For love of the game
After decades as a volunteer, Gordon Smith leads the USTA
In 1968, Gordon Smith watched on TV as Arthur Ashe became the first black man to win the U.S. Open tennis championship.
Nearly 45 years later, Smith (ABJ ’75, JD ’78) serves as executive director and chief operating officer of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the nation’s governing body for tennis and sponsor of the U.S. Open, a tournament that draws more than 700,000 spectators in two weeks.
It all began when the Rome, Ga., native grabbed rackets bought by his father (Oscar Smith, JD ’48) and brother (Marvin Smith, AB ’71). Inspired by the tennis he’d seen on TV, Gordon Smith walked to local courts, started hitting with a friend and “just fell in love with the game.”
“I’m one of these people that really believes that tennis made me what I am in so many ways,” he says.
Tennis took him to UGA, where he played on scholarship for Coach Dan Magill.
“In many ways he was a second father to me and many of his players,” he says.
Smith captained the team that swept four straight SEC titles from 1972-75. In 1975 he was SEC doubles champion with his partner, Manuel Diaz, now the UGA men’s tennis coach. And Smith met Jane Kimbrell (ABJ ’75, MEd ’77) at the UGA tennis courts during freshman year. She’d come by to check out Diaz—his roommate—because she’d heard he was cute, but she ended up marrying Smith.
After earning undergraduate and law degrees, Smith clerked for Chief Judge William C. O’Kelley of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia then joined King & Spalding’s Atlanta law office. While at the firm for more than 25 years, he defended high-profile products liability and civil cases for tobacco, automotive, pharmaceutical and heavy equipment manufacturers.
At the same time, he maintained his passion for tennis—as a player and as a volunteer for USTA’s Southern Section, for which he served as counsel, delegate at large, vice president and president. In 1996 he received the Jacobs Bowl Award as the section’s outstanding volunteer. Eventually he was named to the USTA’s national board, and when his predecessor resigned in 2007 he applied for the job.
“I just had this crazy idea that maybe this would be something I could do,” he says. “To my great shock, they actually hired me to do it.”
Smith was happy practicing law but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“Only something like this, where I could feel like I was giving back to tennis, would have interested me,” he says.
Now Smith presides over USTA’s staff of 350, tennis league of 350,000 players, membership of 750,000 and the U.S. Open, televised in 188 countries. He’s leading a campaign focused on recruiting 6- to 10-year-olds, last year revising the rules to allow shorter courts, smaller, lighter rackets and softer balls for kids. And the organization has embarked on a multiyear, multimillion dollar upgrade of facilities at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, N.Y.
But his biggest challenge is the competition for leisure time—not just from other sports, but computers and nonathletic endeavors.
“We’ve got to get attuned to the times so that kids and adults who play the game can enjoy it in short periods of time and learn it quickly,” he says.
Smith doesn’t get to play as often as he’d like. When he does, he’s reminded of what he loves about the game—it teaches self reliance, independence, fair play and honesty. And it’s a healthy activity that players can enjoy all their lives.
“I just think it has a package of things that no other sport really offers in the same way.”