With Duke’s 7-0 win over No. 19 Clemson Saturday, Ramsey Smith earned his 100th win as the team’s head coach in just his fifth year on the job. A former standout player for the Blue Devils from 1997-2001, Smith also became the first person in program history to win 100 singles matches and 100 doubles matches, as well as 100 matches as a coach.
But Smith’s win totals as a player and coach reflect only part of his impact on the Duke tennis program.
“I just feel really fortunate,” Smith said of the accomplishment. “I just feel really lucky to have been able to play tennis at Duke and to be the head coach at my alma mater.”
Deciding to play for the Blue Devils in 1997, Smith joined the recruiting class of Marko Cerenko, Andres Pedroso and Ted Rueger. The group would finish their four years without losing a single ACC match, and three of the four—Cerenko, Pedroso and Smith—recorded 100 singles wins in their careers.
“By far the best tennis experience I ever had was at Duke [as a player],” Smith said. “I fell in love with the team concept, and it’s something a little foreign to tennis.”
Smith left Duke with 118 career singles wins—then a program record—and 103 career doubles wins.
“[Smith is] a fantastically charismatic guy and just a great athlete,” said Doug Root, Smith’s doubles partner for 31 of the 103 wins. “He’s one of the most competitive guys I know so having him as a partner and a teammate was great.”
After graduation, Smith competed on the pro circuit for a year, but a torn shoulder labrum and two surgeries ended his playing career.
He tried his hand as a fly-fishing guide, got his real estate license and considered a banking career following his decision to stop playing professionally.
“I was pretty close to taking a [banking] job up in New York, but something always pulled me back to tennis, and specifically back to college tennis,” Smith said.
Smith found that opportunity when an assistant coaching position opened up under his former coach at Duke, Jay Lapidus. Smith worked as an assistant coach and then an associate head coach under Lapidus until 2008, when he succeeded Lapidus as the team’s head coach.
Inheriting a team that was coming off its first losing season since 1970, Smith coached Duke to a 16-9 record in his first year and has only improved since.
“He won’t say it himself, but getting 100 [wins] in your first five years, that’s pretty damn good, especially considering the schedule we play,” assistant coach Jonathan Stokke said. “We’re in a pretty tough conference.”
One key to Smith’s success has been his ability to promote the team mentality and work ethic that had guided his four years as a player.
“He has become very good at reading the team and recruiting players that want to work as hard as he did when he prepared to compete himself,” Stan Smith, Ramsey’s father and former world No.1 tennis player, wrote in an email. “He has had to be tough sometimes to instill the ‘Duke tradition’ that he had when playing there when Duke didn’t lose any ACC matches.”
In addition to the value of having experience on a successful college team, Smith can also relate to his players as a former student.
“With tennis, everyone sees things differently,” Smith said. “I knew if I coached everyone how I wanted to be coached, I wasn’t going to be successful.... The biggest thing is really getting to know your players and getting to know what makes them tick. I feel like I have a really huge advantage having been at Duke, having taken the same classes, the same professors, knowing the social life, knowing the pressures on the academic side.”
That knowledge of what his athletes’ lives are like off the court has helped ensure strong chemistry between the players and the coaching staff.
“He has a good pulse of the team, and having been here and gone through the same stuff can only help,” Stokke said. “He’s not guessing what they’re going through. He knows what they’re going through.”
Duke senior Henrique Cunha, the nation’s third ranked player and Smith’s first recruit as a head coach, found great appeal in playing for a coach who knew the program from both sides. The Brazil native said Smith helped him adjust to the culture, the food and the academics at Duke.
“What most people don’t know is that he’s a 10-times better person than he is a coach,” Cunha said. “He really helps out the players when we need help.”
In addition to helping new players acclimate to the college tennis experience, Smith has established a better relationship with the program’s alumni—a project he’s worked on since joining the coaching staff.
Root, who now works with Greystar Real Estate Partners, has mentored several players.
“[Smith has] realized that he’s getting to prepare these guys for the next step of their lives, whether it’s professional tennis or the business world, or just being a mentor to them and instilling good values and helping them just be successful in life,” Root said. “It’s certainly a strength of his—being a mentor.”
Regarding his goals on the court, Smith has some unfinished business.
As a player, Smith’s teams fell in the round of eight in the national tournament each of his last three seasons. As a coach, Smith’s team made its first round of eight appearance last season, following two years of dropping out in the round of 16.
At 18-4 so far this season, Duke ranks ninth in the country and has the opportunity to go one step further and make its first national semifinals appearance.
“He’s done a fantastic job in terms of taking the team back to top five,” Lapidus said. “I’m thinking in the next several years, they will have a chance to win the whole thing.”