Tennis legend Stan Smith relaxes on a couch in his spacious, earth-toned home in Spanish Wells that opens onto Broad Creek, looking as if could still trade serves and volleys with the best of them.
Lean and long-limbed, with powerful hands and a slightly roguish mustache that helped make him instantly recognizable to a legion of fans in the 1970s and beyond, the one-time greatest player in the world speaks in polite and measured tones as he reflects on a life in tennis and his status as one of Hilton Head’s most highly regarded residents.
“I still play a bit, or try to remember how to play, at charity events and sometimes with the kids,” said the smiling co-founder of the Smith-Stearns Tennis Academy. Located in Sea Pines, the academy has been a focal point for aspiring young players (age 10-18) for the past decade. Smith and his spouse, former competitive player Marjory, first arrived in 1971, right after his Grand Slam victory at the U.S. Open. Smith was brought here at the invitation of developer Charles Fraser, who was looking to improve tennis amenities on the island. “I came to visit, fell in love with the place and we’ve been here ever since.”
Smith became the touring pro at Sea Pines before winning Wimbledon over Ilie Nastase in 1972 and earning elite status as the world’s top-rated player, thus achieving two of the four goals he set for himself as a gangly teenager growing up in Pasadena, Calif. The other goals included becoming the best player in America and playing for the country’s Davis Cup team, which won seven times during his decade-long tenure.
“That’s one of my favorite accomplishments, because the Davis Cup is a team game,” said Smith, who retired from senior tour events in 1984 then went on to become the U.S. Tennis Association’s Director of Coaching for 10 years. In 1994, he launched Stan Smith Events, which entertains corporate clients at major tennis events around the world, including Wimbledon and the Olympics. “I’m here at the academy about half the time and on the road the other half,” he said.
Yet it’s time at home that the 66-year-old cherishes most, working as a trustee with the Heritage Classic Foundation, joining his wife as volunteers who’ve helped raise more than $6 million for the local Boys & Girls Club and, most of all, imparting his wisdom to young players at the academy he runs with business partner Billy Stearns.
“Probably the most fun I had was playing college tennis,” said Smith, who was a three-time All-American at the University of Southern California, “and I tell our kids that the real goal is to set them up in a college that’s appropriate for their academic and tennis abilities.
“Some of them will go on to Ivy League schools,” he continued, “while others will go to tennis schools or other colleges. If they are really good and have a chance to play professionally, that’s just a bonus. We’ve had kids that were number one players who couldn’t make it on the tour, so when a parent comes to me and says, ‘Susie has a great forehand, she’s 12-years-old and I think she can be a pro,’ I say, ‘I think we should have a talk.’ It’s good to have those goals but we stress things that are more attainable … being honest with themselves, appraising their strengths and weaknesses and learning how to handle defeat, and victory.”
It’s a rare opportunity for students to earn appraisal from a living legend. And while some know him as one of the first athletes to be honored with a shoe named in his honor – the Stan Smith signature leather line issued by Adidas in 1971 and still going strong – others regard him as an integral part of the island community and, above all, a simply great guy.
“Aw, I don’t know about that,” he said with a shrug. “This has been our home and we’ve raised our four kids here. We’ve been lucky and we’ve seen such great progress on the island.
“I always tell people, in all honesty, there may be a place that has a better tennis program, a better golf program, a better beach, better horseback riding, better cycling, better restaurants, but, when you take all those elements together, I don’t think there’s a better place in the world.”
Photo by Rob Kaufman