Stan Smith talks of getting a bead on his tennis opponents' styles
Stan Smith had just eliminated a powerful young man nine years his junior from the 1981 Jack Kramer Open at the Los Angeles Tennis Club when a reporter approached him and drew him into a conversation about game plans.
"I don't know an established pro who goes into a match without one, because it is important to know everything you can about your opponent," Stan explained. "If I can't scout a player myself, then I ask someone on the tour whose judgment I trust to do it for me."
"What I want to know primarily about an opponent is his style," he continued. "You know, things like: Does he come to the net? Does he move well? Does he favor one side of his body? What's his second serve like?, etc. Even though most veteran players don't change that much, you still can't ignore them."
Asked what happens on those rare days when an opponent changes his normal habits and plays an entirely different style, Smith replied:
"Well, you have to be ready for that, too, and that's why most game plans are flexible. In fact, to save time I usually include two or three alternatives in my preparation for just that reason.
"Often when a guy gets away from the way he normally plays, it isn't the change so much that causes you to make errors as the feeling that you're not quite sure what you ought to be doing. And while you're thinking about this, he's winning the match. The good players simply don't allow that to happen."
Smith says that professional tennis, among the best players, anyway, is often more mental than physical. His theory is that most pros are so mechanical that they all play the tough shots well, meaning that talent alone often won't get the job done.
"So what you have left is mental toughness," Stan said. "The players who have it don't break under pressure, can lose a first set and still win, and are able to reach back for that little extra in the clutch. In fact, any player who feels in control mentally almost always raises the level of his game."
Smith, who has so many powerful ground strokes that he has to store them on microfilm, has always been a master at self-discipline. He is seldom caught out of position; he consistently gets his first serve in; and at 6 ft., 4 in. and 185 pounds he is a tough man to pass at the net.
"When I first started taking lessons, I was told never to break my wrist on my forehand shots, because that's what a player needed to drive the ball deep to the baseline," Stan said. "But later I discovered that if I relaxed my wrist a little but still hit through the ball, I actually had more feel and control."
"I like the power game, because if the shot is angled properly it isn't going to come back," he continued. "But when I was 15 and started taking lessons from Pancho Segura, who knew a lot about how to set up an opponent, Segura put some finesse in my game. He showed me how to win points just on placements, and finesse is something everyone needs to become a complete player."
Like the man who drills for oil or paints landscapes for a living or runs an elevator, Smith admits that there are days when he just doesn't feel like playing tennis.
"The odd thing is that most of the time those days turn out to be blessings in disguise," Stan remarked. "What happens is that you know you're in trouble if you don't concentrate well, so you concentrate so much that it raises the level of your game; you make fewer mistakes, and everything goes like it was programmed. I don't say this happens every time, but it happens often enough so that you remember it."
Although no longer the ultimate power player he was when he won the US Open in 1971 and Wimbledon in 1972 as well as excelling on so many US Davis Cup teams , Smith, at 34, is still tour-hungry.
"I've always sort of told myself that I'd play the circuit as long as tennis was fun, and for me it's still fun," Stan explained. "In fact, I sometimes feel that I play as well as I ever did and that I can stay competitive for at least another two or three years. The way I pace myself is to play three or four tournaments in a row and then take a week off."