a lot.

Kenyon: Ben ML and myself get first serve, and Ben ML offers me the service. I remember wondering if Summers and Wasserstein were ready to taste my tennis ball fuzz, knowing very well they were not.

Ben W: In the first game, I had the losing point, of course, whiffing on a serve. Larry seemed cool with my terribleness, though.

Irin Carmon, observer: Summers rolled his eyes every time Ben W. botched an easy shot.

Ben W: After Kenyon, it was Larry’s serve. He was awesome. I think the only point we lost was the time I touched the ball. I volleyed into the photographer.

Kenyon: So Summers serves, and it’s like a punch to the gut. Not literally—I was never physically hit with the ball—but they came in hard, and I struggled futilely to keep from returning long.

Ben M: Summers’ serve was wicked awesome, and I don’t use those words lightly. About half the time I would hit it back long, and about half the time I would just lunge awkwardly and miss completely. But Ben W. was just awful.

Kenyon: By the fourth game, I’m saying, “C’mon Wasserstein, give us a fight.”

Ben W: We were flailing, missing every chance we had to get the “W.” And by “we,” I mean me. I was making unforced errors like it was my J-O-B.

Kenyon: At one point, Ben ML and I decided that to win the point, we should hit it to Wasserstein. The problem was we couldn’t control our own shots, most of mine going horribly awry. And you couldn’t hit them to Summers, because he would slam them back low to the ground full of topspin and near the line.

Ben W: My serve was not pretty. It’s tough to win when you double-fault three times. Summers was a force at the net, though, picking up any ball in his vicinity. The game went to deuce a few times, but we ended up losing. So it was 3-1 now. Larry did not seem happy. He really wanted to win, and I was obviously the reason we kept losing. I began trying desperately to send psychic signals to Ben and Kenyon, begging them to relent.

Ben M: I wasn’t playing to beat Summers. I was playing to destroy Ben Wasserstein. He kept glaring at me, as if he had something to say. It gave me a headache, which only made me want to obliterate him more.

Kenyon: Ben Wass was looking pretty desperate out there. I guess it was tough for him, crapping it up while Summers was his teammate. I did what I could to make him look as bad as possible.

Peter Hopkins, observer: Kenyon’s shorts—tantalizing.

Ben W: We were down 4-1. The only game we won was when Summers served. At this point, I was reconciled to the fact that me and Summers were going to go down in flames, and that it was all my fault. Weirdly, my attempts to telepathically make Ben and Kenyon go easy on us seemed only to embolden them. I just wanted to lose with dignity. I’m kind of ashamed to say it, but I was ready to give in to my own suckiness. Thing was, Larry wouldn’t let me. “We can beat these guys,” he said. “Just get it in. No more mistakes. We can get ’em.”

Kenyon: My game consisted of big forehand blasts which went long, lobs and weird slices which left my body twisted when I finished the swing. Summers, by contrast, was the very picture of consistency and cool, only his eyes giving away any hint of emotion. Well, his eyes, and the occasional sigh when Wasserstein fucked up.

Ben M: At 4-1 I thought there was no way we could lose. I was concentrating mostly on not snickering out loud about how Wasserstein had told me before the match that he was “clearly” better than Kenyon and me. Now, Larry was definitely better than both of us. If Ben W. was also better than us, then why was his team’s collective ass getting kicked so relentlessly by the foot of Weaver and Mathis?

Ben W: But then we won. And we kept winning. It was like Larry said: we just had to stop making mistakes. My groundstrokes landed in the court. Mathis started double-faulting. Kenyon kept sucking. I would say to Larry, “Here we go. Comeback time!” It was sort of a joke at first, but goddamn, we started living the dream.

Kenyon: From 4-1 it goes to like 5-4. I thought we still had it in the bag, but there was no countering the blistering cross-court shots by our president nor the awkward game-winners from Wasserstein. They had momentum on their side too, something Ben ML and I had lost.

Ben W: Summers would hype me up between games. “We’re doing well,” he’d say. And, hell yes, we were. Those assholes [Ben ML and Kenyon] started screwing up big time.

Ben M: We started screwing up—big time.

Kenyon: It’s 5-5, and this game is huge. I remember that Ben ML was serving. We had to take it back from them, and we very nearly did, with several scores of deuce, then our ad, then deuce, then their ad, then deuce, but ultimately they just had it in them. I couldn’t believe it. That doofus Wasserstein won it.

Ben M: So the score was 6-5, but Wasserstein was quote-serving-unquote. I assumed we were riding the double-fault train to tiebreaker country.

Ben W: My serve again. Miraculously, some of my first serves landed. And my groundstrokes were golden. It didn’t even go to deuce. We won. We were down 4-1 and we won. It ruled!

Kenyon: We lost. We freakin’ lost. Wasserstein was all but kissing the ground.

Ben M: Eh. Wasserstein got lucky. After we shook hands, Larry was ready to go for a second set. But I think he wanted to switch partners.

Ben W: Larry definitely wanted to play more, and I was ready to keep stomping on Ben and Kenyon. Yet I got this sense that Summers was ready to switch partners.

Kenyon: The Bens seemed spent, Wasserstein still jubilant from his triumph in the earlier set. Even the audience seemed a little tired, as the clapping was less frequent and exuberant. But Larry’s energy never flagged. I did get the feeling that he wanted to switch partners, though. So I went over to his side, ready to teach the Bens a lesson.

Ben M: We started the second set. Kenyon was lobbing some weak second serves, so I tried to pass Larry down the line, but my accuracy of course was not great. It ended up looking like I was aiming for him and was a huge jerk.

Ben W: The first time I served in the second set, I was on fire. I aced Summers, which was pretty exciting. I started getting a “Why the Hell couldn’t that idiot serve like this when he was on my side” sense from him. What can I say? The serve—it comes and it goes.

Kenyon: Summers kept slamming them home on his serve, but my second serve was a problem. I could barely get the damn ball over the net, at which point Ben Wasserstein or Ben ML would then hit a ground shot past Summers, leaving me running back and forth. Sweat streamed from my soaked headband as we battled for control of the court and victory in the game.

Peter Hopkins, observer: Kenyon’s shorts were spectacular. His second serve—dismal.

Ben W: Kenyon’s second serve was a total turkey. Having learned from my earlier mistake, I took the forehand side during the second set. I kept smashing his serves with winners. Sometimes I’d hit it really hard to Larry, and he couldn’t reach them, because Kenyon had set me up so nicely. Funny thing was, I never actually meant to do that. But, hey, they were in.

Ben M: I missed a lot of second serves in the second set. I was getting pretty frustrated and I may have scared some of the observers with my intensity.

Irin Carmon, observer: Ben M kept screwing up and then yelping in a really feminine way.

Ben W: As far as partners go, Ben ML was no Larry Summers.

Kenyon: Larry and I dominated. I may have called him “pardner” at one point.

Ben W: The games were close, but we just didn’t win enough of them. I guess that’s how people lose things—by not winning.

Kenyon: 5-3. I remember thinking this was definitely it. The set, over. But the Bens fought every inch, scrambled for every ball.

Ben M: We did what we could, but we were no match for Summers, and when we tried to hit it to Kenyon’s famously weak backhand, we just hit it out or to Summers.

Kenyon: We did it! 6-3, final score. You will note that Larry won much easier once me and Ben W. switched.

Ben W: Sure, my team lost the second set, but I was still happy about our first set comeback. At least I wasn’t Ben ML, who lost all the time.

Kenyon: I guess the real lesson here is that Summers is a much, much better player than Ben ML.

Ben ML: Wass and Kenyon pointed out how I was the real loser in all this. Which I guess is true, but give me a break. If I had played with Summers, we obviously would have taken those fools.

Kenyon: Final thoughts? Man, Mathis really sucks.

Ben W: I guess my final thoughts are mostly about how embarassing it is that Summers kicked FM’s collective ass. But it was mostly Ben Mathis-Lilley’s ass, so I didn’t feel too bad.

Ben M: Look, Summers beat me at tennis. But at least he’s also more powerful, accomplished and intelligent.

MEMO

To: Members of the Harvard administration, top Democratic Party officials, hack student-magazine writers

From: Fifteen Minutes

We were advised by parents and friends to throw our tennis match with President Summers. Instead, we lost fair and square. Here’s why. Below is an analysis of Summers’ game, required reading for all future opponents and doubles partners:

- The Summers serve: Like a gunshot, it hits with a deadly precision and power. Summers rarely double faults, and his second serve is no throwaway. Slow receiving reflexes (known colloquially as “Kenyonitis”) are a sure path to match-love.

- The Summers backcourt game: Summers has a crosscourt shot and a slice that will leave players scrambling. Don’t expect him to make deftly placed drop-shots that land near the net, but if it’s anywhere within a few steps of his position, Summers will respond with extreme prejudice. As with his serve, Summers can place his groundstrokes with impressive accuracy.

- The Summers net game: There’s an element of intimidation here, in large part due to the fact that Larry Summers’ signature is on everything from the dollar bill to our (hopefully) upcoming college diplomas. Accuracy isn’t as strong as from the baseline, but can still be deadly. Still, the net isn’t Summers’ strongest area, and it’s a rare instance when he will aggressively poach a shot heading into the opposite court.

In sum, expect strong serves, frightening consistency and accuracy in baseline rallies, and a vicious slice, but not a generous coverage of the court. Summers won’t talk much during play or attempt to psyche-out his opponents, but you can expect a mental and physical workout nonetheless.

Respectfully submitted,

Ben Mathis-Lilley, Ben Wasserstein and Kenyon “Backhand” Weaver

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