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Steve Flink: One on One with Stan Smith

12/15/2008 1:04:00 PM

by Steve Flink

During the early stages of the "Open Era", when amateurs and professionals were allowed at last to compete against each other, the game took on a new and more dynamic shape, the international sporting public rallied behind tennis more fervently than ever before, and the best American player was a tall and statesmanlike individual from California. He was 6'4", with a remarkably long wing span, a top of the line serve-and-volley game, and an unflappable demeanor. He was a sportsman through and through, a quietly ferocious competitor, and one of the esteemed people at that time that made tennis a bigger and better place simply by turning up. His name was Stan Smith, and--- at least as I see it--- he has inexplicably been overlooked by too many observers who somehow forget that he was one of the great players of his era.

Bear with me, because I'd like to alter "The Forgotten Man" label that Smith has worn for too long, and bring him back into your line of vision. Smith rose to the top of the American charts in 1969, capturing the U.S. National Championships outside Boston that memorable summer. The following year, he secured the first Grand Prix Masters [now known as the Tennis Masters Cup] crown in Tokyo. In 1971, he was victorious at the U.S. Open.

The following season, he reached a career peak, winning Wimbledon in one of the best finals ever held on those lawns, and leading the American Davis Cup team to an astonishing triumph in Bucharest against Romania on clay in the championship round, taking two singles matches and joining Erik Van Dillen to win the doubles over Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac amid some of the worst officiating imaginable. Finally, in 1973, Smith came through to win the WCT Finals in Dallas, which was one of the five or six biggest events in the game.

When I interviewed Smith one recent afternoon, he fondly recollected those five great years in his heyday. Of his 1969 U.S. Nationals victory--- when he survived rigorous five set collisions with the left-handed Ray Ruffels of Australia and Charlie Pasarell of the U.S. before defeating doubles partner Bob Lutz in a straight set final--- Smith remembered that occasion more for the way it changed his mind-set.

As Stan put it, "That certainly was when I thought maybe I did belong with the top players. It was a great confidence booster and it certainly helped me in the following years. I remember some of the other top players being interviewed then and mentioning my name as someone who could win big tournaments. When your peers start doing that, it makes you feel like you really have a possibility to do well."

Winning the Masters event at Tokyo in December of 1970 was no mean feat. That year, only the top six players in the world qualified for the season-ending event, and Smith toppled both Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall on his way to winning an instantly prestigious tournament. That was abundant evidence of his rapidly growing stature, but as he turned 24 he had other things on his mind. Smith laughs as he recalls what happened in Tokyo.

"I had been postponing the [military] draft for almost a year. My birthday is December 14 and that was the day I played Rosewall. We knew that the winner of our match was going to win the Masters and I managed to beat Ken to ensure that I had won the tournament. Jack Kramer led 10,000 Japanese in singing "Happy Birthday" for me and I knew I had to report for my army service in December 16 in Los Angeles. I played [and lost to] Arthur Ashe on the 15th, left Tokyo at 11 P.M., flew to L.A., and reported the next morning. After passing the physical, I was allowed to take 'excess leave' and went home for Christmas and then started serving after that. It was an interesting time in my life."

And yet, despite his army responsibilities which lasted until the autumn of 1972, Smith still was able to play some of his best tennis during that period. Conquering the field at the 1971 U.S. Open was a large milestone, and it was on that occasion at Forest Hills that Smith demonstrated his innate calmness and equanimity under pressure, eclipsing the fleet-footed Tom Okker in a five set semifinal, coming from a set down to oust the tenacious Jan Kodes in the final. He had won his first Grand Slam championship on the grass at Forest Hills.

As Smith reflects, "That was only the second year of the tiebreaker. I was in five tiebreakers during that tournament and won them all. That was sort of an indicator that I was pretty confident. But the other thing that was kind of odd was that the semifinals were rained out three days in a row so we played the semis on Tuesday and the finals on Wednesday. Okker could really hurt you when he went for his shots, especially off the forehand. In a fifth set you are not too sure what is going to happen. But I did think I was the better player on grass."

Having survived that strenuous test, Smith fought back to defeat Kodes 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (5-3 in the "Sudden Death" tiebreaker) for the crown. He was boosted immeasurably by a chance meeting with one of the all time master strategists right before the match. "I remember I saw Pancho Segura on my way to the courts "says Smith. " He had worked with me for two or three years in Pasadena, California but we hadn't spent much time prior to the Open. But when I ran into him, he gave me three things to think about during the match with Kodes. And he was right on. He said I should put pressure on Kodes's second serve by really moving over so I could run around my backhand and show my forehand. He said I should lob Kodes because he was short and got really close to the net. And he said to hit kick serves to the forehand because Kodes had a continental grip and liked the ball low rather than high on that side."

During the first set, Smith tried serving hard but the ball stayed too low and "Kodes returned great. Then I remembered Segura telling me to use that kick serve. I did and it was effective. In the fourth set tiebreaker, I ran around my backhand and hit a couple of big forehands, and I lobbed him once on a big point. It all worked out well. Segura was one of the smartest guys around then, and he still is."

The 1972 Wimbledon final with the enormously gifted yet wildly unpredictable Nastase was a gripping showdown between the game's ultimate disciplinarian in Smith and the most natural shot maker in the Romanian. Smith prevailed 4-6, 6-3, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 with towering mental strength and a superior grass court game featuring his big first serve and dependable second delivery, a propensity to dig out low volleys and make some astounding winning volleys at full stretch, not to mention some timely returns in clutch situations.

Nastase-true to character, ever impetuous and mercurial-was full of histrionics that day, but perhaps not to his usual extreme. "He wasn't too bad in that match, relative to other matches, "says Smith. " His biggest problem was with the stringing on his rackets. He kept jumping up and down on his strings as we changed ends of the court and he was complaining to his buddy in the stands about his rackets not being right. I had played in the final the year before against John Newcombe, so in preparing for the final I knew more what to expect than Nastase did. It was interesting that the pattern of the sets with Nastase was like the match with Newcombe. I lost the first set both times, won the next two sets, and then lost the fourth. So for me at that stage it was déjà vu all over again".

What made the critical difference in determining the outcome in the end, other than Smith's fortunate lunging and unanswerable forehand drop volley at 4-4, 0-30 in the fifth? Responds Smith, "I felt poised and believed I was better on grass than him but he was so talented and could hit great shots when he needed them. At 5-4 in the fifth, I had two match points on Nastase's serve but I let them go and that was pretty discouraging. He held for 5-5. I thought to myself, 'Here we go'. But I just hung in there and held my serve. When he served at 5-6, Nastase had 40-0 but then I hit a bunch of winners and got to match point again. He saved it to get back to deuce but I hit another winner and then he missed a high backhand overhead smash to lose the match. It was lucky. Anyone could have won that match."

Three months later in Bucharest, Smith took apart a discombobulated Nastase in straight sets on opening day to put the U.S. ahead 1-0 over Romania in the Davis Cup final, and then the next day he joined forces with Van Dillen to clip Nastase and Tiriac in straight sets. That set the stage for Smith to confront Tiriac in the opening singles match on the final day with the Americans ahead 2-1, which was a do or die situation. Tom Gorman--- beaten and essentially cheated by Tiriac on the opening day--- was slated to play Nastase, and winning would have been nearly impossible for him under those circumstances.

Smith withstood one outrageous line call after another through four harrowing sets against Tiriac, who was manipulating the crowd and shamelessly stalling. But in the fifth set, Smith was unstoppable, and he blazed a path to victory without losing a game in that final chapter, conceding only eight points in six immaculate games. When it was over, a justifiably disgusted Smith told Tiriac as they shook hands at the net, "I respect your fight as a player, but I'll never respect you as a man again."

I asked Smith to revisit that moment in our interview. "It was just what I felt at that time," he responded. "I had about 15 minutes to think about it as I was winning the fifth set. I didn't know for sure I was going to win but I felt pretty good after I got a big lead and got a couple of breaks in that fifth set. I didn't know if I was not going to shake hands with him, or what I would say to him. And finally I went up to the net and said that to him because that was what was in my heart at the time. After I said it, I kind of waved my hand at him as I walked away, kind of like, 'Go away', or that sort of thing. And I didn't see him or his reaction. Apparently he kind of stopped in his tracks and couldn't believe I would say something like that to him."

Smith knew that Tiriac was the driving force behind the Romanian quest to win the Cup. He says, "People always ask me how great it was to beat Nastase in Romania but he wasn't much of a factor. Tiriac was the strength of the team, maybe not physically but mentally. It was fun to beat him 6-0 in the fifth since I had seen what he had pulled against Gorman and what I had seen him do a million times in other matches. It would have been devastating for me to lose to him because that probably would have been it for our team. They had presented Tiriac with this big trophy beforehand for, I believe, his 100th Davis Cup match, and he was set up for the greatest moment in his life. I didn't want that to happen."

I was in Bucharest for that landmark occasion, and Smith told me when it was over how pleasantly surprised he was that the U.S. won. "I never thought we could do it when we came over here, "he said then. "To beat these guys on clay in their country with so many questionable calls being made was more than I ever thought was possible."

I brought that comment up to Smith in our interview ten days ago, and he recalled what he had said. Speaking now, he comments, "Tiriac made all these statements that the odds against the U.S. winning were like 10 to 1. And unfortunately most of the people on our team felt the same way and weren't confident either. I wasn't confident. It was the most demanding experience of my life trying to handle all the issues over there, from the security help we needed, [The Secret Service surrounded the American players and captain Dennis Ralston throughout their stay after threats from the terrorist organization "Black September" terrorist organization] to the Romanians watering the courts every day, to the linesmen maybe being related to the players. We had all of these sorts of things to deal with so it was the most satisfying thing by far of anything I did in tennis."

On to Dallas in 1973, where Smith halted Laver along the way and then stopped Ashe in a hard fought, four set final. Says Smith, "That whole first half of 1973 was my best tennis ever. I beat Laver four times in a row and then beat him in the semis of Dallas and beat Arthur in the final. That really was a special time."

Speaking of Ashe, Smith says, "Arthur had two careers in my opinion. He had an early career when he just slashed at the ball and would just go for his shots without being a good thinker on the court. And then in his second career he became a very good thinker and more of a cerebral player which is why he beat Connors at Wimbledon in 1975. I wish we could have played more in his second career. That would have been fun."

Smith might well have defended his Wimbledon title not long after Dallas in 1973 had it not been for the player boycott. Smith, Ashe, Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe and nearly every other top player stood up for Nikki Pilic, the French Open finalist who had been suspended by the ITF for missing a Davis commitment. Pilic claimed he had never agreed to play. His fellow competitors believed it was their duty to get behind Pilic as the ATP united less than a year after it was formed.

Does Smith ever have second thoughts about not playing that year? "I really didn't have any regrets at the time and I still don't. I was playing so well and thought I had a chance to win Wimbledon again. I really felt I had a good shot at doing that. But we had just started the ATP and it was a team thing, supporting each other and trying to do something right for the game. I was proud to be a part of that."

Later that year at the U.S. Open, Smith had a match point in the semifinals against Kodes but, with the sky darkening ominously over Forest Hills, he lost that match in a five set heartbreaker. One of the saddest sights I witnessed in that era was of Smith sitting outside the clubhouse at the Westside Tennis Club after that bruising defeat, politely greeting those who stopped to express their sorrow. He reflects, "That was disappointing to lose against a guy I had beaten before on the grass at the same place." The following summer at Wimbledon in 1974, Smith suffered another bruising semifinal defeat against his old rival Rosewall, squandering a big lead and the opportunity to meet Jimmy Connors in the championship match. Only a few weeks earlier, he had ousted Connors on grass.

Smith recollects the Rosewall loss this way: "I had two sets to love and match point in the third set tiebreaker. Ken was 39 years old. I remember I missed a return in the top of the net tape. And I had served for the match before the tiebreaker. I have strong memories of that loss but I said at the time, and still believe now, that I played as hard as I could and didn't quit. I did the best I could."

Thereafter, the towering Smith was never quite the same player. Injuries set him back decidedly and he did not achieve in his late twenties what many had expected he would. "The injuries were tough," he says. "My arm was really hurting for about three years and I had elbow problems. I kept thinking I would get better and get back into it."

Nonetheless, he had celebrated five magnificent years, winning at least one prestigious prize in each of those shining seasons. So not performing at a higher level for a longer span was not the worst thing that could happen to him. Moreover, he came into his prime during the evolutionary stages of a burgeoning game.

"It was a great time," he muses. "My life has been charmed. We went from amateur tennis in 1968 to professional tennis. I felt very fortunate with the guys I was able to play with at that time: Charlie Pasarell, Arthur Ashe, Bob Lutz, and Tom Gorman. I ended up clinching the Davis Cup for the U.S. five years in a row (1968-72) when it just happened to be on my serve in either singles or doubles every one of those years. And it was fun to be around guys like Kodes, Zeljko Franulovic, Nastase and Cliff Richey, guys who could be pretty combative at the time but were still pretty good friends. Even now I see Nastase, and we played doubles together in the seniors at Wimbledon the last couple of years."

After his playing days were over, Smith became Director of Coaching for the USTA in the late 1980's as the organization launched a Player Development program, and nowadays he lives in Hilton Head, South Carolina with his wife Margie, who played for Princeton University in the early 1970's. He runs a tennis academy there with Billy Stearns [Smith Stearns Tennis Academy]. His youngest daughter Austin is captain of her team at UNC and his oldest son Ramsey--- former captain of his team at Duke University-- is now the head coach there. His other son Trevor--- "following in his mother's footsteps" as Stan puts it, was captain of his tennis team at Princeton and just graduated from Harvard Business School. Leadership is clearly a thread running seamlessly through the Smith family.

Meanwhile, Stan Smith remains seriously involved with the game. He has established, "Stan Smith Events", accompanying groups to the Grand Slam tennis tournaments and the Olympic Games. He has gone over to those major events for the past 11 years on that order of business, and it keeps him very current with the players and the sport. In turn, he is still aligned with the companies he has represented for a long time like Adidas and Prince. The Stan Smith tennis Adidas tennis shoe has been on the market for 37 years.

And so, when all is said and done, how does Smith feel about his legacy? "I guess I would have to say I was brought up to play hard and play fair. That is the simplest way to put it."

Let me add this: Smith was a sportsman of the highest order, a first rate champion, and a fundamentally decent individual who has given the game his heart and soul across a lifetime. It is high time for tennis followers to be reminded Smith is still going strong at 62, to remember that in his heyday he was a major force in his profession, to recognize that he was not only a great player but as towering a sportsman as tennis has ever seen.

In the final analysis, Stan Smith is considerably larger than the sum of his achievements. 

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