Sunday, August 05, 2001

On the courts with Phil Smith

Author-historian volleys an encyclopedic knowledge of area's pro tournaments

        Phil Smith's frustration started building 14 years ago. One question at a time, one fact-gap a day. When it peaked last year with another unanswered question, he launched a research project.

        The project ended a month ago with publication of From Club Court to Center Court: The Evolution of Professional Tennis in Cincinnati ($12.95), an excruciatingly comprehensive history of the Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati (formerly the ATP).

        “Someone should have done this 20 years ago,” Mr. Smith says. “We had records from '69 on, but this tournament's been going on since 1899, and we had such huge gaps, you wouldn't believe it. We couldn't even look at newspapers because you need dates and we didn't have them.

[photo] Phil Smith, communications director for the ATP, poses above center court.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        “So I'd get all these questions I couldn't answer, and I'd get so frustrated I couldn't stand it.”

        Questions. They're something Mr. Smith gets often. As communications director for the tournament these past 14 years, he fields them year-round from the media and general public.

        During the tournament (the main draw opens Monday and goes through next Sunday), he gets them daily, usually from 8 a.m., when he arrives, to midnight or so, when he drags himself back to Eastgate and his wife and two young sons.

        “People don't realize how old this tournament is because it's had so many names (Tennis Masters Series Cincinnati, ATP Championship, Western Tennis Championships, Tri-State Tennis Tournament, Cincinnati Open), but there was a time when it was more important than Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

        “In the early days, the big thing was to win a state title. The Tri-State, was one of the biggest because it represented three state titles instead of just one.

        “The international tournaments, the Wimbledons and the Australian Opens, didn't become important until international travel got easier. In the early days, players didn't have time to get on a ship and sail halfway around the world.”

        That's some of the stuff you learn in Club Court, a book that is really two books. The first half is a narrative of the tournament's history and the people who made it happen. Here you'll come across a batch of names you're used to seeing on buildings or street signs: DeCamp, Sutphin, Taft, Gamble, Hopple, Procter, Nippert.

        The second half is every stat you can imagine: Winners, scores, finalists, records, seedings, upsets, hall of famers, the works.

        “The book took nine months, but it would have taken nine years if not for Frank Phelps.”

        Mr. Phelps is supposedly the only person in the world with a complete set of tennis annuals, little books published by sporting goods companies (Spaulding, Wright & Ditsons) detailing the previous year in tennis. He lugged his books to Kinko's and copied hundreds of pages for Mr. Smith, who then worked long into the night.

        He worked nights because his day job keeps him way too busy: Public relations duties, publications, the Web site (, marketing, advertising, booking 4,000 hotel rooms for players, coaches, media and general public.

        Then there's the media: “I try to be an ambassador to the press — answer their questions, fill their needs, take care of their complaints. People don't realize it, but we have 400 credentialed national and international media here. On our worst day, we still have a worldwide TV audience of 75 million.”

        Before they all start asking questions, let's hit him with 10 of our own.

        The funniest thing I ever saw out here . . .

        That was probably the day in 1998 when Patrick Rafter was playing really badly. He finally just handed his racquet to one of the ball kids, leaned against the wall and said, “Go ahead, kid, you do it.”

        If I weren't doing this, I'd be . . .

        Oooh, my No. 1 choice would be a Victoria's Secret catalog photographer. Or maybe a backup singer for James Taylor. If I had to do something in the real world, I guess it would be a lawyer.

        I'm always amazed at . . .

        The love people have for this tournament. It sounds corny, but we take all these calls at the office from people making arrangements, and they always want to talk, usually tell you about something they saw last year.

        I would like to explain this one thing to tennis players . . .

        Well, I wouldn't want to lecture them, but I would like to explain what goes into a tournament like this. I don't think they know what it takes, everything from the army of kids parking cars to the guy selling Coke.

        I'll find something new to do when .. .

        Every day. It's something new and different every morning when I get out of bed. Especially once the tournament gets rolling.

        The best part of my job . . .

        The people I work with. Especially (executive director) Paul Flory. This is like summer camp here, with everyone getting re-acquainted after a year's absence.

        The most difficult part . . .

        Is answering these questions.

        At the end of every tournament, I . . .

        Sleep for two days. Just ask my wife. She calls it my zombie mode.

        One thing I wish I could have done in this book . . .

        Oh, geeze, where do I start? I would have like a list of everyone who has ever played.

        One thing you should have asked me but didn't . . .

        What I personally find most interesting about the book. That's the Titanic connection. The story about R.N. Williams, who was on it with his dad. His dad didn't make it, but R.N. did. He floated for six hours on a partially submerged raft . . . up to his waist in freezing water. When they fished him out, they wanted to amputate his legs, but he wouldn't let them. The doctors said fine, but you'll never walk again. He played here the next year.
        Mr. Smith's book is available at bookstores, on the Web site and at the ATP Tennis Center.


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