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Sports Desk: Tennis Titan

This could carry a New York dateline. The interview took place there in the quiet chasms of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium in Flushing Meadow, which will host, as it has for the last 40 years, the U.S. Open over Labor Day weekend – the last of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments played each year.

It is the biggest, and, perhaps, the most impactful. New York is smitten by the tennis competition, and the players are smitten by a visit to Manhattan, just like the rest of us. The U.S. Open attracts nearly three-quarters of a million tennis aficionados during a fortnight of competition, making it the biggest sporting event this side of the Olympics and the World Cup – but let’s not forget those two events don’t take place every year.

This colossus is run by a small-town Georgia boy who is a lawyer and a gentleman. Gordon Smith, who learned the finer points of tennis competition and organizational skills from the late Dan Magill, the legendary University of Georgia (UGA) tennis coach, is in step with a long-standing motto, “to make the best better.” Smith is one of three UGA law graduates who, two years ago, were managing three of the biggest sporting events in the world. In addition to Gordon, Mark Lewis ran the NCAA Final Four and Billy Payne was chair of the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters.

Who out there cannot be charmed when a small-town boy makes good? Gordon grew up in Rome and was attracted to tennis as a young boy. He was subsequently drawn to the UGA tennis program that Magill developed and managed.

Gordon’s passion for tennis equals that of his mentor, who would be overjoyed that one of his former captains has achieved the highest echelon of the game they loved. Magill lived to see Gordon reach his exalted level with the United States Tennis Association (USTA). And, Magill managed the luncheon when his protégé was elected to the Collegiate Tennis Hall of Fame, which is located on the UGA campus. (A doubles champion, Gordon played on teams that swept Southeastern conference titles from 1971-75.)

Gordon has a firm hand on the tiller when the U.S. Open takes place. He delegates and manages the championship adroitly. He interacts with the top professionals in the game, like Roger Federer and Serena Williams. The excitement of his job and the late summer championship inspire and resonate with him, although life in the Big Apple robs him of fishing and hunting opportunities, which is his only regret.

As executive director of USTA, Gordon not only runs the biggest tennis championship in the world, he heads up the organization’s efforts to grow the game. When the Open competition reaches conclusion, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center continues as a beehive of activity in the same stadium complex.

“Thousands of kids from all walks of life come and play tennis on the same courts where the U.S. Open is played,” Gordon says. “We are right in the heart of Queens. … You don’t have to have a lot of money and you don’t have to live in an expensive area to learn to play and enjoy this great sport.”

Growing the game is the objective of the USTA under Gordon’s direction. This has been a goal since he took over as executive director in 2007. Maybe the next Roger Federer will come from Queens. Why not? Sandy Koufax, the incomparable Dodger pitcher, grew up in Brooklyn.

Because of unpredictable weather, all grand slam tournaments have had to deal with rain delays, which complicate televising the championships. At the 2016 Open, Gordon achieved one of his major goals – the successful completion of a retractable roof over the stadium.

Gordon and his team negotiated a historic multi-million-dollar, 11-year contract with ESPN beginning in 2015. With a law degree from UGA and time spent in the practice of law, Gordon was comfortable leading his team in those negotiations.

In fact, he is comfortable in managing and directing all phases of the USTA’s programs and activities, mainly the U.S. Open Championship. Dan Magill would be extending the most enthusiastic high-five if he were still with us. He would be proud that his protégé has become one of the most influential officials in tennis worldwide.

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