Flames tennis star Deji Thomas-Smith describes his journey from Britain to the Mountain

Across the pond in London, England sits the childhood home of Liberty  tennis player Deji Thomas-Smith. This is the place in which Thomas-Smith was born, raised and lived until he moved to the States to pursue a college tennis career. 

Introduced to the game at just 8 years old, Thomas-Smith was instantly enchanted by the sport and decided to pursue it further. 

“I immediately loved (tennis) and decided I wanted to pursue that as a career. Once I got to be a little bit older and started taking it seriously, it began to affect my pathway of what I was going to do,” Thomas-Smith said. “I had to move schools so I could train more and take more time out to play tournaments. It was a good move, and my family was very supportive of it.”

After gaining some experience in the sport and realizing his potential, Thomas-Smith decided to take his young career to the next level, working his way up to becoming a nationally-ranked player in Great Britain. Rather than relying on skill alone, it was his mindset that set him up for success. 

“When I was 15, I started to play more tournaments, and then as I entered the 16-and-under category in England, I was ranked like 330th in the country. And then exactly one year later, I was 15th in the country,” Thomas-Smith said. “I kind of got used to losing. It made me not fearful of losing, and I knew how to lose. I knew if I lost then there was something I could work on and something to learn. It eventually clicked together and translated into having some success.”

Not only did this mindset allow Thomas-Smith to fly to the top of the rankings for his category, but it also motivated him to continue fighting and protect his spot. 

“Tennis is one of those sports that you always have to keep working. There’s always the people just below you trying to beat you and take your spot,” Thomas-Smith said. “You always have to be locked in. It’s kind of a battle that you’re always going through.”

Though Thomas-Smith was experiencing success early on in his career in the U.K., he was looking for a new way to push himself to reach the next level. This pursuit led him to the decision to attend college in the U.S. and experience what it is like to play tennis at a collegiate level.

“College wasn’t in my plans initially and then senior year of high school I thought maybe it was a good option to come to the States,” Thomas-Smith said. “I put my name out there and a few different coaches from different schools contacted me. The head coach from (Liberty) got in touch with me and I liked the sound of everything they’re saying, talking about the school and the program, and they showed keen interest in me. They came to see me in England for a little bit and then brought me over to Lynchburg for an official visit. I was able to see the campus for myself; after that, I was sold. I didn’t even visit the other schools; I was ready to sign with Liberty.”

Growing up in the U.K., Thomas-Smith had never experienced the emphasis on faith that he saw in America. It was not until Thomas-Smith arrived at Liberty that he learned more about Christianity and was shown what it meant to be a true disciple. 

“In England, it’s definitely more of a secular place, and whilst I kind of was taught and educated about different beliefs and religions from a young age, nothing was really explained in depth or encouraged to pursue,” Thomas-Smith said. “Only when I came to Liberty did, I realize there may be something more. At first, it was quite overwhelming, but once I kind of started to learn a bit more, ask questions and have questions asked to me was I able to get a deeper understanding of what faith means.”

After adjusting to the culture shock, Thomas-Smith noticed that Christianity was not just something his teammates and coaches talked about, but it is something that is lived on and off the court. 

“There’s a difference in the way people act, behave and carry themselves here. Without even having to speak to people, you can see a difference in them, mainly in the way that people care about you, even if they don’t know you,” Thomas-Smith said. “From professors who are graceful and understanding trying to help you out in class, to even my coaches caring more about me as a person rather than just a tennis player, there’s a special culture here and that is a very instrumental thing.”

Along with the personal growth Thomas-Smith has experienced playing for Liberty, he has also been pushed hard as a tennis player and focused on refining his skills on the court.

“Before I came to the States, I thought I was working hard, but I was maybe at 70%. It took me a semester to understand it, but the coaches didn’t give up on me,” Thomas-Smith said. “They pushed me until I had a breakthrough and began to work harder than I was. The intensity and the hunger here is much greater than what I experienced at home.”

Thomas-Smith earned a degree in exercise science and is now considering pursuing a master’s in business. Though his dream is to go pro in tennis, he remains focused on his studies and is still trying to discern what path the Lord has for him. He has plans to travel next summer in an attempt to get his foot in the door when it comes to playing professional tennis.

“I’m looking into how I can transition into playing professional tournaments. I’m planning on taking a few trips, maybe to Africa and around Europe to play some tournaments, and definitely some in England as well,” Thomas-Smith said. “It’s tough because pro tennis has an aspect of luck. It can be the case sometimes where you travel and don’t even get to play. You have to be lucky to get into a tournament if you don’t already have a professional ranking, and then you have to do well it to establish yourself and get a ranking — but it’s my goal to do that. I’m not stressed about it too much. I’m trusting where I’m at right now and I know if I keep my eyes focused on the right thing, it’ll work out.

White is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X

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