Tennis players have a knack for spotting Frank Smith, no matter how inconspicuous he attempts to be. Maybe it's because some of them view him as an Orwellian Big Brother checking up on their court behavior. Most, however, know he's there -- at tournaments around the world -- to make sure things run smoothly.
A majority of the top men players are so convinced of this that they threatened to boycott this year's US Open unless Smitn, and his fellow "Grand Prix supervisors," were used by the tournament. (A compromise solution has since been achieved.)
Most people don't even know such supervisors exist, much less what they do. For the past two years, though, four of them have quietly traveled the men's circuit. Hired by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, the governing body of the Grand Prix tour, they oversee the officiating, monitor player behavior, and generally ensure that proper tournament procedures are followed.
Their presence, observers tend to agree, has brought a professionalism and consistency to the game often missing in the past.
Until the supervisors were hired, the players didn't always know what to expect from one tournament to the next in terms of match scheduling, officiating , rules enforcement, and the like. Now they do, except at a few major tournaments, which still insist on hiring their own referees.
Not surprisingly, the supervisors are viewed with suspicion by the game's Old Guard.
"Some people ask me how I can do this with so little experience," Smith indicates. "What they forget, though, is that most officials work only one tournament a year, while I work one every week. In a sense, then, I already have 32 years' worth of experience, and this is present, everyday experience."
In the course of a week, he sees a dizzying number of matches, perhaps parts of 80 during a 90-match event.
An Annapolis graduate who became interested in tennis officiating while stationed in Newport, R.I., Smith has found his air traffic control background invaluable in making quick decisions.
He was hired by chief supervisor Dick Roberson, an anonymous figure outside the game, but a respected one in it. Before World Team Tennis folded, Roberson was responsible for the league's streamlined officiating crews. The same sort of mobile, six-member crews have replaced 12-member ones at Grand Prix tournaments.