You look at the mile long list of successes – the state title teams he coached in St. Louis, the others on the frontier plains and, before all that, his collegiate days – and assume the sport of tennis has been in his life since, well, birth.
However, that wasn’t the case for Doug Smith.
“My mother presented my twin brother and me each with a tennis racket for our 13th birthday, at which time I knew so little about tennis that at first I honestly thought it was a snowshoe,” Smith said. “We knew nothing of the game, and I don’t think we had ever seen anyone play it in Aberdeen, South Dakota where we grew up.”
Turned out, Smith and tennis were a perfect fit, as he enjoyed 40 years helping lead Sunset Tennis Club in St. Louis and also had nearly three decades leading the St. Joseph’s Academy Girls Tennis Program (MSHOF 2023). That’s why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame proudly inducted Smith with the Class of 2023.
Since taking over the program in 1998, the program has won 12 of its 18 state championships. The 12 represent the most in state history by one coach and cover the years 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2019, 2021 and 2022.
Smith is a 1962 graduate of Aberdeen High School in South Dakota and didn’t play tennis until he was in high school. And then, while attending Northern State University, he was the singles and doubles champion of the South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference.
During his college years, he spent summers teaching and coaching tennis at USTA tournaments, and he also developed the boys who led Aberdeen Central High School to three consecutive state titles. Those teams, along with Smith, have since been inducted into the school’s hall of fame.
Smith still serves on the Missouri Valley Tennis Hall of Fame selection committee and has been recognized with the Missouri Valley Tennis Association Distinguished Service Award.
And to think it all started with a tennis racket from his mother.
“We fumbled around at the game on our own until we one day spied some accomplished players hitting in a local park and essentially learned technique by mere imitation but were otherwise essentially self-taught,” Smith said. “By the time I was in high school I had become a competitive player and won the city championship in the boys 18-and-under age division.”
His tennis career eventually led to coaching, with Smith finding a direct connection to St. Louis while he was umpiring the U.S. Open in New York. There, a friend from South Dakota, Craig Sandvig, asked if he would be interested in teaching at Sunset Tennis Club in St. Louis, where his friend was working.
Smith taught at Sunset Tennis Club with Sandvig for the next 40 years.
“The goal was to build a junior program,” Smith said. “We had no ambition of how big it would be. As the years went by, it grew by leaps and bounds.”
In its first year, it had 80 athletes. Two years later, it had 250 and hosted numerous tournaments.
Then, in the winter of 1997, St. Joseph’s Academy longtime coach Kathy Boles retired after her teams four consecutive state titles. She asked Smith if he would take over.
Fortunately, he had all the support of administrators and families.
“They gave me what I would call free rein,” Smith said, noting he saw to it that the tennis schedule was packed full of challenging opponents. “But by and large, I don’t think anyone would think of me as a martinet.”
Coaching tennis must have been in his DNA.
One of his early successes was taking a group of boys from Aberdeen’s YMCA and turning them into tennis players. They had been successful in flag football and basketball.
After college, he taught English in Sioux Falls, S.D., and then returned to Aberdeen in the summers as he pursued his master’s degree at the University of Kansas.
In 1977, Smith was seeking a teaching position in Minneapolis when he was asked to umpire at the U.S. Open in New York. That’s when Sandvig spotted him while Smith was working a match on Center Court.
Soon, he was on his way to St. Louis, and the rest is history.
“Put it this way, when I retired at Sunset in 2014, I felt I had done everything I could there,” Smith said. “But I still had goals to pursue with St. Joseph’s.”