There is a pride that comes with walking out on the court in a Duke jersey and representing the Blue Devils in a sport that you love. For head coach Ramsey Smith, that feeling of pride is one that is all too familiar.
Smith, a former Duke tennis player, lettered between 1998 and 2001 and currently ranks second all-time with 119 single victories for the Blue Devils. During his playing days, Smith helped his team win four ACC championships, earn four top-10 national rankings and reach three NCAA Tournament quarterfinal appearances.
After playing one year of professional tennis, Smith, 30, coached at the amateur level and considered professional opportunities beyond sports. But he came back to Duke for the 2005-2006 season as an assistant coach, and was named head coach at the start of 2008. Former head coach Jay Lapidus, who held the position for 18 years, left coaching to become director of tennis and groomed Smith for the role in his short time as an assistant and associate head coach.
The depth of the ACC has grown tremendously since Smith's time as an undergraduate, but he still sees playing at Duke as invaluable to his coaching abilities eight years later.
"I had a great four years here as a player," Smith said. "I really enjoyed it and had a great Duke experience.... Things have changed. When I was here, we went four years without losing an ACC match. The league has gotten so deep and so tough that now there are no easy matches. You can't take anything for granted."
Using his experiences of being successful in the ACC, Smith is able to show his players how to prepare for all those situations he has been in. In addition, he can relate to them about the struggles of maintaining a stringent course load. Thinking back to his times as a player, Smith talked about his desire to get back on the court.
"I still itch to get out there," Smith said. "I'd love to be out there [playing] because that is the fun part-putting yourself in a position where you can succeed in a competitive environment. It's actually a lot more draining to watch and coach than it is to play because you can't run around and you can't directly affect the match."
Although Smith is nostalgic for his time on the team, he has found himself on another sort of team in his first year with assistant coaches Josh Goffi and K.J. Hippensteel.
Smith sees his relationship with his fellow coaches-both of whom are former collegiate standouts near Smith's age-as the most enjoyable part of his first year as head coach. Goffi, who shares a similar tennis history with Smith, has been an especially valuable asset this year, Smith said.
"We are the same age and grew up playing South Carolina junior tennis together. We played each other in college when he was at Clemson and I was at Duke, and then when we were on the ATP Tour, we actually played each other a couple of times," Smith said. "We are both on the same wavelength and he isn't a normal assistant coach, as I give him a ton of responsibility.
"I was really lucky to get him and it's been fun to go through it with a friend and one of the most competitive people I've ever met."
With the regular season over, Duke is looking forward to the ACC tournament, as it plays Boston College in the first round Thursday. Despite a couple of ups and downs and some matches that Smith would have liked to have won, he was happy with how the season has gone so far.
"The best is seeing the guys improve and build confidence individually and become more mature as people too," he said. "The ultimate goal is to put another banner up in Sheffield Indoor, but we can't get too ahead of ourselves and we have to take it one game at a time."
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