Like Father, Like Son for USC Coach and Freshman|
March 5, 2015
Peter Smith is a father, a partner and a coach.
He just happens to be all of the above to USC freshman Tanner Smith.
As if five NCAA team titles and two Wilson/ITA Coach of the Year honors weren't enough, Peter teamed with Tanner to capture USTA National Father-Son Championships on hard and clay courts last year. He also welcomed his first-born as a walk-on over the fall.
"If anything, my dad being the coach is a motivator," Tanner said after winning his dual-match debut on Jan. 19. "It's not always perfect, but you've just got to know: The guy's won five out of six now. He knows what he's talking about."
Trojan tennis has seen its share of father-son success. Peter's predecessor, Dick Leach, coached his boys Rick and Jonathan at USC and partnered them to 13 National Father-Son titles.
A sibling or two may be following in 19-year-old Tanner's footsteps as well. Five-star recruit Riley Smith, 17, has verbally committed to USC and 14-year-old Colter Smith is highly interested.
While their peers are considering college visits, Peter's teens want four more years of fatherly advice.
"He's an intense partner and he's a strict dad," said Tanner. "But as a coach, he's very laid back. We have so much fun on the court. Our practices are a blast."
Now in his 13th season at USC, Peter has raised his sons alongside two-time ITA Player of the Year Steve Johnson and 2008 ITA Doubles Team of the Year Robert Farah and Kaes Van't Hof.
Peter, himself, is one of the most prolific adult players in the country. He swept singles and doubles titles at the USTA National Men's 50s Hard Court Championships last July, then turned back the clock with the Men's 40s doubles crown in December.
Tanner's seen it all dating back to Peter's first 40s event at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club in 2004. The 9-year-old arrived with a parent and left with a partner.
"The Father-Son was at the same time," Peter recalled. "Tanner said: 'I want to play; I want to play.' I lied and said: 'You have to be 10.' Well, he shows up and on the first court are two kids younger than him playing with their fathers."
Peter talks to his 3rd doubles teams at the 2015 ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championship Peter returned to La Jolla in 2005 with a 10-year-old teammate. He and Tanner won a match that year, then another in 2006. By 2007, they reached the quarterfinals, falling to 21-time National Father-Son champs Jerry and Brett Morse-Karzen.
Only 12 at the time, Tanner was half the age of Jerry Morse-Karzen's son Brett, a Gustavus Adolphus alum.
"In a way, that's what made it so fun," said Tanner. "Everyone would look at me and say: 'This shrimp, there's no way he's going to do anything good.' But I always had decent hands at the net so I could take a lot of pace."
Just as Tanner was improving, he faced growing competition at home. Riley and Colter wanted to play doubles with dad too, causing "a lot of arguments at the house," according to Peter.
"There's a little bit of love there, but they also know that I'm a really good tennis player," said Peter. "I think they like winning, and they think they've got a good shot with me."
Peter put together a rotation schedule that called for him and Riley to compete at La Jolla in 2008 and 2009. One year later, the Smiths traveled to Boston and Cincinnati for Father-Son Nationals on grass and clay courts respectively. Tanner and Riley each reached the quarterfinals with their father.
"We're all rooting for each other," said Tanner. "But 364 days away from the tournament, we'll be talking about who gets to play."
It was Tanner's turn again in 2011, and he took full advantage. Peter and Tanner did not drop a set en route to the clay-court final in Cincinnati, where they fell to the Morse-Karzens 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
"Those are the matches that you lose and you still have fun," said Tanner. "You're out there competing as hard as you can with your dad against someone else and his dad. There are not too many times that you can do that."
Battle-tested from their run in the Queen City, Tanner and Peter advanced further than their family ever had at La Jolla. Their reward was a meeting with the eight-time defending champions.
Former Texas A&M players Brian and Brett Joelson entered their semifinal against Peter and Tanner on a 51-match tournament win streak. The Trojans overcame the odds to end the Aggies' run 6-7(9), 7-6(5), 7-5.
Tanner couldn't believe they won. Peter called it his "favorite match ever." But the Smiths didn't have time to celebrate. Later that day, ex-UCLA Bruin Travis Rettenmaier and his father Tom defeated them 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.
After losing two finals in three sets over a four-month span, Peter said that he and Tanner shed their share of tears.
Pain of a different kind followed when Tanner suffered an elbow injury that sidelined him for 17 months. He missed his entire junior season of high school tennis, not to mention the 2012 and 2013 Father-Son Nationals at La Jolla.
Peter reached the Round of 16 with Colter in 2012 and went all the way with Riley in 2013, edging the Joelsons 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the final.
"I love Riley and it was fun to watch him win," said Tanner. "But I would have much rather it been me out there."
With renewed motivation, Tanner returned to the father-son circuit on the clay courts of the Cincinnati Tennis Club last July. The kid who was once called "shrimp" was suddenly standing in at 6-foot-6.
Hopes for his first title with dad, however, appeared to be in jeopardy. Peter was dealing with back pain after playing 10 matches at the Men's 50s.
"He was still way better than when I was 10 years old, but it was like the roles were finally reversed," said Tanner. "I remember him being the guy leading me on the court and all of a sudden I had to take some middle balls that he couldn't move to."
The Smiths won 48 of 60 games en route to the final, then played the "best set of our lives" to take a 6-0 lead in the championship match. But Eoin and Tadhg Collins raised their level and extended the final into an all-too-familiar third set.
"We were down 4-3, Tanner with the serve," Peter recalled. "I was laying on my back every changeover, and Tanner, his arm was hurting. We kind-of looked at each other and said, 'All right, 10 minutes. We can do anything for 10 minutes.' Literally, we won 12 out of the next 13 points."
Just like that, Peter and Tanner overcame narrow losses and nagging injuries to become national champions, joining aFather-Son honor roll that includes Roy Emerson, Pancho Gonzalez and six other members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
A decade after 40-year-old Peter lied to 9-year-old Tanner, the Smiths added the hard-court title at La Jolla last December.
"Winning a Father-Son championship was every bit as good as winning an NCAA team championship," said Peter. "It's not exactly the same feeling. When you win an NCAA team championship, you have a team and you take them from A to Z. But when you're at a Father-Son, we've played for 10 years. It's pretty special to be on the court doing something you love with someone you love."
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