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Art Smith Stays Strong on the Court

Photo courtesy of Art Smith

by Calli Townsend

Not even broken ribs or a 300-mile road trip have been able to stop Art Smith from playing in each of the 64 annual Francis J. Robinson tennis tournaments.

“I always think, ‘I’ve got to be healthy enough to play in the Robinson,’” Smith said. “I’m not going to be winning any more at age 80, I’m just lucky to have played. I played doubles this past week.” 

Smith started playing tennis in 1955 as a ninth grader. Since then, he’s played at the No. 1 singles spot on both the Port Huron High and the Albion College varsity teams. He’s also won 34 different Robinson titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles and was runner-up 30 times.  

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“I got into tennis quite by accident,” he said. “I was on the basketball team, but I wasn’t a starter. I wasn’t that great an athlete. It was coming to be spring time, and the coach who coached all the sports decided to have this little junior high tournament for the city.” 

The coach picked two of the top basketball players to try out for the tennis team, and Smith was not one of them. However, that soon changed. 

“One of the two guys did something wrong in a class and got a detention over the noon hour when he was going to teach these two guys,” Smith said. “I was walking by and he happened to see me and asked me if I’d like to try. So I tried and things started to work out pretty good.”

After graduating high school in 1958, Smith went on to play at Albion College, where he got to play some of the nation’s top players. 

“I played against some really tough competition. In that day, Albion was part of the MIAA, and one of the teams in there was Kalamazoo, and Kalamazoo was nationally ranked. It was a real treat to play those guys,” he said. “If you were on their team, you were a national player. That was really the height of it, when I got to play against some of Kalamazoo’s top people. I didn’t win, but I played well.”

And he never failed to bring that experience back to Port Huron each year for the Robinson. He won his first 18-and-under singles title in 1959. Then from 1962 to 1966 he won the men’s singles title five consecutive times. 

Once his college career came to an end in 1962, Smith married his wife Sue and they moved to Cincinnati for a year where he quickly found some courts to keep his game sharp. He also taught her how to play, and later, their entire family would learn to play and enjoy the game together. 

In Cincinnati, he befriended a Bancroft racket salesman and the two would enter tournaments together, including the Robinson. 

“I found tennis courts there and ended up teaming up with a guy who was the representative for Bancroft tennis rackets out there,” Smith said. “He and I went around and played some really good tournaments. It was fun playing with him because he knew all the players because he was a racket salesman.”

While he said he can’t pick just one favorite memory, he said a special moment came after winning that fifth title. Each year a committee chooses the Francis J. Robinson Sportsmanship award to the player who might not have been the best, but showed good character on and off the court. 

“I was on the committee back then, we had picked someone else,” Smith said. “And then they all went behind my back so I was thinking I knew who they were naming, but they changed it when they made the announcement that it was me, so that was kind of special.”

The late Robinson’s father was there to give Smith the trophy, which made it even more meaningful, Smith said, because he knew the family well.

Part of that character includes Smith’s resilience and strength, which he proved years later in the early 90s. He was on a golf course with a friend one morning and he climbed up a mogul to get a better view. 

“As I walked down, I slipped because the grass was wet and cracked a couple of ribs and the Robinson was like 10 days away,” he said. 

But that didn’t stop him. 

“I had to serve underhand, but I still won a match,” he said. “And then I played this one guy who was pretty good. He was expecting to have a good match with me, and I was up 2-1, and then he realized something’s wrong over there on the other side and he just took me apart after that.” 

Another great memory was just a few years ago, in the 60th annual Robinson tournament, when his entire family played. 

“My wife and I have three children, and each one of them have two children of their own, so we have six grandchildren, three boys and three girls,” he said. “Our kids all grew up knowing about the Robinson and then we had grandkids play. We all played in the 60th, every one of our family playing in that tournament. That was pretty neat.” 

Smith has had a great career with many trophies and memories. He said he still loves the game and isn’t ready to slow down just yet. 

“I play all year long, usually once a week. I still love to play singles,” he said. “It’s been so far so good. I’m sure it’ll come to an end some day, but I haven’t reached that day yet.”

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