Getting To Know Justin Gimelstob

Getting To Know Justin Gimelstob

Getting To Know Justin Gimelstob

By Cindy Shmerler

[box title=”Got a question for Justin Gimelstob?” color=”#f41018″] He’ll be taking over USTA Florida’s Twitter account on February 16th at 10am. Submit your question via Twitter, using the hashtag #AskGimelstob, and follow @USTAFlorida on Twitter to connect with Justin on February 16th.[/box]

[frame align=”left”]gimelstob-12[/frame]Justin Gimelstob has beaten some of the best in the world—and not just on the tennis court. As a player, he was the No. 1-ranked junior in the country in the USTA boys’ 12, 14, 16 and 18 age divisions, winning the national championships in the 14, 16 and 18-and-unders. He was an NCAA doubles champion during a brief stint at UCLA, and also helped the Bruins to a runner-up finish to Stanford at the 1995 NCAA team championships.

When he turned pro in ’95, Gimelstob quickly caught the attention of fans, the media and his fellow players with colorful quips and one-liners, including his response to receiving a wild card into the ’95 U.S. Open. “I’m only seven matches away from winning my first Grand Slam,” he said before his first-round, five-set victory over 65th-ranked David Prinosil of Germany. (He then promptly lost in the next round to Dutchman Richard Krajicek.) But throughout a 12-year playing career, Gimelstob competed against and beat some of the best, including Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Patrick Rafter. He also won two major mixed doubles titles, the 1998 Australian and French Open, with partner Venus Williams, and was a member of the U.S. Davis Cup team.

Since his retirement in 2007, Gimelstob has let his mouth rather than his racket do the talking. He has been a commentator for Tennis Channel and has appeared loud—and sometimes controversially–on several radio shows. As a player representative on the board of the directors of the ATP, the governing body of men’s professional tennis, he fights for the advancement of the game and for enhanced prize money for lesser-ranked players. He has even joined the ATP Champions Tour for players over age 35, appearing for the first time as a “senior” at this year’s Delray Beach Open. And, in his newest incarnation, as a coach of top American John Isner, the 38-year-old Gimelstob is once again putting forth his two cents. Here he does more of the same.

Q: Are you really old enough to play “senior tennis”?

A: My body’s definitely old enough! I’ve got plenty of miles on my personal odometer. Those guys, [James] Blake, and [Mark] Phillippoussis are all in such great shape. It really depends how much you play, if you keep in shape and if you’re around the game. I’m 38 chronologically but there’s been a little more wear and tear on my body, especially my back.

Q: How much do you actually get on court these days?

A: I’ve played more in the last few months with John [Isner]. It goes in bunches. Sometimes I play with Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick and I even practice with Tommy Haas. I hit balls with the Bryans (Bob and Mike) when they need a righty. But I don’t play a lot which might be problematic when I have to play two matches in a day in Delray. I did play [Gentleman’s Invitational] doubles at Wimbledon last year [with Brit Chris Wilkinson] but that didn’t go too well. It was the most competitive tennis I’d played in a while.

Q: You played in Delray five times when you were on the ATP Tour and even reached the semifinals once and the quarterfinals another time. Are you excited to be back in South Florida?

A: I am so excited, especially because my grandmother lives nearby and my aunt and uncle do too. I’ve known [tournament director] Mark Baron and his family forever. I got to the semis my first time here in 1998 and then, in 2000, I lost in the quarters to Richard Fromberg in a tight three-setter after beating [then-world No. 25] Karim Alami. Just the idea now of being there as a player against Phillippoussis and Goran [Ivanisevic], and doing the television, and coaching, I mean, those are three things I’ve loved to do my whole life so it doesn’t get much better than this.

Q: Does it help your tennis to coach and broadcast at the same time?[frame align=”right”]Gimelstob-interviews-Rafael-Nadal[/frame]

A: I really believe that every broadcaster and coach should have to play a match every once in a while. It’s easy to see in an air conditioned booth high above the court what people are doing wrong and what they should be doing out there. But when you have to consider the nerves and expectations, then it’s completely different.

Q: You were so successful in junior tennis. What’s your most significant memory of playing at the National 12s level?

A: Junior tennis was such an interesting time for me because I had a lot of success. It was a real whirlwind and very intense but I had a great time. The best part is the friends I made. I remember that I played doubles with [former touring pro] Jan-Michael Gambill in the National 12 doubles and we won the tournament. Then, six years later, we played each other in the singles final of the National 18s in Kalamazoo. I lost the first set but came back and was up two sets to one and 5-4 in the fourth. We were both cramping but it was worse for him and he had to retire. This past Christmas morning I was in Hawaii and I hit with Jan-Michael. We have a life-long relationship and it’s so much fun when we get together. It’s the same way with Scott Humphries and Paul Goldstein. We catch up after 25 years and I get to hear about their kids. It’s so great that we’re still in each other’s lives.

Q: You graduated high school (highly acclaimed Newark Academy in New Jersey) a year early and went to UCLA at age 17. You left to turn pro but you were a really good student, right?

A: I had a 4.0 GPA my whole two years there. I had the highest GPA of anyone on the tennis team. I was a communications major but my favorite courses were in history. In fact, I’m still taking classes there and I just took one on geography and one on the history of early civilization. But I’m still probably a year and a half away from graduating.

Q: You had some pretty big wins in your career, including a five-setter over three-time French Open Gustavo Kuerten at Wimbledon in 1997 and a victory over Andre Agassi on the UCLA campus later that summer. What match throughout your career would you say was the most memorable?

A: I would say the win over Agassi just because it was Agassi. My best tennis was against [Patrick] Rafter (in Los Angeles in ’98) when he was the defending U.S. Open champ. I also took the first set from [seven-time champ] Pete Sampras at Wimbledon and I got to play Andre on Labor Day weekend at the U.S. Open. That’s enough memories to last a lifetime.

Q: You reached a career-high of No. 63 in the world but at one point you were predicted to be the “Tiger Woods of tennis.” Do you think there was a little too much hype when you turned pro in ’95?

A: Comparing me to Tiger Woods was more than a little overly ambitious. If I’m being truly honest, I never believed that I was that good. I wasn’t the level of athlete that Agassi and Sampras were. I’m not being self-deprecating. I simply couldn’t think or work to that level of achievement and, unfortunately, I knew it more than I should have.

Q: What do you think you should have done differently?

A: Everyone wishes they could have done better. I wish I had had things differently, stayed a little healthier, done a little better. I wish I had trained differently, handled the pressure the way I did in junior tennis. I probably lost more matches in my first year as a pro than I ever lost in my junior career. I wasn’t cutthroat enough. Intellectually I knew I was better than the other juniors but I wasn’t better than the other pros. But the sport has given me so much and probably the thing I am most proud of is that I am still in the game today.

Q: You serve on the board of directors of the ATP as a player representative. What is your greatest wish for the men’s game right now?

A: I do believe that the ATP needs to be more on the cutting edge. The sport is so steeped in tradition but we have to evolve. With television, there is the possibility for huge growth and financial viability. But what television viewers and producers want to know every time, like in every other sport, is who’s playing and how long will it last. In tennis, you can’t give them that answer but we really have to make some changes in that direction. It’s always difficult to change, especially given the history of tennis. But we did go from white tennis balls to yellow and we did adopt Hawk Eye line-calling technology which I really believe is the best innovation in the sport.

Q: You recently threw yet another hat on your head when you agreed to coach John Isner. Why did you make that decision and what do you think you can do for John?

A: It’s really exciting to work with John and help him grow. He has been so honest and candid in his willingness to get better. He has a great work ethic and commitment to become a better player. He’s really a great guy. Given the player-coach dynamic you really have to get along and I truly enjoy my time with him.

Q: What does he need to do to break back into the Top Ten?

A: He has such big weapons but he also has some liabilities. First he needs to prove his ability to be dangerous on all surfaces. Because of his size (6’9 as compared with Gimelstob’s 6’5), his mobility is suspect. And he needs to improve his backhand so he can become more comfortable moving forward. Lastly, he has to work on his technique on the volleys. Those are all pretty obvious things but what I really like is his willingness to be uncomfortable.

Q: Are you as worried about American men’s tennis as everyone else seems to be? Are there particular players, other than Isner, whose game you really like?

A: In American tennis you’ve got to like [Jack] Sock, [Sam] Querry and [Steve] Johnson but they all need to start taking their opportunities before it gets too late. But I’m also bullish on the next generation, especially guys like Jared Donaldson, Taylor Fritz and Stefan Kozlov.

Q: If you had the chance now to play anyone in history, dead or alive, who would you like to play?

A: I’ll tell you who I wouldn’t want to play. [Kei] Nishikori, [Milos] Raonic, [Novak] Djokovic. I guess the guy I’d really like to be on court with is Roger Federer just because what he has achieved is so special. To my mind, any opportunity to be in close proximity to Roger is time well spent.

Q: Your son Brandon is 18 months old. What sport, if any, would you like him to play?

A: Hmmm, that’s a tough one. My wife was a good soccer player and my roots are in tennis and basketball. My father-in-law is a very good golfer. I love tennis because of its individuality but I also see the value in team sports. I just hope he gets involved in sports. I’m a real believer in the virtue of all the incredible lessons that sports can teach you.

Cindy Shmerler is an award-winning tennis writer and broadcaster whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, New York Times, USA Today, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, magazines and tournament programs worldwide and on ESPN, Tennis Channel and USA Network. She is currently a contributing editor at Tennis Magazine and lives in New York and South Florida.