U.S. Open madness: Gordon Smith serves well for the USTA

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Tonight, Marietta tennis sensation Melanie Oudin will take the court in the U.S. Open quarterfinals versus a fellow teenager, ninth-seeded Caroline Wozniacki. And it seems, especially to us here in Atlanta following Oudin, that interest in tennis is on the upswing. But it’s part of a bigger trend. The following is a story by contributing writer Roger M. Williams about the rise of USTA director Gordon Smith–a longtime Atlanta resident himself–and what he’s been able to do for the sport.


Good Match

By Roger M. Williams

Many lawyers play (or play at) tennis, but very few have formed Gordon Smith’s attachment to the sport. Smith learned to play growing up in Rome, Georgia–a small city with an outsize tennis population; starred on the court at the University of Georgia; paired an outstanding legal career with deep involvement in both the U.S. Tennis Association and its Southern section; and now serves as the USTA’s executive director.

For the three-decade resident of Atlanta and longtime member of the city’s prestigious King & Spalding firm, that represents a sea change. On a professional level, Smith has gone from litigating on behalf of major corporations to managing one of the nation’s largest sports-governing bodies. The USTA, with a current budget of $248 million, oversees amateur tennis and runs this month’s U.S. Open in New York City, one of the world’s four “Grand Slam” events.

On a personal level, Smith’s ascendancy to the USTA’s top job required relocating to the New York area, where he and his wife, Jane, chose to live on Manhattan’s bustling Upper West Side rather than in White Plains, the Atlanta-like suburb where the organization has its headquarters. Smith, at fifty-five, still hits the ball very well. A former fixture on Downtown’s Capital City Club courts, he now plays most often at a public venue by the Hudson River; on weekends, he habitually shows up there at 6:45 a.m. to make sure of “getting on” without a long wait.

At King & Spalding, Smith specialized in commercial and product liability and was honored by being named a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. His clients included tobacco companies during the period when they were under serious legal attack. He submitted to a 60 Minutes interview on that subject and admits to having been a composite, pseudonymous character in 2005’s Thank You for Smoking, a satirical anti-tobacco film. “I’ve refused to watch it,” he says with emphatic distaste.

Most people who rise through the ranks of the USTA’s huge volunteer corps prove their worth by serving as officials at local and regional tournaments. Smith, however,
seldom “sat a line,” as the phrase goes. Instead, he responded positively to
circa-1990 invitation from Southern’s executive director, John Callen, to be
what Smith laughingly terms Callen’s “free lawyer.” The Southern is the USTA’s
largest section, with a stunning 25 percent of the association’s membership.
Locally, the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association (ALTA)—which celebrates its
seventy-fifth anniversary this year and begins fall play this month—has more
than 80,000 members, making it one of the largest metro leagues in the country.
So there was plenty of free lawyering to be done, including negotiating the
donation of a large Norcross club to the Southern’s charitable foundation; the
club has since become a training facility and a showcase for championship play.

From there, Smith was
invited to join the board of the Southern and then of the USTA itself. When the
association’s executive director announced his resignation in late 2007, Smith
joined what he characterizes as countless others in applying for the job. But
he prevailed over the competition, including two prominent USTA executives.

As executive director, Smith has already made important changes; he’s rejuvenated the organization’s oft-criticized
professional development program—which aims to identify and train the best American
tennis prospects—by bringing in Patrick McEnroe (John’s equally smart but more
diplomatic brother) as head man. On the amateur side (with an eye toward
eventual results in the pro rankings) Smith has enthusiastically supported
QuickStart, which teaches the game to young kids, and the creation of USTA-run
regional training centers for teens; one of the first centers is located at the
Racquet Club of the South, in Peachtree Corners.

Smith’s successes have been augmented by a surprising development. Between 2000 and 2008, tennis, long in the doldrums, was the fastest-growing “traditional” sport in the United States. No wonder Gordon Smith has to show up before 7 a.m. to get a court.

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