Q&A with Stan Smith: How the soulful Tennis Hall of Famer will bring his retro coolness back to Ojai

IMG_3215A beat-up pair of Stan Smith Adidas don’t get the respect they deserve shoved into the recesses of my closet. They are in need of some major love. But never will they find their way to a recycle bin. That would be a major foot fault.
We know how Smith earned his fame, unlike Chuck Taylor.

Photo by Martha

Photo by Margo Schwab.

Sure, we could trade them in for a newer model. The retro versions in all sorts of colors beyond the classic white-and-green are anywhere from Foot Locker to Urban Outfitter to Nordstrom.
“I would say 90 percent who buy them today don’t even know I’m alive,” the 68-year-old said this week from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “People say, ‘Aren’t you upset about that?’ It’s just natural that all people wouldn’t follow something like that. I just think it’s weird that the company wants to bring them back and focus on the 18-to-25-year-old age range for these. They’ve got people like Ferrell Williams and Derrick Rose  wearing them. So maybe it is cool to wear them again.”
The Stan Smith we remember — the former Wimbledon and U.S. Open tennis champion out of Pasadena and USC – already has soul above all other arch-suppored soles. He doesn’t have to prove his retro coolness. With a pair of shoes that have his name on them, he’ll step back onto the courts at the Ojai Tennis Tournament as an honored guest for the 115th edition of the event coming up next week.
From 1963 to ’68, Smith won four singles titles and three doubles titles in various divisions. From ’66 to ’68, the national junior champion won three colleges singles title, twice over USC teammate Bob Lutz, whom he then partnered with for doubles.
The soft-spoken president (and inductee) in the International Tennis Hall of Fame just finished a round of golf in the PGA Tour’s pro-am event for the RBC Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links, and talked about returning to the place of his early triumphs for the Thursday night barbeque and the Friday night wine fundraising event:

Q: You just finished a round of golf. Would you consider yourself a big golfer?

A: I’m 6-foot-4 and I play golf. That’s about as big as it gets.

Ojai Logo 2013 JpgQ: When you consider how long this Ojai event has been taking place – more than 100 years – and all it has done for the sport, do you think it can be as important today as it may have been to you when you last competed in the late ‘60s?

A: I don’t know. I don’t know what the event is really like these days. My wife (Marjory Gengler Smith, a former player at Princeton) and I are really looking forward to this trip. She has played in that event as well during her career. It was certainly a very meaningful event when we were coming along. It certainly has kept its longevity.

Q: When was the last time you came out to Ojai and saw the place?

A: My oldest daughter went to the Weil Tennis Academy for one semester, and that was about 12 years ago, so I was there for a day, and it wasn’t during the tournament so there weren’t any crowds there. It was nice to see. A lot has certainly changed. I’m looking forward to seeing what it looks like now.

LHP_Ojai Tennis Tourney Aerial Courts_08Q: Do you have a specific memory of the event as a player that stands out above all others – not just your first appearance there, but any specific match or opponent or conditions or …. Something going on in your life that made an appearance that much more significant?

ticket1913-webA: I do remember coming there as a 16-year-old and losing to a player named Jim Hobson, who was one of the best players in Southern California (in the 18-and-under division). We were on a private court, which was new to me, and it was something like 7-5, 6-2, which was my best match to that point in time. It felt like Wimbledon for me. In college, our team always did well there. It was one of the more enjoyable events to go there.And I’ll never forget hanging out at the orange juice stand. That’s always a lasting memory.

Q: Have you ever found fresh-squeezed orange juice that tastes the same as when you got it in Ojai?

A: No, nothing like it. An indelible memory for me.

Q: You’ve recalled that one of the crazier things about the event was having to play sometimes right about sunrise because they couldn’t get all the matches in… that still seem a little crazy?

A: At the Ojai Valley Inn courts, they would get started maybe 6:15 a.m., as soon as the sun peeked over the mountain we were playing. It was so bizarre. In juniors we played early as well but nothing quite like that. It was just that it was such a big draw, they had people playing all over the Valley with as much time as they could get on the court. When I first played at Wimbledon, we weren’t playing until about 2 o’clock. Golfers might be OK playing that early for a tee time.

Q: In reading a copy of George Toley’s book about his coaching career at USC – you were ranked No. 7 in the world in 1967, then No. 3 in ’68 as a senior, then No. 1 when you left school — there’s a part it seemed as if you were about to go to UCLA to play until Toley finally got you a scholarship. Do you ever wonder what like playing at UCLA at that time in your career might have changed your trajectory?

Stan Smith from USCQ: Coach Toley was, in my opinion, the best coach ever in college. Dick Gould (the Stanford coach who won 17 NCAA team championships) might take offense to that. He did develop some Grand Slam champions and he was great at recruiting and motivating, but Coach Toley really developed Dennis Ralston, Rafael Osuna, Alex Olmedo – guys who were not very good when they got to USC but he changed them. It wasn’t until May at the end of my senior year of high school that he actually offered me a scholarship. In March or April, my father and I went to UCLA to check it out. The people from the Pasadena Tennis Patrons who had been helping me were really USC people and banking on me going there. When I told them I went to visit UCLA, they got upset with me. I told them I hadn’t been offered a scholarship by George. He had plenty of opportunity and he offered a scholarship to someone else, and fortunately for me, he turned pro, so it was available to me in May. UCLA had a great program, but JD Morgan was the coach and he really wasn’t a ‘tennis guy.’ He was a great salesman and recruiter. When I went there, he was showing me all the money he raised to get this building and that building. I always thought Arthur Ashe and Charlie Pasarell made mistakes going there. Tennis-wise, we didn’t have a great a facility as UCLA did. The L.A. Tennis Club was a good facility. I don’t know what it would have been like. I think George was the best college coach in my time so he was great for me.

Q: The John Wooden of tennis coaches during that time?

A: Actually, I’ll never forget we were at the NCAA Tournament one year and as a team, we sent a telegram to Coach Wooden in March to wish him good luck, because he was in our conference and he was going after another national title. That’s what George wanted to do.

Photo from Adidas

Photo from Adidas

Q: Any regrets today about quitting the Pasadena High basketball team as a senior so you could concentrate on tennis?

A: I had regrets for a few moments here and there. I was way behind the other guys in the L.A. area, and I don’t think I would have won the national junior tennis championships had I stayed in basketball. Who knows what would have happened. It was a big decision. Our basketball coach (George Terzian) was actually a tennis player and our team got to the semifinals in CIF and he claimed if I was on the team we would have won a title. I don’t know. I always seem to have been a greater high school basketball player as the years go by.

Q: Could you have played basketball and tennis at USC if they let you?

A: My freshman year at USC, you had so many who were scholarship players on varsity and the rest were on the freshman team, at that time, you couldn’t play varsity in any sport. I would watch the freshman team play against other schools and know I was better than some of those players. Four or five were really good but the rest were pretty bad. I did play on my fraternity team and got three sprained ankles and finally after the third one, George Toley said maybe you shouldn’t be playing that sport.

2097-DEFAULT-LQ: As far as your health is today, do you ache any certain places? Still healthy enough to get out there and hit for periods of time?

A: After golf, my back is a little sore, but I’ve only had elbow surgery in 1977. I’ve been fairly fortunate over the years with no major issues. I still get out and play a little. I have my academy here and get to play a lot with the kids.

Q: As a former doubles great, can you appreciate what the Bryan brothers have accomplished in their career and probably kept doubles alive on the radar this long?

A: I think they have kept it on the radar. My eldest son, Ramsey (a former tennis star at Duke and the school’s tennis coach since 2008) was one of Mike’s best friends on the junior circuit, which is kind of odd considering Mike always had his brother, Bob, there with him. I’ve followed their careers and see how they play fantastic tennis. Maybe not against the best players in the world all the time, but the best who were playing doubles. They’ve kept doubles alive because people will specifically come to watch them play. It’s not like, ‘Well, let’s watch doubles as long as we’re here.’ They’re in their mid-30s and in doubles, Ricky Leach played until he was almost 40, and he was one of the greats. I think they can hang in there another three, four, five years if they want to.

1540Q: With the International Tennis Hall of Fame, you are on a mission now to make sure every living member gets a Hall ring as a memento of their achievement. How has that process been?

A: When I leave Ojai, I’m going to Dallas on the way home to get Dennis Ralston his ring. This year, Michael Chang got his ring. Myself and Todd Martin are involved in this. I was fortunate enough to give a ring to Pancho Segura, another great coach in my career who just turned 93. Also Gardnar Mulloy, the famous British star who was 99 at the time (and now 101). I think they really do appreciate it after all this time. It’s just another way to recognize them and the Hall of Fame. When the players are inducted, it’s usually very significant whether it’s a Pete Sampras or Segura or any one of them who are part of the fraternity of the best players to have ever played the game.

adidas-stan-smith-vulc-skate-shoeQ: Last thing about the Stan Smith Adidas, the shoe still so cool it has its own Wikipedia page: I have a pair that is in blue trim, but they have your name on it. Do the official Stan Smith shoes have to be in white and green? I know those look the coolest.

A: No they actually re-launched it with a green and a blue and red, and then they have all different kinds of colors and suede. The new skateboarding shoe has a piece of black fuzz under my nose for my mustache. You’d probably need to get a brand new pair to compare it. The new ones are a softer leather than the older ones. Even more comfortable.

Q: But you can’t really play tennis with them? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

adidas-stan-smith-1A: No, I really don’t recommend playing tennis in them. You can hang out, go to the mall or whatever. They were high-tech when they first came out (in the 1960s), the first leather tennis shoes and all, but they’re now very low tech, but very fashionable. It’s fun to see people wearing it, boys and girls, men and women, thinking they’re very fashionable. It’s funny to be quite honest. I’m not required to wear them, but I do because they are comfortable and I’m able to wear them with a suit or tuxedo if I have to. They do look great with anything.

== Tickets to the Ojai Tennis Tournament and an evening with Stan Smith are available at the tournament’s official website.

== On the International Tennis Hall of Fame website, this is the biography listed for Stan Smith: “One of the great sportsmen of tennis, a man who commanded respect for both the caliber of his game and the strength of his character, Stan Smith was an authentic American hero of the early Open Era. Tall and stately at 6’4”, he conducted his business on the court with quiet but unmistakable conviction. With his strong moral fiber and rectitude, he represented his country with almost unparalleled dignity and honor in Davis Cup competition.”


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