It was love at first sight for Marty Smith.
The object of that affection? A tennis trophy.
Three years ago, a friend, Larry Milby, invited him to a tournament organized through the Central Kentucky Tennis Series. Smith was happily surprised when he and his partner Tim Bullock, a Campbellsville University professor, won their division.
As happy as he was with the victory, he was captivated by the sport when the trophies were presented. His eyes fixed on a 12-inch award depicting a tennis player, racket in hand, poised for a slam return.
“The way the man looked as though he was in motion made me think of the Heisman trophy, and I was hooked,” said Smith, the son of Joseph and Lois Smith. “I said, ‘I gotta have one of those!’”
That tournament reunited a love affair with the sport that has continued to grow through many matches and a table full of trophies.
At 46, Smith, a Hodgenville resident and a LaRue County High School Class of 1979 member, is not dreaming of joining the pro ranks, but he does have two definite goals in mind: to continue loving to play, and to learn something more about the game each time he steps onto the court.
He first played tennis with his across-the-street neighbor Chris Abrams between his freshman and sophomore years at LCHS.
“We played all summer to get in shape for football,” said Smith, who was a varsity defensive back and wide receiver. Even then, he wanted to improve his game and, for pointers, watched every tennis tournament that he could tune in on television.
At Western Kentucky University, he played intramural tennis and after entering the Air Force in 1980, he improved to the point that he played on the Aviano Air Force Base tennis team in Italy.
“It was a thrill in going to a tournament to take an 18-hour train ride through the Italian mountains with terraced vineyards on the hillsides and artichoke farms,” Smith said. “Since I made the base team, this was considered temporary duty and I got paid when on those trips.”
Though the basics of the game came easy to him, he was constantly seeking and learning new aspects of the game, and loving it. His reacquaintance with tennis in 2005 rekindled that love and zeal to absorb every new skill he experienced while playing others.
“There are a lot of very good players in the league, many of them from right here in this area,” he said, mentioning Chris Estes, Gene and Jimmy Hornback, Terry Cravens, Chris Allen, Michelle Seymour – the names kept pouring out like lightning serves.
“There’s so many good players, young and old, to learn from – Greg White, Chuck Young, Emily Smith, Kathy and Bo O’Brien, David Reed – all have skills that are incredible,” he continued.
Roger Pierce has been his main partner in the league that includes tournaments in several area cities including Danville, Columbia, Lebanon, Campbellsville, Liberty, Elizabethtown, Glasgow and Bardstown. He and Pierce have won two tournaments and finished runners-up in four more.
“We’re comfortable with each other,” Smith said. “Roger usually gives me the forehand side and he plays the net, but we don’t signal to each other like you see some do on TV; we just depend on reacting to the ball.”
Game of angles
He admits he prefers doubles over singles, especially since his knees are not as forgiving as they once were. However, he credits another learning experience, this one from former teacher, basketball coach, and tennis player Bill Otis for giving him the edge in some matches.
“Mr. Otis told me that tennis was a game of angles and the key was to ëhit it where they ain’t,” he said.
Figuring out those angles, though, can be frustrating as he and Pierce learned in a match this month against Tommy and Josh Reed of Elizabethtown. Pierce and Smith had soared to a 6-1 first set win before losing 4-6 in the second set.
“We were ahead 8-2 in the final set and thought we had it when they ran off eight straight points to win 10-8,” Smith recalled, explaining, “They made good shots and we made errors.”
He doesn’t view losses as setbacks, however, because “They’re fun; you get to meet a lot of nice people; and they’re learning experiences.”
Sometimes the wins are surprising for Smith, a player in the B division that contains athletes rated between C players and the highest-rated Open competitors.
On Aug. 10, he found out two hours before his tournament match at Campbellsville that his partner didn’t show. In talking about the situation with others there, he learned that Brittany Price, a petite left-handed Casey County High School senior, was without a partner, too. Even though they had never played each other or practiced together, both knew they would have to forfeit unless they formed a quick alliance. They decided to go for it.
“Our strategy was just to go to the ball,” Smith said. “We played three tough matches and won the tournament; incredible!”
Scheduling in four days of practice each week around his second shift at Ingersoll-Rand in Campbellsville, Smith said tennis benefits him in several ways.
“It’s my way to keep in shape; it’s my ‘escape’ from the pressures of life, and it’s my opportunity to meet many great people who I know will be my friends for life,” he said.
He hopes someday to make the Open division, but that’s a secondary goal to his main quest – to love life through loving tennis.
“My goal is to still be playing when I’m 90,” he said.