The divorce rate between professional tennis players and their coaches is exceedingly high.
That makes Bryan Smith’s 18-year stint as ATP Tour pro Rajeev Ram’s coach even more special.
“I always joke that you don’t pay me enough, so I can tell you the truth. You’re not the reason I make a living,” said Smith a two-time state high school singles champion for Center Grove in the early-1990s.
“Tennis is a sport like golf. You can fire your coach anytime you want. If you don’t have a result you like or don’t like what they have to say, you don’t have to keep them.
“That’s different than most other sports. We’re good enough friends and we’ve known each other longer than maybe it’s different than some of the coaches out there. I’m concerned with him as a person as much as I am the tennis aspect. With me being with him so long, it’s a different relationship than most of the players have.”
Ram, 32, agreed it’s rare for professional tennis players to have such a long connection.
“The biggest part of our relationship is that there is a mutual trust and respect,” Ram said. “It’s difficult to find people that have your best interest. As a player you want to keep those people around.
“I felt from the beginning if he said something I agreed with or didn’t, it was always with the best intentions.”
Smith began working with Ram, then 14, when Smith was a pro at Carmel Racquet Club. Ram, a Carmel High School graduate, played one season at the University of Illinois before becoming a touring pro in 2004.
Smith, who turns 42 on Aug. 10 and lives on the southside of Indianapolis, is now as a teaching pro in his second year at the Washington Township program at North Central High School courts in Indianapolis.
Smith and his father, Jeff, previously taught in Center Grove’s summer program for several years.
Ram reached a ATP Tour career-high ranking of 56th in singles in April and is currently ranked a career-high No. 24 in doubles.
“I can easily say my career wouldn’t be what it is if Bryan wasn’t my coach,” Ram said. “It’s certainly something I’m grateful for.”
At first, Smith was able to use his tennis smarts to get the best of Ram in practice matches.
“When he was 14, I could beat him a lot of different ways and I could tell him what happened and explain to him what he wasn’t very good at,” said Smith, who played at Purdue and Ball State.
“At the time, I knew how to push people and get them to work hard. But I’ve never really been with someone who learns the way that he does.
“If I told him something, he would look at me and say, ‘I don’t think that’s right.’ I thought this kid can be good, but if I try to push we’re not going to be a player-coach or player-friend or anything. I backed off and explained a lot to him. I’d say both of us got a lot out of it.”
Smith said he and Ram would often watch videotapes.
“(Ram) can mimic anyone if he watches them for five or 10 minutes,” Smith said.
Ram and Smith would watch tapes of former professional men’s tennis stars Pete Sampras, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg at Grand Slams events.
Smith studying the tapes was beneficial to both.
“It made me a better coach because I had to watch a lot of video and pay attention to what they were doing,” Smith said. “We could discuss or argue what they were doing whether it be footwork or point of contact.
“A lot of things I thought were true. I was wrong on certain things. It definitely helped me with juniors that I have.”
Ram said they still argue with each other, but it’s a lot easier to check video now. Sometimes, they’ll look on their smartphone while practicing on the court.
Smith’s early patience was key.
“If someone tells me something about tennis, I would sometimes say I don’t necessarily agree with it,” Ram said. “You have to prove it to me. He was willing to take the time and talk through some stuff.
“It also helped when he was beating me when we first started because he could tell me why he was beating me. It really helped my development process to realize where my weaknesses were.”
Smith traveled with Ram a few weeks here and there when Ram first turned pro. Smith rarely traveled for several years, but started going with Ram to the U.S. Open a few years ago.
“If he felt like he was struggling, I would go to a tournament,” Smith said.
Ram said it actually works well if he can play a few weeks in a row and then come back to take a practice week with Smith.
This year Smith went with Ram to the Australian Open and to Wimbledon for the first time. Ram and doubles partner Raven Klassen reached the quarterfinals at Australian Open and semifinals at Wimbledon.
THE SMITH FILE
Name: Bryan Smith
Personal: The 1993 Center Grove High School graduate won state high school singles titles in 1990 and 1992. Played No. 1 singles for Purdue before transferring to Ball State.
Named Mid-American Conference Player of the Year for the 1997-98 season. Smith also served as head pro of Indianapolis Tennis Center before it closed. His father, Jeff, is a tennis pro who works with him in the Washington Township program. Smith has one son Sajin, who will be a Perry Meridian High School freshman tennis player this fall.
On career: “I’ve been lucky I enjoy what I do. I enjoy working with the kids.”