in ,

Tennis Hall of Famer Stan Smith and Director Danny Lee Talk Their New Doc

Tennis star Stan Smith is more than just a former U.S. and World Number One, Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, and Hall of Famer. He’s also, somewhat surprisingly, a hip-hop cultural icon for his signature footwear, the Adidas Stan Smith model, a favorite on the fashion runway and in urban culture. He’s also a coach, confidante, organizer, humanitarian, entrepreneur, friend, and family man, one who has led a full and complex life as presented in the new documentary, Who Is Stan Smith?, directed by Emmy-winning Danny Lee and releasing theatrically next week.

In advance of the film’s red carpet premieres at Los Angeles’ Nuart Theater on May 3 and New York City’s Angelika Film Center on May 10 and before Who Is Stan Smith?‘s release in 50 markets throughout the month of May, Danny Lee and Stan Smith spoke with Film Obsessive publisher J Paul Johnson—a lifelong player and fan—about their work together, Smith’s career, and the film’s message of racial harmony inspired by Smith’s friend, Arthur Ashe, and mentee, Mark Mathabane.

J Paul Johnson: Thanks to the two of you for bringing together two of the things I cherish most in this world: tennis and documentary film. Danny, I loved watching this film—great technical acumen, historical context, and you captured emotional resonance with a portrait of a complex man. And Stan, so you are surprisingly a hip hop cultural icon. Congratulations on the success of that shoe!

Stan Smith: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been fun to see the different subcultures that have gravitated towards that shoe.

It really has, and I love that the film captures that, as well as the entirety of your playing career. I’m a big fan of doubles, which I think is often overlooked, and you were one of the great doubles teams ever, you and Bob Lutz, even though you were apparently kind of an unlikely pairing.

Smith: Well, we worked well together. He was solid, didn’t make many mistakes, and I was kind of aggressive and took chances and took advantage of his setups that he had for me. And if I could get enough balls in play, he could handle his side of the court very well.

I almost got the impression from the film that the two of your on-court personalities were a little opposite from your off-court personalities. You know, on court, Lutz was a little bit more of a steady guy and off court, a bit more of a risk-taker. And then did that reverse itself a little bit with you?

Smith: That’s a pretty good explanation, really. We were different in that sense. And I was not as consistent, but, you know, took chances and he was, he would barely miss a return sometimes in some matches. It was great.

You had epic battles, particularly with Ilie Nastase in the 1972 Wimbledon final. I loved seeing that in the film, but I didn’t know the anecdote behind that routine-looking backhand overhead he had at the end of that match. 

Smith: It was amazing. That kind of ended so suddenly. I was as surprised as anybody.

And I recall that Nastase had a very solid shot there, like Guillermo Vilas. If it went up to that side, he could knock it away in any direction.

Smith: Well, he hit it really well and hit the top of the tape and just wobbled for a few minutes. And that was but he didn’t mis-hit it. He hit it really solid, and he was surprised, I think that didn’t go over the net.

I can’t imagine what a feeling that was for you [to win Wimbledon]. And I also recall having read about a pretty epic Davis Cup tie in Romania, kind of an ugly one, right? Was that the same year?

Smith: It was the same year, and it was probably the most interesting week of my life, actually, you know, to be in Romania, with all the things that were going on, Israeli athletes have been killed [at the Munich Olympics], and so we had this tight security and the courts were the red clay and they were being watered and the linesmen were I also seemed to be kind of related to [Romanian player] Ion Tiriac somehow. And there’s a lot going against us. And And so that was probably one of the most satisfying experiences experiences of my career, that Davis Cup win in Romania.

It had to have been. You had a single opponent but were against an entire team, a stadium, it sounds like an entire country was against you and Erik Van Dillen and the rest of the team back then.

Smith: It was. It was it was a one sided affair, for sure.

I grew up in the 70s and was a pretty passionate tennis fan. And I feel like the game really changed a lot during that decade. I didn’t know, for instance, about your tennis elbow [injury]. And I’m just wondering what were your thoughts on the guard that came up behind you, Connors and Borg and McEnroe and that generation of players and how that impacted yours.

Smith: Well, it did impact me, and I actually played against all those guys. Actually a fair amount. I played Borg, I think, three times and McEnroe three times, and Connors probably eight or nine times, but those are three of the best players to ever play the game. And I did start having problems with my elbow and was not able to perform as well as I would like. And it was the frustrating time for me. But those guys certainly took the bull by the horn and then and dominated for about five or six years. [Guillermo] Vilas was in there as well on the clay and Borg and on clay as well as at Wimbledon. So it was a great era of players, you know, at the end of the ’70s and early ’80s.

There were changes in technologies then, too, and I played with your model wood racket. As did you for a while. When did you make that switch to the graphite generation?

Smith: It was around 1977. I remember going to China with this non-wood racket. It was a graphite Wilson racket that, You know, it was a very different. But you’re right. It was a tremendous change. Borg tried to come back playing with a wood racket after taking a couple of years off and that racket was passed by at that point. He should have been going to a non-wood racket.

I’m also glad that Danny’s film addresses your role in the foundation of the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals). Can I tap your thoughts briefly just on the state of the pro game today? What do you think of it?

Smith: Well, it’s a mixed bag right now. I mean, golf has gone through a horrific situation in the last couple of years, and tennis hopefully is not going to go that direction, but there are elements that are moving that way and not only the Saudi Arabia money, but just a different mentality of some of the guys on the tour of having a premier league sort of situation and a secondary league that would feed into it. It’s really at a cross point now of what might happen, especially with Saudis being involved, both the men’s and the women’s side it’s hard to know what’s going to happen right now. It really is.

Do you see the men’s and the women’s tours as being able to benefit from working together, or do you think they are best off as separate entities and games?

Smith: I think that’s one positive thing that’s happening. It seems like the men’s and women tour are starting to work together more. And certainly, these 1000-level tournaments, most of them have men and women, not just the men. And so that part of it will enable, I think the two associations to maybe work together a little closer as well.

Danny, can I just compliment you on a really impressive documentary and ask how you came to the project?

Danny Lee: I really appreciate that. Very much so. I came to the project via LeBron James and Maverick Carter’s company SpringHill and they brought it to me. And they said, Hey, we like you as a director. We have this one project that we’d want to consider you for. And I said, what is it about? Who is it? And they said, Stan Smith. And I literally said, Yes, on the spot. Of course, there’s a process in meeting the talent, you know, making sure my vision is received well with Stan, and it was a real privilege to be able to tell the story. So thank you.

You’re welcome. Could you talk a little bit about what a director of a documentary film does in terms of story and structure and shooting?

Lee: As a filmmaker, I have worked both in documentary and scripted. But I usually sort of bring all approaches and synthesize them in any project and in documentary, I think the most important thing is to listen, is to enter the project. One, you should have a vision. But once you get into the process, you are going to unearth things that might fundamentally change the way you look at the film and don’t be closed off to it. You know, I think it’s easy to get caught up in your vision, but you should be open, you should lead with curiosity, and you should, you know, have empathy going into the process. So I think as a director, those are paramount.

Everyone’s different, but for me, what’s important is looking at the prevailing themes of the film and  try to extract, try to enhance the style so it can enhance the story, but not bury the story, enhance it. So for this, you know, it became clear there’s a mythology around Stan. So I was like, you know, let’s unpack this mystery. And in that, I’m not sure if you notice in the film, but, you know, in the title sequence and throughout, There was a bit of a shadow motif, right? Where you’re seeing the shadow of Stan. You’re seeing the shadow of his body playing or the shadow of a ball. And for me, that was all connected to the mystery of Stan Smith, but hopefully it wasn’t overbearing, hopefully it was just light enough.

And so that’s important because you know, it’s very easy to fall into the same few elements of a documentary. You’ve got the interview, you’ve got archival. You may have reenactments. And how do you do those differently. And that’s just me as a filmmaker. I’m always trying to explore different ways of telling a story because that’s what excites me. I sort of have this restless, creative spirit. And so Stan’s story kind of gave me a little bit of room to play, but you never want to you always want to have fidelity to the story, you want to do it justice. So it’s balancing those two things as a director, and hopefully we did that.

Smith: You haven’t used the word Veritas!

Lee: Verité!

Smith: It’s got to be Veritas!

Lee: Verité! The fourth element. There’s the interview, verité, archival, reenactments. And those are the four pillars of documentary, but sometimes you can you push the envelope and do things differently. But yeah, I kept telling them, you know, let’s shoot you know, we want to shoot art. Just you and the family, or you and this and they were like, What are you talking about? I had to say, Oh, we’re just flies on the wall, for the most part.

Smith: I just wanted us [Smith and his wife, Marje] to dance together after dinner every night. You know, that’s what we normally do! So we would just do that, but it was lovely.

Thank you both for telling this story. Our world needs more stories like yours and ones that how we can model and illustrate anti-racist behaviors and be role models for the youth and those who follow us in our lives. So congratulations and thank you both for your time.

Both: Thank you so much.

Who Is Stan Smith? addresses these topics and more, including Smith’s friendship with the late Arthur Ashe, his sponsoring of South African expatriate and author of Kaffir Boy Mark Mathabane, and the remarkable success of his boundary-crossing adidas sneaker line. For more, see our Film Obsessive review, coming soon.


Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

Leave a Reply

Film Obsessive welcomes your comments. All submissions are moderated. Replies including personal attacks, spam, and other offensive remarks will not be published. Email addresses will not be visible on published comments.

Deborah Correa points offscreen on the set of The War Between.

Director Deborah Correa Talks The War Between

Two teens sit on the grass while friends and family watch an outdoor movie in The Moon & Back.

The Moon & Back Brims With DIY Spirit and Heart