For all those who complain that the news media are inclined to report only the nasty things in life, who moan that the vast majority of young people are decent sorts who do not mug, maim or murder, nor snort drugs, nor wear ratty clothes, but they don't ever get their names in the newspapers—well, here is equal time. Break out the Dr. Peppers, call the fellows at the lodge, stick on another Old Glory decal and start a mail campaign to demand that the Reader's Digest reprint this article. Yes, at last, now for the good news:
Among other things, Stan Smith is deeply religious, God-fearing, temperate and disciplined, a true sportsman, a respectful loving son and a self-made champion whose "corny dream" is to build and manage his own YMCA. John Calvin would be proud of him. Despite a somewhat limited schedule last year, as befits a Specialist Fourth Class in the U.S. Army, Smith made some $90,000 in prize money, endorsed products for Wilson, Sportface, Pro-Keds, Vabollin and Golden Eagle, and was otherwise affiliated with an insurance agency, Pepsi and the tennis club at Hilton Head, S.C. Obviously, there is still a healthy market for wholesomeness, at least when it resides within greatness.
The fact is that because Daniel Ellsberg does not work for the USLTA, it is still pretty much of a state secret that this serene, assured young man from Pasadena named Smith is arguably the best American tennis player. At 25 he is also the youngest of the very top-flight players in the world, so that before much longer he should become the first undisputed American world champion since Kramer and Gonzales. Furthermore, he and tennis appear to be reaching their peaks at the same time, a provident coincidence that could make Smith the most famous and best-paid athlete in the world in just a few more years. That may sound fanciful, but Smith always rides a collision course with luck. "Being in the right spot at the right time is the name of my game," he says. "I know it. But then you start thinking you're lucky, and you end up being lucky, and you change the whole pattern of your life."
February 28, 1972
If Smith is too controlled and colorless ever to emerge as a really engaging public personality, he certainly will make a different kind of champion. He can, for example, easily produce a statement such as this: "So let's say I become a millionaire. Is that going to make me happy? I don't think the satisfaction of accomplishment can make me happy either. There must be more, and, for me, living for something else besides money and success is living for Christ and what he has taught." Yet Smith is no stuffy moralist, middle-aged before his time. As his father is quick to explain: "Stan belongs to Athletes in Action...for Christ and was always involved in that sort of thing. Of course, now, he was never overdoing it."
Although Smith is not going to dance around with lampshades on his head, he is not going to pass up a few beers and a leggy brunette for vespers either. This has not always been the case. As a teen-ager, he was too much of a zealot, unyielding, unable to laugh at himself, somewhat intolerant of other people's styles.
Bob Lutz, Smith's doubles partner for several years, is an entirely different type—short and stocky, breezy and saucy. People have naturally assumed that because they played together so well for so long, they must be close. "I played with him for five years, but we hardly knew each other," Lutz says. "Even when I roomed with him, I only met him on the court. Stan used to get so worried about the way I lived that sometimes I think it hurt his own game.
"He was never shy, just independent in his own way. He didn't want to associate with the guys. He kept to himself. He'd look down on others sometimes because he thought his way of training was the only way, best for everyone. We'd all go out, he'd stay in his room and jump rope. A lot of the guys were always making fun of him, but that never seemed to bother him. Now Stan is more open, more hang-loose. He does what he thinks he should do, not what someone else has told him to do."
At a tournament in Las Vegas a couple of years ago, Lutz was lounging at poolside with a girl friend who was working on a new banana daiquiri. It was a viciously hot day and Smith had just come off the court. He inquired what Lutz' young lady was drinking. Lutz said it was a fruit drink, whereupon Smith grabbed the glass and tossed the daiquiri down. "All of a sudden," Lutz says, "he's giggling and running around, and he runs up on the high board, and dives off and lands about this far from the side of the pool, from the cement.
"Stan's girl was delighted. She was always asking me to loosen him up for her. She runs over to me and says, 'Gee, thanks for finally loosening him up, Bob.' I said, 'Yeah, I'm glad I loosened him up, but I don't want to kill him.' "
"All my relationships with girls have been shaped by tennis," Smith says. "I've always regretted that I've never been in the same place long enough so that I could build up more normal relationships with girls, or groups of guys. I always regret when I come back home that I can't stick around to see old friends."
Yet compared to most good tennis players, Smith did not dedicate himself to the game until late, when he was already into his teens. Contrary to the general theory, Smith's tardy conversion to tennis almost surely has worked to his advantage—which he recognizes. "Most American players played tennis from the time they were seven years old," Smith says. "But all they ever did was play it. They just hit a million tennis balls. They weren't really athletes. Australians, for instance, always are athletes who just happen to play tennis."
And Smith is an athlete, competitive but cool. "I think a lot of it comes from the team-sport influence," he says. "You don't see basketball or football players getting upset at themselves and throwing tantrums." He has always been uncomplicated and straightforward; until he grew his big bushy mustache last year there were no frills at all about him. His eyes are the blue surface of those still waters that run deep, and his hair has always stayed blond, in or out of the sun. He is a rangy man, his six feet four inches perfectly proportioned, and only the family nose that meanders down his face like an Allegheny ridge prevents him from being really good looking.
Because Smith was not winning tournaments in infancy, the fable has grown that he was clumsy and ungainly as a young teen-ager. It is a nice little story, the sort of thing parents can tell their clumsy children—Bill Stern probably would have made Stan a former March of Dimes poster boy by now—but it is so much hogwash. He was always an excellent athlete in a family of good athletes.
Stan was the youngest of three boys. His father, an Eagle Scout who originally came from Lincoln, Neb., coached basketball and the carryover sports—tennis, skiing, swimming and golf—at Pasadena City College before his growing family placed too many demands on that salary, and he moved into real estate while Stan was still quite young. Ken Smith is an open, almost garrulous man, sure and positive, but, although he was a coach, he never forced his boys into sports or interfered with their coaches. Curiously, the one thing the Smiths did force Stan into was the piano. It didn't take. Although Mr. and Mrs. Smith encouraged athletic participation, it was in much the same way that they brought Presbyterianism to the attention of the boys. Mr. Smith would pack the whole family into the station wagon, for example, and they would take off for the 800-mile trip to Idaho to go skiing. Or Mrs. Smith, who is from Niagara Falls (the clincher for the Reader's Digest: This makes Stan a blue-eyed blond WASP named Smith, by Lincoln out of Niagara), often would haul her youngest son around to tennis tournaments. He saved his best for baseball and basketball, though, and as a senior at Pasadena High was a starting 6'3" guard on a team that included Jim Marsh, who now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, and Bill Sweek, a regular on some of the UCLA championship teams.
While basketball remained "my first love" with Smith, the late Perry Jones, pooh-bah of Southern California tennis and a gentleman who was not given to equivocation, was sprinkling Stardust. "Young man, I'll make a champion out of you," he promised; and Smith knew no one anywhere near so ebullient about his basketball future. "Shoot, I never even played varsity basketball for a full year in high school," he says. "Of course, the better I get in tennis, the better I become in basketball. If I ever win at Wimbledon, I think they'll make me an All-America in basketball."
Smith tried to compromise in his senior year, skipping two basketball practices a week, but it would not work, and at last he knew he had to choose. It was a weekend, still early in the season. "He put it off till Sunday night," his father recalls. "That was as long as he could. He was crying when he finally called up the basketball coach and told him he was through. He was actually crying." As far as anybody can remember, it was the only crisis in his life.
He began practicing two to four hours every day under Jones and George Toley, the pro at the Los Angeles Tennis Club. Toley is also the coach at Southern California and eventually he decided to give Stan—and not Ray Moore, the South African—USC's one allotted tennis scholarship. "Stan wasn't clumsy at all," Toley says. "He looked a little stiff, but he moved well. Anyone could see that it wasn't a matter of ability. He just didn't have the knowledge. As far as he is personally concerned, it is somewhat the same story. He's a great human being, but he was never loose, on or off the court. He worked so at his lessons, and his tennis, and what time he had left over he gave to working with the Big Brothers. He never had much time to have fun. I guess Stan had just never learned how to have fun."
Smith won the U.S. Juniors (18 and under) that year at Kalamazoo, but it was his luck at this point to go virtually unrecognized. In this respect he resembles Don Budge, another late refugee from basketball and baseball who was also overlooked when he won at Kalamazoo. In 1964, when Smith won, the U.S. seemed well stocked with tennis talent. Chuck McKinley was still playing, Dennis Ralston had been ordained the next Budge, Arthur Ashe was already No. 3, and players like Clark Graebner and Charlie Pasarell were visible in the wings. Cliff Richey, not Smith, was reckoned the best teen-age phenom.
As a consequence, as the U.S. teams contrived to pile disaster upon catastrophe in the next four years, losing first to Australia, then Spain, then Brazil, then Ecuador, Smith was spared any association with the ignominy. With consummate timing, Smith made his first appearance in a Challenge Round in 1968 in the very match that clinched the U.S. its first Davis Cup in five years. Smith is 4-0 in singles, 3-1 in doubles, 7-1 all told in his first four Challenge Rounds, all of which were American victories. Only Bill Tilden (10-1), Ted Schroeder (8-1) and Bill Johnston (8-1) had better records in their first four Challenge Rounds.
Since he came to attention late, Smith also avoided the albatross of being declared the long-lost savior of U.S. tennis, a premature tag that dragged most of our best young hopes to an early demise. For that matter, Smith never even received recognition after he truly began to deserve it, all the interest continuing to center on Ashe. "Most people still think Arthur's No. 1 and I'm the guy playing doubles with Lutz," Smith says, shrugging.
Even last year, when he lost to John Newcombe in the finals of Wimbledon and then won at Forest Hills, the press never really came to grips with Smith, the player, because everyone was so busy exposing the fact that he was a private in the U.S. Army who did very little soldiering. This is all very true, too, and if you have any complaints, write your Congressman or General Westmoreland. Pasarell had essentially the same sort of military arrangement. The only difference seems to be that, as Smith points out, Pasarell was clever enough not to win at Forest Hills while in the U.S. Army.
Smith has, presumably, served the Army best by giving it some good publicity for a change. With utter sincerity, he goes around telling people that he liked basic training, and he completely discombobulated a brigadier in the Pentagon by telling him the same thing. Nonetheless, Smith will be separated from the service sometime late this year, at which time he will probably enlist with Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis.
He could never get top dollar for himself in the days when amateur tennis was cash-and-carry—"I'm just not that kind of salesman," Stan says—but now that the money is placed on top of the table he looms as a formidable negotiator. Right now he keeps mum. In the battle of tennis organizations, where the status quo runs like an American railroad, it would be foolhardy to make any early commitment. Besides, if Smith does something like lead the U.S. to another Davis Cup title and win Wimbledon, he would be coming out of the Army the hottest property since Elvis Presley.
Actually, he probably should have won Wimbledon last year. "It's funny," he says, "how each step up has so much to do with confidence. I remember the first thing I ever wanted to do in tennis was win the club championship in Altadena. There were two players I had to beat, and at last I did. Each time along the way I thought that I couldn't do it this time. Shoot, even when I quit basketball, I never thought of tennis in terms of a career. I remember my senior year in high school I told a girl that my big dream was to make the Davis Cup team, and go to Australia and help win the cup back. And I remember, I was a little embarrassed after telling her, because I thought that was a great deal to have in mind.
"But it all just kept falling into place, and here I am again with two players to beat, and the two players are Newcombe and Laver.
"So when I was ahead of John in the fourth set of the finals at Wimbledon, I started thinking, shoot, I've just about won the world's championship. So I started thinking about my victory speech and all the clever things that I could say to the reporters. You see, if you've never been somewhere before, you don't know how you're going to feel at a certain point. You start having these feelings, and because they're new, you think about your feelings and not about the match."
Only rarely does Smith beat himself, however, and his game is so complete that no one type of player can upset him. Most players believe that Smith is most vulnerable with his forehand, but they also might be conning themselves into hitting to a historical deficiency that no longer exists. "Mechanically, Stan's forehand drive was always O.K., but his volley was atrocious," says George Toley. "It was stiff, so we worked on that, but I let the drive alone. Then in his sophomore year I was watching him rally one day—I remember it was after the Stanford match—and the longer I watched I knew I had to step in. Stan could hit a wide forehand drive with real abandon, but the way he hit, his wrist was too tight, and he was dead in close. He had to learn to loosen up his wrist."
Typically, Smith was completely cooperative with what was a major change in his stroke. It was the equivalent, say, of an overarm pitcher with an 18-12 record learning to throw only sidearm on the chance he might win 20. "Within three to four months," Toley says, "his new forehand had gotten as good as his old one, and, not long after that, it surpassed the backhand. It's better than his backhand now—I don't care what anyone says."
During this period of adjustment, Smith was able to keep on winning mostly because he can both serve and return serve so well. He has the power of a big man and he can also apply pace to the ball at either end of the service. And although tireless retrieving is a quality usually reserved for gritty little players, Smith is a tireless retriever.
"I think tall guys like Stan may generally take longer to develop," Jack Kramer says. "He's awfully wristy, and it takes time to master those shots, the kind that open a court up for you."
Yet for all his mechanical talent, Smith's ability to concentrate and scheme under pressure may be his biggest edge. He wins about 85% of his tiebreakers, a figure no other player approaches. The guy dealing three-card monte doesn't have to be a con man; he comes to the table with 2-to-1 odds and is bound to win if he just keeps his cool and mixes them up a little. Smith goes at tiebreakers that way. Vic Braden, a top teaching professional who is also a psychologist, says: "Stan is a lot like Kramer in the sense that he is able to put all external stimuli aside on the court. He does not permit himself to get involved in emotional issues out there."
Physical issues, either. With a certain amount of wonder in his voice, Toley relates the story of how Smith played an atrocious match one year at the NCAAs. "He wasn't moving, he wasn't hitting, he was lucky to win. We went back to the hotel together. I contained myself until we were alone in our room. We were rooming together because Lutz snored. Well, I read Stan the riot act. I must have gone on 15 minutes. He never said a word until I was through, and then, very softly, he told me that he had sprained his ankle out there early in the first set. He had never said anything, and he had never even limped."
Even now Smith is about as revealing as a sphinx on the court. He will permit himself an occasional sardonic smile and he will grin self-consciously when his height permits him to reach a high shot, but otherwise he seems to have but one nervous reflex. After any routine point, Smith will flick his hair back; should he produce an especially good shot, one that is followed by a fair amount of applause, he will take time to brush his hair more carefully. The gesture is unconscious. It is just something to do with his hands while the crowd cheers him.
Smith has been so guiltless of any form of unsportsmanlike behavior that his coaches have had to regularly caution him about giving every close call to an opponent. "I'll tell you," Stan's father says, delighted to be bewildered, "this boy—sometimes his mother and I just don't know where he got all his morals. He's a fine player, but he's a finer boy. Mrs. Smith and I just don't know sometimes."
The Smiths have recently moved from Pasadena, leaving behind the house that Stan grew up in. The older boys are married, with families, and Stan has a villa in Hilton Head, where he is the name pro. For the next decade or so, until he settles down with his YMCA, he will not be much of anywhere for any length of time. He will merely be playing all over. Smith is the most reasonable facsimile of an Australian that the U.S. has ever produced, and once Australians get to the top they hang on relentlessly. There is no reason to expect the American variation to do otherwise.
George Toley has been recognized as one of the top teaching pros in the world for more than a quarter of a century, and he has coached many of the very best. For Toley, Stan Smith is just part of the parade, so he can speak of him dispassionately. "Once Stan gets on top, he'll be that much more superior," Toley says, almost matter-of-factly. "He has such consistency, and that factor is requisite if you are to make the top and then if you are to stay there. A lot of people can play tennis very well. What determines consistency, what keeps a man from being an in-and-outer, is temperament. You see the ones with it, from Budge to Laver—all of them. And Stan.
"You watch this one thing. I've seen it for years. He'll be behind and he cannot break back. There is no evidence that he is capable of breaking back. And then, when the other fellow is serving for the match—when Stan is down to his last chance—Stan will break him. I've seen it over and over. Oh, there's no doubt in my mind that he'll be the best in the world. There's no doubt in my mind about that."
Last week, in the finals of the U.S. Indoor Open Championship in Salisbury, Md.—Stan's second tournament of the year—he came from behind to beat Ilie Nastase. The year is only two months and $9,000 old.