It was nearing dusk at Estero Beach, less than 100 miles down the wild, beautiful Baja California coast from Tijuana. Across the churning bay stood the twin of Honolulu's Diamond Head, a rocky promontory called Punta Banda, which in minutes would be just a massive silhouette against the fast-sinking sun. The fishing camp behind was out of sight and out of mind, and a chilled visitor standing on the sand facing the bay thought that Estero must have been the same—desolate and lovely—as when the Spaniards arrived 440 years ago.
Then, roaring along the wide, empty beach came a mechanical intruder, a jeep, and running behind it were four men straining to keep up. The tallest of them, a blond with the beginnings of a fine Viking beard, was Stan Smith. In this unlikely spot, so far in mood and miles from Wimbledon's strawberries and the September clamminess of Forest Hills, he was finishing the first day of a campaign he hopes will make him once again the finest tennis player in America and maybe the world.
The commandant of the jeep, alternately ordering the driver to speed up and slow down, was George Toley, 58, the tennis coach at USC and a man so at home in Mexico that when he mixes margaritas in his hotel room he can actually make the salt stick to the rims of the plastic glasses. Three different Mexican Davis Cup captains have played on his teams. He helped the late Rafael Osuna become U.S. champion, and Mexico's current star, 21-year-old Raul Ramirez, has been his pupil since he could barely see over the net.
Toley is a pro's pro, the fellow ex-Trojan players go back to for refresher courses and injections of common sense. He, not the scenery or the enchiladas, was the reason Smith was in Baja with his former Davis Cup doubles partner, Erik van Dillen, Ramirez, who lives six miles north in Ensenada, and a promising 15-year-old Mexican, Mark Novelo.
Toley, Smith, van Dillen and their wives were staying at the Estero Beach resort hotel run by Novelo's father and founded in 1939 by his grandfather, an Ensenada businessman who went to Estero one day to buy some shark liver and ended up purchasing the current site of the hotel for $400. It has one tennis court, cement, snuggled up against a little hill on which sits the Novelo home.
Smith and his wife Margie arrived in Baja the day after Christmas, having just concluded a 22-stop honeymoon trip that included stays in California, Australia, Bali, Fiji and Hawaii, where Stan hefted a racket for the first time in more than a month. It was his longest respite from tennis since he got out of college, and he needed it badly.
Just two years ago Stanley Roger Smith was the dominant player in the world. He won Forest Hills in 1971, followed that with the Wimbledon championship in 1972 and topped that soon afterward by leading the U.S. Davis Cup team to victory in Bucharest despite hostile crowds, myopic linesmen and a slow playing surface that was unsuitable for his big-serve style. Released from what must have been the most KP-free and lucrative Army duty any private ever had, Smith joined Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis Tour and in the spring of 1973 won both the doubles and singles championships. It seemed he was capable of winning the grinding new grand slam of tennis: WCT, Wimbledon, Forest Hills and the Commercial Union Grand Prix—the two big tours and the two big tournaments.
Seven months later he was in a New York hospital for a complete physical checkup. He was underweight and dejected after a disappointing summer and fall in which he lost a close, critical Davis Cup match to John Newcombe and was twice defeated by Jimmy Connors.
His eight hours in the hospital turned up nothing but the obvious: Smith had a near-terminal case of tennis indigestion, his eyes were turning tennis-ball yellow and his heart was pumping Gatorade. The cure prescribed for early 1974 was rest, but that did not work out so well either. He loafed and played some exhibitions while the Davis Cup team went off to Bogot� without him—and lost. Although he won $139,120 in 1974, it was a mediocre year by his standards.
"It finally came to a climax whereby he just couldn't play," says Jack Kramer, head of the Players' Association. "He didn't want to play, in my opinion, and he lost confidence. He won hardly anything and he lost to a lot of really inferior players, something he hadn't done before.