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Steve Flink: Gilbert Holds Court

10/13/2008 12:57:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Each and every time I get into a discussion about tennis with Brad Gilbert, I am very impressed by his boundless enthusiasm, his deep appreciation for the top players and their accomplishments, his capacity to break the game down with sweeping authority, and his clarity of vision about precisely what is happening on the court. Gilbert-the player who achieved a career high world ranking of No. 4, the man who has coached Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and Andy Murray among others, the commentator who has been so insightful at ESPN--- seems to always have his finger on the pulse of competitive tennis, which is why I touched base with him several days ago over the telephone to get his analysis of recent events and his perspective on what is ahead.

Does he feel that 2008 has been a particularly exhilarating campaign for the men's game with Rafael Nadal rising to the top of the ladder, with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray making big strides, with a cluster of young players progressing rapidly, and a revitalized Roger Federer capturing a fifth U.S. Open in a row for his 13th major? Gilbert responds, "Absolutely, it has been great. I think we are really headed into a great era because the level of play has really spiked up due to what I call the Nadal-Federer Effect. It is because of Federer and Nadal that these younger guys have pushed their games further at a faster rate. There is a big infusion of youth, and what jumps out to me more than anything else is how well these young guys move and what great athletes they are. The other big spike I have seen is that guys are finally catching up to the serve. When you see a massive serve now, it comes back a lot more."

Above all else, Gilbert loves the diversity at the top of the men's game. As he explains it, "I think it is exciting when one person doesn't dominate. Obviously, Fed has been great, Nadal has dominated on the clay, Djokovic is in there now and Murray is coming into it. The game is very deep, and in 2009 you've got Del Potro, Gulbis and Cilic ready to move into the mix as well. We are moving into a really good time for the game. You would hear people in the past saying for a while that the top ten was not as good at it used to be, but I am looking at it now and feeling we are heading into some "Nails Tennis' in my mind. All of a sudden you get to these majors and from the round of 16 through the quarters on, it is really rough stuff."

Given his sense of the tough terrain in the upper levels of the sport, how long does Gilbert expect Nadal to stay at No. 1 in the world and how many majors does he envision the Spaniard claiming across his career? He replies, "Nadal is going to be pushed hard by this next generation of players, from obviously Andy Murray and Djokovic to others. I think Del Potro is going to move up very quickly and Gulbis and Cilic are on their way. So Nadal's window for greatness is from 22 until he is 26. Fed just finished that period and that was the greatest time for Pete [Sampras]. Usually, if you are the best, that period from 22 to 26 is your chance to get the most you can. So I think Nadal is going to do great and he will be a rough customer for the next four or five years. He will win ten to 15 majors before he is through. But I also expect these young guys to crash the party pretty quickly. I don't know if Nadal will do what Federer did in dominating the rankings. We will see a lot more leapfrogging in the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, and there will be more movement since there is more depth. Great players who reached the top five like David Ferrer and Davydenko did not win majors. I believe these young guys now are going to move in and maybe win majors as well, especially Del Potro. I would not be surprised at all if he reaches the final or even wins a major this coming year. And Gulbis and Cilic will be serious contenders next year as well."

How does Gilbert assess the resurgence of Federer in light of the Swiss maestro's U.S. Open triumph? Can Federer move back to his old home at No. 1? Brad answers, "Pete Sampras used to say that winning one major is a great year. Roger turned around what was by his standards not a great year and made it a great one by winning the Open. So now he is only one away from a tie with Pete for the all time men's record at the majors. At this point in his career it is just about inching toward one more, getting to 14, and then getting to 15. Federer will keep doing some great things but he won't ever dominate again. The game is too strong. But I give him at least a 50% chance of winning one major next year. Maybe Australia will be No. 14 or maybe Wimbledon."
Gilbert continues: "Fed is in a great position to break the record. Regaining No. 1 is not out of the question for Roger, but once guys lose their No. 1 ranking it is hard to get it back. When Pete lost his No. 1 ranking after six years in a row at No. 1, he never got it back. Andre Agassi got to No. 1 in 95, got it back in 99 and got it back again in 2003, but most players don't regain it. I believe Fed has got two really good years of being at the Roger Federer level, but part of Federer coming down a little bit this year has been these young guys coming up so fast."

Djokovic was magnificent in the early stages of 2008, winning his first Grand Slam event in Melbourne, taking Masters Series titles at Indian Wells and Rome. But the rest of the year did not pan out for the Serbian as well as he would have wanted. Gilbert asserts, "We are going to find out what kind of a player Djokovic is. He won his first major this year after getting to the final of the 2007 U.S. Open. I feel like the game is so wide open right now. As I think about going back to Australia in January, it wouldn't shock me if one of these young guys won. It wouldn't shock me either if Djokovic won it again or if Nadal won. If Djokovic is going to make his move, it will be in 2009. He is coming into a crucial time. Will he replace Fed at No. 2 or chase Nadal for No. 1? He won't feel the pressure so much from the outside as much as he feels it from himself to step up."

Clearly, Murray has been ascendant in 2008, taking his place among the top four, reaching the final of the U.S. Open. What does Gilbert expect from his former student? "Everything turned around for him this year when he won that five set match from two sets down against Gasquet in the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Potentially, Murray is exactly like Djokovic was a year ago. Maybe we will see the same kind of thing where Djokovic went from making the final of the U.S. Open in 2007 and then won the Australian Open this year. The surface is good for Murray in Australia so if he is going to win a major next year I wouldn't be surprised if it was there."

Gilbert believes unequivocally that the serve will be the key for Murray as he strives to join the elite and collect major championships. According to Brad, "I think Murray could serve bigger. He has kind of been used to working his serve, but as you get older serving bigger gets you more free points and then you work a little less hard. When Murray serves well, his game goes up tenfold. When he struggles with his serve, he struggles with his game a bit. He improved his serve this past year and that is why you saw his ranking improve, but if he improved it more and got his first serve percentage higher and maybe served more aces, that could be the difference of him going from No. 4 to 3 or 2 or 1."

As he examines Del Potro and the rise of this gifted performer from Argentina, Gilbert does not hold back. "He is not 6'5" as he is listed," contends Gilbert. "Del Potro is a legitimate 6'7". And he doesn't move like any 6'7" guy I have ever seen. He moves like he is 6'0". Once he incorporates some big man stuff into his game, the sky is the limit for him. His serve motion is good. When I saw him play in 2007, he was topping out at about 115[MPH] on his serve because he just never really whacked it. Now he is topping out at about 135. At his size with his motion, next thing you know he will be topping out at 145. And if he learns to come in a little more to finish points off at the net because his ground strokes are so tremendous, he will get even better. This guy has a lot of skill."

Shifting his thoughts to Cilic and Gulbis and their technical capabilities, Gilbert is effusive. "Cilic is similar to Mario Ancic. At 6'6" he moves unbelievably well and his volleys are excellent. With maturity and age he is going to get better and better and better. Gulbis is lightening in a bottle. He has the biggest game of all the young guys and he just has to learn how to harness it. Right now, if anything, he goes too big and never gives his opponent a chance to miss. His game is so explosive that his upside and potential are huge."

What does Gilbert make of the resurgent Jo Wilfried Tsonga? "He is one of three French guys with huge potential, along with Gasquet and Monfils. There are so many guys in the mix now and so many of them are under 23. I am not sure I have ever seen so much depth in the men's game, and it is kind of like a race for them. Who can add to their game and step up in the off season? That is the big question."

With such a wide range of young players rising swiftly and making their presence known, Andy Roddick has his work cut out for him to fend off the youthful brigade. Does Gilbert believe his former charge can fend off these gifted competitors? "For me," he responds, "the most important thing for Andy is that he made a big step in 2008 by beating the No.1, No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world. That was the first time he has had big wins like that. Now he needs a big win at a major, whether or not it is a Federer, whether or not it is a Nadal or a Djokovic or a Murray. He needs a big win like that at a Grand Slam tournament that all of a sudden can translate to him that he can win. Beating Djokovic at the U.S. Open this year would have been huge for him. He needs that huge win over a top three player at a major, and at 26, if it is going to happen, it has got to happen now."

After Gilbert had finished analyzing so many of the leading players, I asked him if the Nadal-Federer Wimbledon final was the best match he has ever witnessed. He replied, "It was one of the three best I have ever seen. The Andre-Pete U.S. Open quarterfinal match in 2001 with no service breaks was incredible and excruciating because I was involved in it personally. The Safin-Federer 2005 Australian Open semifinal was tremendous. But this Wimbledon final with Nadal and Federer had the most drama I have ever seen. The tension in those last three sets was just incredible considering that the match was, I felt, about seven minutes away from being absolutely routine. Nadal was ahead 6-4, 6-4, 3-3, 0-40. If he had broken there, that thing is over in straight sets. From that moment on, this guy Federer does not get his serve broken until it is almost absolute black. I felt that for the last three sets the quality and tension was the best I have ever seen."

Gilbert is a consummate professional. But his love of the game runs so deep and is so genuine that a part of him remains an unabashed fan of tennis. Hours after that epic Wimbledon final, Nadal gave his winning racket to none other than Gilbert. Why? Gilbert explains, "I had kind of been asking for a while for a stick. Then I saw Nadal the day before Wimbledon began at the practice courts and I said, "When you win Wimbledon, I want your racket.' He said,'O.K. O.K.' So I went to the locker room around midnight when he was done with his press conferences after the final, and he saw me waiting and started to laugh. Then he gave me the racket. I have got it in my tennis shop inside a glass case that I had made."

The interview ends. Gilbert says goodbye. And I find myself already looking forward to the next time I have a chance to speak with him.

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