Catching Up With... Liz Smylie

As a young girl in Perth, Liz Smylie dreamed of playing at Wimbledon. The Aussie did more than that, winning the doubles in 1985.

Published June 26, 2011 07:39

Catching Up With... Liz Smylie
Liz Smylie

Raised in the best Australian grass court traditions, Liz Smylie enjoyed a 15-year pro career. While she won two titles and peaked at No.20 in singles, she found particular success in doubles, winning 32 titles and rising as high as No.5. At Wimbledon in 1985, the year she beat then world No.3 Hana Mandlikova in singles, Smylie partnered with Kathy Jordan to win the doubles - ending the 109 match winning streak of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in the final. All up Smylie contested 12 Grand Slam finals, also winning three mixed majors, including Wimbledon with John Fitzgerald in 1991, and the US Open twice. This fortnight she's back at The Championships, lending her expertise and passion to the BBC's commentary team.

Liz, how did you get into tennis?
I'm the youngest of a very large Catholic family, and I started tennis because it was the family thing to do. We had one car, and if that one car went to the beach, everybody went. If the car went to the tennis courts or the cricket oval - my brother played cricket for Western Australia - everybody went. It was a social, family thing. If I was bored my mother would suggest I go hit a ball against a brick wall in our backyard. Well, I ended up hitting so much that I ruined the grass and they put pavers down. But I didn't start tennis because my parents wanted me to be a Wimbledon champion, even though that's what I dreamed of from quite early on.

Did you have a tennis idol when you were a kid?
Evonne Goolagong was always my idol - she was the bee's knees as far as I was concerned. I was eight when I started playing tournaments, in 1971, which of course was the year she won Wimbledon for the first time. I won a competition held in Kings Park, Perth, and Evonne was there and she gave me a racquet... a Margaret Court racquet... which I played with for years. Then she won Wimbledon again in 1980, which happened to be the first year I played the junior event.

What sort of player were you?
I grew up in Perth, on grass. So while I had a slice backhand my shots were essentially flat. A flat serve, and I could volley. Initially I had a bit of a funky forehand thing happening, but when I was 15 my coach and I worked on changing it. I remember it took all winter to do, but it turned into quite a good shot. My best shot.

Who was your toughest opponent?
Anyone on clay! I had some success against Martina in doubles and mixed, but I never beat her in singles. I played Billie Jean one year at Wimbledon and she was tough. I don't think I ever played singles against Chrissie. In 1983 I played Steffi Graf on an outside court at the Australian Open when it was still played at Kooyong - in fact, it was her first Grand Slam match. I had just won the first set when she slid into the back fence and broke her thumb. I never played her again in singles, so I'm actually one of the few people with a winning record against Steffi, in singles, at Grand Slams! No matter that she was about eight and a half at the time! 

What was your favorite tournament?
Growing up in Perth, huddled around the fire in the middle of the night watching the television, Wimbledon was always the place I dreamed of playing. And the Australian Open, especially at Kooyong, will always be special. I've got really clear memories of being in the tournament office, which was a caravan underneath the centre court stands, begging for a lunch ticket. If you lost you didn't get one! I know the Australian Open had to move on, but it lost something when it did. It's important that we remember where the tournament came from… it is an event steeped not just in tennis history but the social fabric of the country.

Is there a match from your career that still stands out?
It was in 1984. We were playing Fed Cup in São Paolo, Brazil and I was up against a girl from Argentina called Ivanna Madruga. She was so good on clay, whereas I was hopeless... it really was not my favorite surface. I can't remember the score, but it went on forever and I ended up winning - and to this day I don't know how. I was hyperventilating and I recall Judy Dalton, who was our captain, giving me a paper bag to breathe into on changeovers.

Would you have liked to play in another era?
The profile and prize money nowadays is great, no doubt about it. But I was still lucky enough to reap the benefits of the efforts of people like Billie Jean, Chrissie, Martina, Judy, Julie Heldman… the women who launched the tour and made its name. When they started out there was no money, and they fought long and hard to have any profile for women's tennis. It was very fortunate Virginia Slims got involved, and that when cigarette advertising became too difficult an issue, Kraft, another Philip Morris company, took over. I came along in time to feel a direct link with that history.

Was retirement from the tour a difficult transition for you?
No, not at all. I have three children and my eldest, Laura, turned 19 in April. She was a tour baby - she was born in the April, and I played Wimbledon in the June that same year. She went everywhere, took her first steps in the locker room at the Australian Open. So we traveled with her, and then our second daughter, Jordan, came along three years later. In '97 I just played doubles at a couple of events, including Wimbledon, and after that it was time. Jordan was 16 in May, and my son, Elvis, was nine in April.

So you're an Elvis Presley fan?
My husband, Pete, got me in a weak moment! When we married, he and Elvis were kind of a package deal... he'd seen Elvis in concert and got into some mischief at Graceland before it was a museum… though we probably don't need to go there! When we found out we were having a boy, someone had a look at my stomach and said 'Elvis is in the building' and from that moment on he was Elvis. My friends gave me 10 pairs of blue suede shoes at my baby shower. Our Elvis is growing into his name… he's actually a bit of a fun character.

Do your kids play tennis?
My girls really don't play - one has played school tennis - but Elvis plays quite a bit. Pete played on the ATP Tour, so people find it amazing that our children aren't on the junior circuit or whatever. You would think between the two of us, the genes were pretty good. But I would never push them into it. I saw too many parents who were quite extreme with their children and I never, ever wanted to be a parent like that.

Do you have any regrets?
Oh, I wish I'd won more Grand Slams. I got to a lot of finals and won four. I think it doesn't matter how good a career is, people will always think, gee I wish I'd won that one. There's always going to be matches that get away from you, for whatever reason, and whatever your level.

What do you like about commentary? What's the challenge?
I know what I like I like to hear, which is not too much talking. You have to give the audience things they don't already know or that they can't read somewhere… to me, that's the challenge and the insight I like to give. As well as the BBC I do work for ABC Radio at home, which really gives me the time to talk about tennis as a great thing to do.

Whose game do you admire the current crop of players?
If I had to play like someone who's playing today, I would like to think I could play like Li Na. She has a good serve, flat groundies and nice variety on the backhand side, including some slice. She doesn't quite have the huge power that Serena does, but overall her game is pretty nice. I'd like her to serve and volley a little more, though.

How do you feel about the way the game is played today?
Even though the girls do what they do really well, there are some things they don't do so well. And that's probably not their fault. The court surfaces have something to do with it... they don't have to hit a slice because they don't play as much on grass as we did. And the coaches aren't teaching them to transition from the baseline to the service line with a slice - they hit the daylights out of the ball and then run forward. It's just a different way of playing. But they are fantastic athletes - they get around the court unbelievably well. I'd just like to see more variety.

Aside from your family, what else keeps you busy these days?
Just over two years ago we bought a travel agency on the Gold Coast, so we work in that. But I think when your children are the age mine are, your life pretty much revolves around them. The older one is in her second year of university now... they start having their own lives. But once you become a parent, that's always going to be a huge part of your life.

You were tournament director of the popular Gold Coast event for many years. Do you miss it?
Yeah, and you know what? I think I did a good job. We won the WTA award for best tournament, voted by the players. We attracted the likes of Hingis, Davenport, Kournikova, Henin, Li, Schiavone, Safina, Sam Stosur of course… and then Hingis again when she returned to the tour in 2006, which was the biggest news in sports that week. Over the years we had wonderful fields, and that was something I was really proud of.

How do you feel about the way Wimbledon has evolved over the years?
The All England Club does an unbelievable job. They are the true trailblazers in their ability to be able to remind people, without going to the past in a heavy handed way, of what they are witnessing. The past plays such a huge part in where we are now. I go back to the museum every year.

What has tennis meant to you?
 It's not until you get off the tour that you realize what you had. Everyone's focused on winning, that's the primary concern. But thanks to tennis I've got a handful of really good friends I've known for 30 or 40 years. I love going to our WTA reunions... for me there's an affinity among tennis people, players and those on the administrative side. I hope today's generation will have that. It's great that the girls can afford to travel with their teams and family members - it's really hard to travel by yourself - but it's also important not to be too insular. My parents, in their wisdom, saw the bigger picture of what tennis could be in my life. A lifelong thing.

Liz Smylie's career highlights:

Singles titles: W (2): 1983 Kansas City, 1987 Oklahoma City
Best Grand Slam singles result: QF (1): 1987 Australian Open
Doubles Titles: W (32)
Best Grand Slam doubles result: W (1): 1985 Wimbledon; R-Up (4): 1987 Wimbledon (w/Nagelsen), 1987 US Open (w/Jordan), 1990 Wimbledon (w/Jordan), 1993 Australian Open (w/Shriver)
Best Grand Slam mixed doubles result: W (3): 1983 US Open (w/Fitzgerald), 1990 US Open (w/Woodbridge), 1991 Wimbledon (w/Fitzgerald)
Won WTA Championships doubles in 1990 (w/Jordan)
Won Olympic bronze medal in doubles at 1988 Seoul (w/Turnbull)
Played 31 Fed Cup ties over 10 years (24-13 record across singles and doubles; member of two runner-up squads)

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