Wimbledon: Stan Smith has sold more than 100 million trainers but will always be remembered for more
‘STAN!’ shouts an older fan on the Wimbledon concourse, catching sight of a tall, smartly-dressed man in his 70s. Moving gracefully between the courts of the All England Club, his face hidden beneath a Panama hat, he blends in with the other patrons. Perhaps they are old friends.
A security guard ushers the gentleman into a members-only area and he heads up the stairs. The sunlight catches the Stan Smith branding on the back of his shoe and suddenly it makes sense.
Returning to the media workroom, I tell two colleagues that I have just seen the Stan Smith. Their eyes light up, for different reasons. ‘No way, look, I’m wearing his trainers!’ says the younger of the two, who is in his 20s. The older colleague in his 50s is taken by a moment of nostalgia, his thoughts going back to the day Smith beat Ilie Nastase in the 1972 final.
Wimbledon champion turned global fashion icon, Smith carries two separate identities. He agrees to meet outside the media centre at 1.30pm the next day and, right on time, turns up wearing a fresh pair of his trainers.
‘I’ll be in the Royal Box on Sunday, then I’m going to Scotland, playing a little golf. I don’t know who’ll be there but they always invite a lot of the men’s champions for the Sunday. Guys like Jan Kodes, Rod Laver, Neale Fraser.’
Stan Smith (pictured) made a name for himself during a successful 16-year tennis career
But after 100 million sales, most people know him as a shoe – the Stan Smith adidas trainer
The Stan Smith branding is seen on the back of one his iconic white trainers
What about the royals? ‘Kate should be there. I’ve given her some shoes a couple of times, for her kids. I wasn’t sure if it was allowed or not but I gave some Velcro ones for George and Charlotte three years ago. Two years ago, I gave a tiny baby shoe for Louis. They’ve probably grown out of them now. I’ll have to ask her if she’s having any more children!’
Smith is wearing last year’s anniversary shoe. One of four pairs he packed when he set off from his home in South Carolina. July 9, 1972 is printed on the inside, marking 50 years since his Grand Slam victory.
‘Where we are sat right now would have been the middle of Court Number One when I first came here,’ he recalls, in his soft Californian accent. ‘That was 1965. I must’ve been 19 then.
‘We’d probably be right on the side line. I played in the qualifier and I lost to a guy named Geoff Bluett. His name was pronounced “blew it” and I lost after being two sets up so it was appropriate. I ended up getting in as a lucky loser. One of my four goals was to win Wimbledon so it was a step in the right direction.
‘It’s very different now. In ’65, a guy from the US Tennis Association would give us £12 a day until you lost. They didn’t do players’ laundry like they do now, and we couldn’t afford to have our laundry done at the hotels so we had to go out and find the nearest laundromat!’
Smith stayed at a bed and breakfast up the road. There was no official car deal so a random vehicle would turn up outside each day to drive him to the meeting point at the secretary’s office. On one occasion, he recalls being picked up in a Rolls-Royce. On another, a Bentley.
By the time he was crowned champion in 1972, he had visited London enough times to make a few friends in the area. An American couple, the Catos, took him under their wing and would put him up in their spare room for the duration of the competition.
‘I stayed with them for four or five years, before I was married,’ says Smith, as imposing as ever at 6ft 4in. ‘I stayed in their youth bed which was about six-foot long and this wide [stretching out his arms] when I won Wimbledon in 1972.
Last year marked 50 years since Smith won Wimbledon, one of his two Grand Slams
Smith stayed at a bed and breakfast close to Wimbledon during the early stages of his career
‘Our match ended up getting rained out, so it was the first time the men’s final had been played on a Sunday. But we still had the Wimbledon Ball on the Saturday night, where I ended up cutting in to dance with Billie Jean King. The year before, I’d lost in the fifth set of the final to John Newcombe.
‘Against Nastase, I lost the first set like the year before, won the next two sets like the year before, lost the fourth set like the year before and then had match-point at 5-4. I didn’t break and then he was ahead 40-love at 5-6. After a couple of returns, it’s deuce and I hit a winner to get back to match-point again.
‘I got a good return in, he half-volleyed and came to the net, then I tried to lob over his head. It went onto the backhand side and he hit the smash, the net wobbled for about two seconds and the ball fell on his side. All of a sudden, it was over, and I threw my racket about 40 feet in the air.’
With his success on the court, life began to change. Smith became more than just a tennis player. Looking to secure a sponsorship deal with adidas for rackets, clothing and shoes, he ended up banking one of the biggest endorsements in sporting history.
‘It was right about the time I won Wimbledon that we cut the deal on the shoes,’ he says. ‘It was just before, in Paris, where it started. Horst Dassler, who was the son of Adi Dassler, wanted to meet at 12 o’clock. I told my agent I had a match at two o’clock and I didn’t want to meet right before a match, but it turned out Horst wanted to meet at midnight! He was one of those guys who worked around the clock.
Stylish Wimbledon champion Smith (pictured) sat down with Mail Sport’s Nik Simon
He has become a fashion icon since banking one of the biggest endorsements in sporting history with adidas
Fashion designer Stella McCartney (left) poses in Stan Smith shoes during her collaboration with adidas, while Victoria Beckham (right) is seen sporting a pair in New York
Special edition Kate Moss x Stan Smith trainers are displayed in London in 2013
‘Our first meeting was at a nightclub called Elle et Lui. It was a male impersonation club, where females dressed in tuxedos. He liked this place so that’s where I met him.
‘There was a group of us wearing a tennis shoe with Robert Haillet’s name on it. They wanted a stronger presence in the US and Haillet, who was the No 1 French player, was not that well known in the US. So for about four or five years they had my picture on the tongue and Robert’s name on the side. Eventually they took his name off.
‘We had a big party in Paris one time and the Guinness Book of Records came along. They gave a certificate for 70 million pairs sold, or something like that. Robert was there and so was his son, who was a couple of years younger than me. He knew the whole story. He was unlucky, in a way…’
Smith inadvertently became one of the most recognisable names in the clothing industry, selling 100 million shoes and counting. Around 100 of those pairs are in Smith’s personal wardrobe. Not bad for someone who claims he ‘wasn’t really into fashion’.
‘It was weird playing matches and looking down at my picture when I was returning serve. The ATP had a deal with adidas so 80 or so players got free clothes and shoes. That shoe was the first leather tennis shoe so it was a pretty big deal and a lot of players wanted to wear it.
‘It was always sort of strange but I got used to it after a while. Maybe 10 years or so. One guy liked my shoe but he had a deal with another company so he crossed my logo out with a sharpie and drew on his own company because he liked it so much.
‘It wasn’t a fashion shoe like it is now. It was the most high-tech shoe in the game, which is ironic because now It’s very low-tech. The Barricades are the Adidas shoe that the new generation of tennis players wear.’
Smith gives Catherine, Princess of Wales, a signed baby ‘Stan Smith’ trainer in the Royal Box
Smith says Hugh Grant (left) told him he wore a pair of trainers while kissing a girl for first time
Collaborations with Pharrell Williams (pictured left, sat with Smith), Raf Simons, and Balenciaga tapped into markets far and wide
David Beckham shares a laugh with Smith at the ATP World Tour finals at the O2 Arena in 2015
Nowadays, Stan Smiths are a beacon of pop culture. Worn by David Bowie and featured in the lyrics of Jay-Z’s multi-platinum albums.
Typically white leather with a flick of green, they are sold worldwide, stocked on the shelves of almost every sports shop. Collaborations with Pharrell Williams, Raf Simons, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney tapped into markets far and wide.
‘I didn’t know if he knew me but Hugh Grant leaned back in the Royal Box a few years ago and said, “The first girl I ever kissed, I was wearing your shoe”,’ he says with a smile. ‘The great thing is people wear it because they like it. They’re not getting paid to wear it. It’s been fun to see Obama wearing the shoe, Trumps wife Melania, Princess Di, Kate.
‘The thing is the shoe has been popular with both men and women. My favourite thing is to see a woman and her daughter wearing the shoe together, because most daughters wouldn’t be seen dead wearing the same clothes as their mother.
‘My book is called: “Stan Smith: Some people think I’m a shoe”. I should change it to most people think I’m a shoe! The average young person under 40 would have no idea I was a tennis player. Sometimes I see someone wearing my shoe and I ask how they keep their shoes so white. They look at me thinking, “Who is this idiot?” I realised early on that fame is sort of fleeting.’
But here in the confines of Wimbledon, where it often feels like time stands still, Stan Smith will always be remembered for one thing: his achievements with the racket. Trainers are banned in the Royal Box, anyway.