Duke tennis coach Ramsey Smith carries on family legacy

Duke’s Ramsey Smith blasts a return during a singles match in 2000.
Duke’s Ramsey Smith blasts a return during a singles match in 2000. News & Observer file photo

Ramsey Smith was a two-time All-American tennis player.

He was All-ACC three times, won the third-most matches in Duke history and was selected to the ACC’s 50th Anniversary Team.

But he’s not even the best tennis player in his family.

Ramsey Smith’s father, Stan Smith, won the 1971 U.S. Open and 1972 Wimbledon titles, and the former world No. 1 watched Sunday’s Wimbledon championship live from the royal box.

“(In) most father-son relationships, the son could kinda say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’” Ramsey Smith said. “I never really had that luxury.”

Ramsey Smith’s own resume isn’t shabby. Since being named Duke’s head tennis coach in 2008, he’s recruited and coached eight All-Americans, two ACC Players of the Year and 14 All-ACC selections en route to six 20-win seasons and seven NCAA tournament appearances. His ability to relate to his players – on and off the court – gives him his biggest advantage as a coach, he said.

“It’s extra special for me. I got to go through exactly what these guys went through,” said Smith, who called returning to Duke his dream situation. “I have such a passion and a love for Duke.”

Jonathan Stokke, Duke’s associate head coach, saw that devotion during Smith’s first year as head coach. Stokke was a senior on that team, and he said Smith applied a necessary level of tough love

Now Smith’s peer, Stokke said he sees the head coach’s evolution firsthand.

Smith’s desire to serve his players, however, hasn’t changed.

“Some coaches, they’re trying to win titles for themselves,” Stokke said. “I don’t think anyone feels that way about Ramsey.”

With the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class – Smith said he focuses heavily on character – headed to Durham this fall, the team could be poised to move up in the tough ACC.

Smith said he also relies on his father, who shares his knowledge and often attends Duke’s home matches.

The soft-spoken former champ keeps his advice simple, but Stokke said players latch on to every word.

“He opens his mouth and all the guys perk up,” Stokke said. “You say ‘Wimbledon champ’ and ‘No. 1 in the world,’ it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen him play.”

At an early age, however, Smith worked mostly with his mother, a former No. 1 player at Princeton. She guided him from the time he picked up a racket as a 2-year-old until he turned 10.

Stan took over after that, and while he never pushed Ramsey to play tennis, the younger Smith tried to emulate his father as a player and sportsman. Though Stan’s prime came before Ramsey was born in ’78, he’s watched video of his father’s old matches and heard all the stories.

“I have a great relationship with my dad,” Smith said. “He’s been a role model for me my entire life and still is. We’re still talking all the time.”

Smith’s success at Duke didn’t stop on the court. He met Kathy, a former star on the Duke women’s tennis team and his future wife, while they were in school, but the two never dated. He headed off to play professional tennis and reached a world ranking of 603 before two shoulder surgeries ended his career. As Smith got his real estate license, interviewed for banking jobs and spent three summers as a flyfishing guide in Alaska, Kathy served as head coach of the Princeton women’s tennis team.

The two eventually would meet again, and the relationship blossomed. Smith proposed in Duke Gardens, and they married in 2010.

“Duke has certainly given a lot to me,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to give a little bit back.”

Tennis bonds generations of the Smith family together, but the game has never supplanted familial obligations. As Stan prepared for a quarterfinal doubles match in the 1978 U.S. Open, he got news that Ramsey was being born seven weeks early. The tournament director announced on center court that the match would be postponed, which served Stan well. Though he was nearing the end of his career, he and his partner would go on to win the tournament.

“I momentarily inspired him,” Ramsey Smith said.

Ramsey Smith’s daughter, Sofie, returned the favor in 2013 when she was born before a Round of 16 match against Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. He put his assistant coach in charge via a 5 a.m. text, and the team did fine in his absence.

With Stan in attendance, Duke advanced to the quarterfinals. The now 2-year-old Sofie already has a plastic racket, and newborn son, Sandon, could soon follow the same path.

Another Wimbledon title might not be far off.

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