Emerging as one of the early stars of the professional tennis scene in the 1970′s, tennis player Stan Smith’s playing days have long-ended yet he still maintains an unmistakable piece of both the adidas and sneaker landscape. Given the chance to meet a living-legend upon his appearance in Hong Kong for the adidas Originals 60th anniversary, we jumped at the opportunity to discuss the towering figure’s storied involvement in one of the most recognizable signatures shoes ever. We touch on some interesting topics and differences between contemporary and past professional endorsements alongside some of the shoe’s developments which have inevitably become iconic characteristics of the timeless classic for almost 40 years.
Interview with Stan Smith
Stan, how did you get your start in tennis? Was it the first sport you picked up?
No, my first sport was actually basketball. I played baseball, football, and track & field. Essentially a lot of different sports.
You were pretty multi-dimensional in that aspect. As a youngster, did you ever figure you would turn tennis into a full-time career?
No not at all, because there wasn’t a PTA Tour like there is now. There were a few, maybe four to eight professional players playing head-to-head matches. What they did for a while was have two guys play head-to-head matches around the world, eventually developing into an eight guy thing. There wasn’t much opportunity at the time so I graduated from college and at that time was when tennis officially became open, in 1969. A natural evolution for me was to go from amateur tennis in the summertime into a full-fledged professional.
Its good to hear doors opened up at the right time. Regardless of sport,making the jump to professional sports is incredibly tough and having the opportunity to play a sport you love as a profession is unparalleled. Not that many people are ever going to have that opportunity.
You’re right, I was playing tennis and then all of a sudden the Tour was launched. It wasn’t as organized as it is now with purses perhaps totaling only $25,000 and the winner getting $5,000. Today, the winner might get $800,000 for their efforts.
The progression of the sport has come a long way since your original playing days. What are your thoughts on Tennis’ transformation over the years?
I think it has been great. It’s really a matter of supply and demand which is a pure economic thing. The more people have interest in Tennis, the more sponsors get involved. In turn, the more outlets like TV get involved, the bigger the sport becomes.
From a technical aspect, how has the sport changed? The approach to the game, has it changed significantly from your time in the early 70′s?
The racquets are totally different and the strings now allow players to hit the ball harder behind the baseline. When they’re in trouble they can hit winners. With older racquets you couldn’t do that.
So I assume you have to be less methodical these days, rather than planning your shots a bit more?
Yea, you had to plan the point a bit more in the past and couldn’t hit winners like you do now.
How did you originally get in touch with adidas?
My agent originally knew Horst Dassler, son of adidas founder, Adi Dassler. They were looking to get involved and increase their exposure in the United States as they weren’t very big in the States at the time. During that time, I was the number one player and they were looking for a particular player to represent them and my agent made the suggestion. They thought it was a great shoe and they had a shoe that Robert Hier (CHECK) had designed with Horst Dassler. I made a suggestion that the shoe they had designed was something I would like to put my name behind.
So, the shoe was mostly just your endorsement rather than you contributingany design elements to it?
Exactly, and this shoe when I first started wearing it, was a little different in the back but almost virtually unchanged from the original, 40 years ago.
How have contemporary designs changed since your original adidas Stan Smith model?
I’ve actually been wearing my shoe the whole time. What they’ve done is create some new updated tennis models along the way such as the Supreme with a little cushioning in the heel. In 2000, they made the Millenium, which has a thicker sole and a lot more cushioning.
Was the Stan Smith something you could wear over a variety of surfaces or better suited for a particular court?
The Stan Smith was something you could wear over clay and hard-courts. If you dragged your toe a lot, you could wear that out pretty quickly, goes without saying for many shoes. They made a special version for Wimbledon where they put three stripes on it (rather than the perforations) and put a herringbone bottom on it for the grass. All the players that were wearing adidas at the time got a few pairs and all the guys from adidas were wearing that shoe. There have been other evolutions of the shoe. They eventually brought back the original version in white with green highlights. Over the years they have created some more lifestyle versions with different materials and colors.
Has there been a hiatus in terms of production, since the sneakers inception?
No, the shoe has been continually produced, but it has gone cyclically. There would be times when it would slow down and get popular again with the retro craze.
From an aesthetic point of view, the Stan Smith has a timeless, versatile look to it. Something you can pair with just about anything.
Exactly, I don’t think it has much to do with me…or at least I don’t think that much. It’s just such a classic simple, clean look.
A lot of the Stan Smith’s are marked by a silhouette of yourself. Who originally created the graphic?
Well it’s a photograph. It was taken when I didn’t have a mustache which is really only a four-month period over my playing career. From age 22 till now I’ve always had a mustache.
So by chance it was over this four month period you were mustache-less.
They took that original photograph and paired it with my signature. The signature was originally done when I was at an autograph session in a sporting goods store. A girl came in and she was sort of creative and said you should try something different and use only one ‘S’. I did that for about two or three years and then went back to two words ever since.
Did you ever imagine that 40 years later, you would still be the face of the adidas Stan Smith?
No, I never thought it would last beyond my initial cotnract with adidas of 5 years. After the first contract, we did another 5 years. I always thought that it would be the end after the end of each 5 years.
Everything has its life-cycle. But this thing has taken a life of its own. As I said before, most of the young people that buy the shoe might not necessarily know what kind of tennis player I was or even who I was.
Is that something you wish could have been changed up a bit? Maybe that your background as a tennis player was brought to the forefront more?
That’s life… I remember Bjorn Borg was one of the greatest players of all-time and I remember giving a clinic about 3 years after he had retired to 10 and 12 year olds. I asked “How many of you want to be like Bjorn Borg?” They looked at me with blank stares like “Who is he?”. Maybe that’s something that speaks about the shoe itself. A lot of people hear my name and they think of the shoe first and not tennis or me as a player. It’s a strange relationship.
I think in terms of adidas, there isn’t quite a model that resonates to the same effect.
Alongside my shoe there were some other notables like the Nastase which was fairly popular. The Laver was also pretty popular. But I think you can’t really do that much with the other styles compared to the Stan Smith and that’s something we’ve seen over the last 5-6 years.
If you look back on everything around you and the 60th anniversary of adidas, how do you feel as a long-time adidas endorsee?
I’ve been around with adidas for almost 40 years. It’s a great brand that started out with quality in their shoes and that was the whole emphasis of Adi Dassler. He was really committed to making a high-quality shoe. And since then, if you stick with that philosophy through footwear and clothing, it has seen its share of ups and downs as well but overall the brand has been tremendous. The tennis reputation has been great and I’m very proud to be affiliated with it. I feel like part of the family.
For sure, I mean you have your own corner here dedicated to your shoe and your time with adidas.
I was thinking about it and I don’t think there have been very many people who have been around the company as long as I have (approximately 40 years). I’m not sure if there are some senior guys that have been around as long I have in terms of those who do all the work.
Anytime 40 years with any company is remarkable. Especially given the current environment, many people are jumping around brand to brand.
That’s a good point. When I was first with Wilson racquets and had my name on it for 20 years, I always felt you should always stick around with the same brand for your entire career. I always felt you should be loyal to those companies that gave you a chance but in reality when somebody leaves adidas, where do you go to replace them? They go to various other sports brands to look for some new endorsees.
Brand affiliation and loyalty nowadays is nowhere near where it was in the past. Especially given the frequency in which endorsements are handed out.
In the States you would once see a guy play out his whole career with one team, now it’s a rarity. I love the company and I’m glad to see it has done well.
With the numerous products releasing as part the adidas 60th anniversary, do you have any special products lined up?
Well, I guess when I think about it… [laughs] I always come back to this one [points to feet]. How can you really improve upon that one and this is the one that sells the best (white/green colorway).
There’s also some other nice recent releases such as the red nubuck version as well as in blue.
My kids and their friends really enjoyed the nubuck styles when they first came out approximately 10 years ago, they’re really comfortable. There’s so many different styles out there, in Paris last year they had a white with pink polka dots, red with white polka dots and a black with white polka dots. This year they had one that came to a point as well as one’s in boot styles. There have been some pretty funky-looking styles.
Do you keep an archive of all the shoes over the years?
I kept some, maybe 5 to 10. I wish I would have kept a few more. In Australia I ran into a magazine…
SneakerFreaker? Good peoples over there.
Yea, that was the first time I had seen them in a magazine as collectibles.
There’s definitely a hobby and market for collectible sneakers. The whole sneaker culture and fans of your era can definitely see some iconic points in your shoe that you wore while playing in your shoe, no different that say Michael Jordan and his line of shoes. Thank you for your time Mr. Smith, do you have any closing words?
Thanks so much for the opportunity and support of the Stan Smith over the years and the adidas 60th anniversary.
Interview: Eugene Kan
Photography: Season Chan