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Aberdeen Racquet Club – 1960s-1970s era

It goes something like this: Twin brothers Doug and Dave Smith take a fascination to tennis while growing up in Aberdeen in the late 1950s. Friends join in on the fun. The Smiths, now college students in the 1960s with free summers, recruit a bunch of athletic kids in Aberdeen to join the tennis fray. And about 30 years later, Paul Richardson (one of the recruited kids) has a talented daughter in St. Louis playing "zonals" as a member of the Missouri Valley Jr. Sectional tennis team. Woody Boyd (another of the "kids") has a son playing the game in a big way in Colorado. Yes, a tennis "monster" was created in Aberdeen years ago. The beat goes on. The tennis stories are endless. Proof, once again, how a few can impact so many.

For the influence that era had on our state, the Aberdeen Racquet Club (1960s-’70s era) is receiving the 2002 SD Tennis Achievement Award.

Who better to tell the story than the Smiths, so dedicated to growing the game of tennis in Aberdeen?

DOUG SMITH: It was via my involvement with the YMCA that I ultimately began teaching a group of Aberdeen boys to play tennis. I had been a volunteer coach for what was then called "Gra-Y" (grade-school YMCA sports). I coached the 5th and 6th grade football and basketball teams of an elementary school called Howard Hedger. As luck would have it, "Hedger" just happened to have a bevy of very good little athletes. But Aberdeen had always been a baseball town. After all, back then we still had the Aberdeen Pheasants. And in those days, whenever Spring rolled around, Aberdeen boys’ thoughts typically turned to baseball. However, I thought to myself, "Aberdeen tennis needs some ‘new blood.’ And what better way to put Aberdeen tennis ‘on the map’ than to recruit the town’s best athletes to the sport rather than relatively non-athletic guys like me?" So I asked a bunch of these little guys if they would let me introduce them to tennis. Without hesitation, they said, "Sure, Coach." And so it began.

We started in April 1967, and by the time my brother returned from Stanford about mid-June, some of the little fellers, like "Donny" Boyd, were already playing well enough that I felt they were ready to try their hand at the SD Closed, which was usually played around the 4th of July. And by that time, interestingly enough, most of them had already forsaken baseball forever and had adopted tennis as their new summer sport–and passion. In looking back upon it, I now regard that group of kids as my "First Wave." (By starting a group of players around age 12 and sticking with them through their "junior" years, which end at age 18, I eventually came to realize that a "wave" represented about a six-year commitment to that particular group of kids. I certainly hadn’t planned anything that far ahead, I assure you.)

When my brother arrived, I asked him if he would be willing to help work with the lads, and he agreed to do so. We each adopted different roles. Always the more aesthetic player himself, Dave became the "master technician," providing the boys with the intricate finer points of stroke production and mechanics. I focused more on the tactical aspects of the game, to help them develop strategy. In short, Dave taught them how to hit, and I taught them how to play. We organized continual competition among the boys to keep them sharp and then ended up taking the best of the lot "on the road" to tournaments. At their first Closed, seven of the eight quarterfinalists in the Boys 12-&-under were "newcomers" from Aberdeen. (Tommy Clayton was the 8th–and, of course, he won the tournament! Nevertheless, we regarded it as quite a coup. We felt the ship was duly "launched.")

For several years Dave kept coming back in the summer, but after he finished his Ph.D. and began teaching (first at Indiana, then at M.I.T., and finally at U.Cal./Irvine), he usually had to remain at those places even in the summer, whereupon I continued to recruit new players to Aberdeen tennis. I now refer to that next group as my "Second Wave," and that wave included girls like the Bell sisters. An English teacher by training, little did I foresee that my life’s path would lead me to St. Louis and to developing yet another three additional "waves" here. Yup, doing the math, that would be 30 years. And, gosh, I even get paid for it, now."

DAVE SMITH: When Doug and I grew up in Aberdeen, 1950-62, the only courts in town were six black-tar courts at Melgaard Park. It seemed the only game in town was baseball. Our Mom spent her green stamps on two tennis racquets when we were in 7th grade. Ken (now Dr.) Vogele took it upon himself to "teach" us tennis. It came to Doug and me as quite a revelation one day when Jerry Sayler taught us to hit the ball at our side, on either side, as opposed to pushing out; front as Ken taught us. Stu Stoneback joined our gang of three or four by 10th grade, hitting a hard semi-Western forehand on every shot that came over the net (what backhand?, who needs one?). Yes, we then watched in admiration as Sayler hit his terrific serve, which was always returned (without much pace) by Terry Jordre.

By our junior year in high school, 1961, Jerry Larson found us. Here was a true athlete in our gang of scholars, star of baseball (could catch anything in the outfield like Willie Mays), basketball (his outside jumpers won the state basketball tourney), track (when in college at Augie, Jerry would run cross-country and then go out to play tennis, winning all his singles matches and losing only one doubles match in four years). I suspect I hit more tennis balls in three summers with Jerry Larson than in the rest of my life...Ah, but also the summer of 1961 we played a lot with Jerry Mettler and someone named Tom Daschle.

I remember I got to represent Aberdeen in the state Jaycees that year, probably my first real competition, played at Melgaard giving us our first view of "Real Tennis." This included Sioux Falls’ Jeff Clark, who could serve and volley like players on our snowy television sets showing glimpses of Wimbledon. Still, tennis was so insignificant that in our senior year (1962), Jerry Larson and I got to represent Aberdeen Central against Brookings in a real high school match. Actually, we had to hitch a ride down with the track team. Jerry and I were doing fine in doubles when the bus arrived. We had to skip the third set if we wanted a ride home to Aberdeen, or so I remember.

I headed to college at Northwestern on a General Motors scholarship, to study engineering and math. I looked at the tennis team, led by Marty Reissen and Clark Graebner (who also led the U.S. David Cup team), and, well, I didn’t bother to try out. I saved my tennis for summers in Aberdeen. Those were the years, mid-1960s, when the Aberdeen Racquet Club formed.

About 1966 we got the ear of C. C. Lee, who funded three new concrete courts across from Aberdeen Central. These would be stained red and green: a first for Aberdeen. Designed for Mr. Lee by Don Boyd, Sr., a high-grade cement was used, one that would not require resurfacing despite the hard winters.

A backboard was built by volunteers from the North Side. That backboard meant that the Finley brothers would grow up to play tennis and our "First Wave" of juniors would have to retrieve balls from the Finley yard next door.

Players like Keith Levi grooved some fine strokes on that board. There’s nothing like a backboard.

By 1962-66, we’re getting serious. Rick Hoff, Bob O’Brien, as well as Jerry Larson: I hit thousands of balls with these three in the early 1960s.

Somehow Doug and a bunch of us "organized" the Aberdeen Racquet Club, and this group (no parliamentary by-laws, please, just Gladys Smith’s living room) got the crazy notion of running a serious tournament!

We had been to the SD Closed and Doug and Jerry did very well in doubles one year. And, hey, why not a tourney in Aberdeen? So the C. C. Lee Open started August 5, 1966 on the new C. C. Lee Tennis Courts. Famous players like Don Grebin and Dave and Tom Weber from Sioux Falls came. And, of course, I gotta think, Lefty Johnson from Brookings. Tennis had really come to Aberdeen.

In the Fall of 1966, with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, I started work on a Ph.D. in philosophy at Stanford, way out in California. For four years, I studied philosophy with the greats, and became a philosopher myself, a phenomenologist by trade (one who studies the structure of our own experience, whether thinking or seeing or playing tennis). For those same four years, I played a lot of tennis on the Stanford courts, next to tennis great Roscoe Tanner and later John McEnroe. So engineer turned philosopher learned tennis by watching players like Stan Smith (who looks more like Doug than I do), and Bob Lutz and all the great USC and UCLA players of that era. And pros John Newcombe and Tony Roche and Ilie Nastase and Manuel Santana, who played events nearby.

I learned also by gleaning informal coaching from the greatest tennis coach of all time, Stanford’s Dick Gould, whose teams have won more NCAA titles than anyone. During those years (1966-73), I spent my summers in Aberdeen with new stroke information from Dick Gould.

I drove my 1966 Valiant from Stanford to Aberdeen in mid-June 1967. And there began a wonderful relationship of the Smith twins with all those really cool young dudes learning tennis, and their parents who supported the whole notion of their kids leaving town to become real tennis players: Levi, Rob Davies, Donny Boyd, Jeff Murphy, Rob Wylie, and all the crew that Doug has realized were the "First Wave."

And so, with Douglas Woodruff Smith’s organizational skill, we began a mini-version of what decades later would be a Bolletieri tennis academy. All gratis. All grassroots. And all wood: racquets! The tennis world of the Northwest (so-called) was small but vibrant. Doug and I took three kids all over God’s creation: Brookings, Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Minneapolis, Duluth...driving the Levi station wagon, the Sauck Winnebago, the Myers camper, etc. And lo and behold, the Aberdeen kids scored.

I brought the "Wisdom of Stanford" on California stroke production, while Doug brought his genuine guru role, organizing the group into a formidable social unit and developing strategic skill (not least in doubles, where Aberdeen duos would regularly rout their singles’ superiors!). From there, the guys’ rich social life took over, all the stories they can tell about those road trips away from home, including who beat whom from Minneapolis.

No wonder all these folks are heading to Sioux Falls for the Aberdeen Era day again in the sun!