It was nearing dusk at Estero Beach, less than 100 miles down the wild, beautiful Baja California coast from Tijuana. Across the churning bay stood the twin of Honolulu's Diamond Head, a rocky promontory called Punta Banda, which in minutes would be just a massive silhouette against the fast-sinking sun. The fishing camp behind was out of sight and out of mind, and a chilled visitor standing on the sand facing the bay thought that Estero must have been the same—desolate and lovely—as when the Spaniards arrived 440 years ago.
Then, roaring along the wide, empty beach came a mechanical intruder, a jeep, and running behind it were four men straining to keep up. The tallest of them, a blond with the beginnings of a fine Viking beard, was Stan Smith. In this unlikely spot, so far in mood and miles from Wimbledon's strawberries and the September clamminess of Forest Hills, he was finishing the first day of a campaign he hopes will make him once again the finest tennis player in America and maybe the world.
The commandant of the jeep, alternately ordering the driver to speed up and slow down, was George Toley, 58, the tennis coach at USC and a man so at home in Mexico that when he mixes margaritas in his hotel room he can actually make the salt stick to the rims of the plastic glasses. Three different Mexican Davis Cup captains have played on his teams. He helped the late Rafael Osuna become U.S. champion, and Mexico's current star, 21-year-old Raul Ramirez, has been his pupil since he could barely see over the net.
Toley is a pro's pro, the fellow ex-Trojan players go back to for refresher courses and injections of common sense. He, not the scenery or the enchiladas, was the reason Smith was in Baja with his former Davis Cup doubles partner, Erik van Dillen, Ramirez, who lives six miles north in Ensenada, and a promising 15-year-old Mexican, Mark Novelo.
January 27, 1975
Toley, Smith, van Dillen and their wives were staying at the Estero Beach resort hotel run by Novelo's father and founded in 1939 by his grandfather, an Ensenada businessman who went to Estero one day to buy some shark liver and ended up purchasing the current site of the hotel for $400. It has one tennis court, cement, snuggled up against a little hill on which sits the Novelo home.
Smith and his wife Margie arrived in Baja the day after Christmas, having just concluded a 22-stop honeymoon trip that included stays in California, Australia, Bali, Fiji and Hawaii, where Stan hefted a racket for the first time in more than a month. It was his longest respite from tennis since he got out of college, and he needed it badly.
Just two years ago Stanley Roger Smith was the dominant player in the world. He won Forest Hills in 1971, followed that with the Wimbledon championship in 1972 and topped that soon afterward by leading the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory in Bucharest despite hostile crowds, myopic linesmen and a slow playing surface that was unsuitable for his big-serve style. Released from what must have been the most KP-free and lucrative Army duty any private ever had, Smith joined Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis Tour and in the spring of 1973 won both the doubles and singles championships. It seemed he was capable of winning the grinding new grand slam of tennis: WCT, Wimbledon, Forest Hills and the Commercial Union Grand Prix—the two big tours and the two big tournaments.
Seven months later he was in a New York hospital for a complete physical checkup. He was underweight and dejected after a disappointing summer and fall in which he lost a close, critical Davis Cup match to John Newcombe and was twice defeated by Jimmy Connors.
His eight hours in the hospital turned up nothing but the obvious: Smith had a near-terminal case of tennis indigestion, his eyes were turning tennis-ball yellow and his heart was pumping Gatorade. The cure prescribed for early 1974 was rest, but that did not work out so well either. He loafed and played some exhibitions while the Davis Cup team went off to Bogotà without him—and lost. Although he won $139,120 in 1974, it was a mediocre year by his standards.
"It finally came to a climax whereby he just couldn't play," says Jack Kramer, head of the Players' Association. "He didn't want to play, in my opinion, and he lost confidence. He won hardly anything and he lost to a lot of really inferior players, something he hadn't done before.
"I look at it this way: 25 years ago, before open tennis came in and even in the days when we were running pro tours, the champions were people who played 13 to maybe 17 events a year. So all of us guys who achieved our records in those years, we really were .900 hitters. I mean, you won nine out of 10 tournaments if you were the best player because you were always rested and keen.
"Since open tennis has come in, Rod Laver has the best record overall, with Stan and John Newcombe close, but they win roughly one out of four tournaments, so they're .250 batters. Now, if a Smith wants to be an .800 hitter, it's possible, but he's got to go back to our philosophy. Play 15 tournaments and play 'em all damned good, or play 25 or 30 and play 10 or 12 of 'em bad. That's all."
Smith will play a lot, and no doubt he'll be bad at times, but at least he is starting out in the right frame of mind. He was relaxed and happy when he reported to Toley the day after Christmas.
Not in evidence was the tired pessimism of 1974 that gave rise to statements such as these: "It's been an exasperating year...I haven't put anything together like I did last year...I don't feel I've been playing up to my potential and I feel bad about it...You get a few breaks, you lose a few close matches and some confidence disappears."
At the breakfast table one morning, Smith recalled a conversation he had had with a critic:
" 'Gee, what's the matter with you this year, you haven't won Wimbledon?'
" 'Yes, but Wimbledon hasn't been played yet.'
" 'And you haven't won Forest Hills even!'
" 'Well, Forest Hills hasn't been played either.' "
Yet, even for a fellow who was expected to win big tournaments before the draws were made and didn't, Smith's off year was good enough to have satisfied a lot of players. He was in the final eight of both the WCT doubles and singles for the second straight time, although on this occasion he won neither. He was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon, blowing a match to Ken Rosewall on Centre Court after having what seemed like an insurmountable lead. If he could have held on there, the whole season might have been given a restringing, since most critics believe he would have been a more formidable opponent for Connors in the final. He was a quarter-finalist at Forest Hills, knocked out by hard-serving Roscoe Tanner.
Smith plans to say no to a few more tournament directors from now on and no this year to World Team Tennis, which would like to have him playing for its New York franchise. He is not in the Superstars contests against athletes from other sports, even though he did quite well last year.
The lounging was pleasant on the shady patio at one corner of the Novelo tennis court. While Toley drilled the players (Smith did noticeably more huffing and puffing than the others because of his layoff), the spectators sat under an umbrella and chatted. There was speculation as to how van Dillen's switch from a metal racket to wood might affect his game. If a football game was on television, Margie Smith would periodically pop out of the house to give the latest score. But Topic A was: "Can Stan fight back and be once again the top-ranked player in the world?"
"Stan was always a confident tennis player," said Toley during a break. "He was No. 1 in the world, so he had to have something going for him. He's got a lot going for him because of his personality and so forth. He's not easily discouraged. I don't know how deep these scars are, but I'm optimistic that he can do it.
"I think that a break like Stan has had gives a person a different perspective. It's easier, then, to adopt new ideas and new methods. He can really look back and see what he wants to change."
"He has the ability, and he's done it before," said van Dillen. "But every year it gets tougher."
Smith himself, not the sort to reveal whatever grandiose dreams he might have, said only that his first goal was to win the WCT. But his bride, once the No. 1 player on Princeton's women's tennis team and the top woman player in the East, was not so reluctant.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he can do it," she said. "And I don't think there's any doubt in his."
Smith is sometimes described as having been a big awkward donkey as a teenager, the sort of oaf who could not get out of the way of his own sneakers, but Toley, who first watched him swing a racket at age 16, says that "he never looked that clumsy to me," and that he obviously had been coordinated or he would not have been able to play on a very good Pasadena High basketball team.
"He looked like a good prospect for tennis," says Toley, "but there was one peculiarity about him. He was stiff as a board, not limber at all. But a great kid who worked hard. He didn't move that stiff, it was just in his strokes."
In his senior year of high school Smith abandoned basketball so that he could work out regularly at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, where Toley was the pro. The local tennis association paid Toley to iron out the kid's kinks, especially in his forehand volley, and Smith improved steadily. Yet it was not until June that Toley decided to offer him a scholarship to USC. It was a wise decision. Smith went on to be national collegiate champion, and USC won the NCAA title all three of his varsity seasons.
With his pupils Toley is like a stereo freak fussing with speakers and components. He is constantly tinkering—changing this, installing that, suggesting, adjusting, sitting in the stands during matches and quietly telling his tiny tape recorder about every mistake he sees and what should be done about it. Since tennis players do not have any built-in dials to twirl, getting changes programmed into them is usually not easy, but Smith was always receptive. Toley remembers fiddling with his forehand—getting him to use more wrist—in the middle of the 1966 college season, something that would throw most players off their game. Smith made the adjustment readily.
Their relationship has continued. At Forest Hills last summer Smith was struggling against Jaime Fillol of Chile. Rain delayed the match, and Toley broke away from some meetings in Manhattan to get to the courts. He noticed that Stan's feet "were just like they were frozen." It is Toley's theory that when Smith lacks confidence it shows up in his feet and he becomes as nimble as a cigar-store Indian. Toley called to him from the stands, Smith heard, and he started to get up on his toes and be in motion as Fillol hit his serve. Later, Toley saw that Smith was throwing the ball up too far in front of his body on his second serve. He called out advice, and Smith followed it right away. The tips probably made the difference, because Smith won in a fifth-set tie breaker.
At Estero Beach, Toley used a videotape recorder to capture the play of Smith, van Dillen and Ramirez, then analyzed their every tic during long sessions in his room. The coach is a walking recorder of the sport, and his pupils listen when he runs off the reels in his mind and highlights a few frames.
"Don Budge had great eyes," he may say. "He used a 17-ounce bludgeon, three ounces heavier than anybody uses today, but he still got it back in time because his great eyes helped his anticipation." Or, "There was a famous match between Jack Kramer and Frankie Parker at Forest Hills, one of Kramer's last matches as an amateur. Jack lost the first two sets hitting returns two feet wide. He had so much confidence that he kept hitting them the same way; they started going in and the match was over."
Toley did not make any radical changes in Smith's game at Estero, just intricate little things to ensure that the prize watch keeps better time, things that fans in front of the tube or at tournaments this year will be able to notice only if they know what to look for.
Toley thinks Smith has been too timid on backhand service returns, waiting to make sure where the ball is going, then making sure to get the ball back. Toley had him stand closer and got him to start moving almost before the server struck the ball, "maybe missing a few more balls but making some outright winners more often or some real tough shots more often."
On offense, Toley made him serve and then hustle to the net more quickly. Once again, Toley felt Smith had been too cautious. "He was running to about a step back of the service line," he says, "or at most, to the service line, and kind of waiting to see where the ball was going to go, and then moving. Well, I'm trying to get him to move inside that service line, then he'll still have time to wait. The interval will just be shorter. Then he'll be up there close where if someone does have a weak return, he can simply gobble it up at the height of its arc and do something with it."
Toley also worked on making Smith gamble more at the net, anticipating instead of always being dead sure; on putting more underslice on volleys for better control; and on serving "with a little more explosion" instead of a "continual rhythm." Toley feels that Smith has been "trying so hard not to miss the ball and not get passed, that his movements weren't natural enough."
At the end of the sessions at Estero, Smith's strokes looked natural and powerful, and Toley was satisfied that he had made a contribution. That kind of satisfaction is the only kind of pay he gets from Trojan alumni, who manage to show their appreciation in other ways. His former players, people like Smith and Davis Cup Captain Dennis Ralston, organized a testimonial for Toley last spring and one of the gifts they gave him was an all-expense trip to Wimbledon this summer. He has never been there and he wants to add new reels of tape to his brain.
Two days after New Year's, Smith and his bride took off for their home at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, where there is room for only a few of their wedding presents. A few days later they left for the CBS Classic in Puerto Rico, the beginning of a new cycle of pressure and jet lag. If they are lucky, they might get all of seven weeks at home this year.
"But now I'm really eager to play," says Smith. "It's a lot different story than the last three years."