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Steve Flink: Brad Gilbert on the World Tour Finals

11/21/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

When I reached ESPN expert tennis analyst Brad Gilbert on the telephone the other day, he was in a hurry, enjoying a typically productive day, and looking forward to following the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Gilbert was about to rush out the door when I caught him, but he slowed down long enough to offer his usual clarity and insight about a sport he celebrates unabashedly. I asked him for his perspective about what we should expect to happen this week in London, and he answered thoughtfully with no hesitation.

“It is definitely a hard race to pick,” said Gilbert. “The first thing that comes to mind is that it seems like this tournament is so late in the year, but I’ve got to like the way Novak Djokovic is playing. I think the crowd will be a great thing for Murray, and Fed will be right in there. My dark horse is Robin Soderling. Looking at Nadal heading into the event, he doesn’t seem to be moving on hundred percent and that is such a big factor with him.”

I reminded Gilbert that during an interview we had in the fall of 2008, he had presciently said that he would “not be surprised at all if Juan Martin Del Potro reaches the final or even wins a major in 2009.” That, of course, is precisely what happened, as the towering Argentine captured the U.S. Open in style with victories over Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Does Gilbert believe there is someone in the game’s upper regions that will step forward in 2010 and make that kind of a breakthrough?

“I really have a hard time seeing anyone new cracking through the way Del Potro cracked through this year. I can’t really see going outside the top five because it will be another big year for all of those players. Del Potro is going to be in the mix big time and moving up the rankings. I feel the game is 12 to 14 deep, so the drop-off after that strong top five is not like it was in years past. There is a lot of depth in men’s tennis right now. But maybe the one breakout player could be Marin Cilic. He could possibly be like Del Potro was this year, the Del Potro of 2010. He is young and he started to play really well from the U.S. Open on this year. If anybody is going to get into the mix from outside the top five, it is going to be Cilic.”

Gilbert has been highly impressed by the play of Djokovic in recent weeks, and expects extraordinary things from the Serbian in the year ahead, but he also envisions outstanding tennis from both Murray and Federer next year. “Djokovic is playing as good right now as I have ever seen him play,” he asserts. “He could be ready to step up in 2010. Murray is one hundred percent in the mix. There are four titles up for grabs at the majors next year, and five guys who are really in there. That is how I see it. The amazing thing about Federer is he seems to be such a young 28. He doesn’t seem to be ageing. He has definitely got a couple more years big time of being in the mix, and might win a couple of majors a year for a few more years. Who knows if that will happen, but he is the favorite to have another big year in 2010. He made all four finals at the majors this year so there is not a lot of drop-off in his game.”

Having said that, Gilbert is more cautious in his optimism about Nadal, who has had such a difficult time recovering his confidence and his gusto after his 2009 season was so badly disrupted by injuries. “First and foremost,” he says, “Nadal needs to be healthy. That is a big thing for him. If he is healthy and gets his legs back, the guy is a beast so you just hope he gets that health. If that happens, he can do the rest. All I can say is Nadal is one of those five tremendous guys at the top and it wouldn’t surprise me if any of them stepped up. They are all so good.”

Coming into 2009, Gilbert had anticipated a substantial year for Murray and perhaps for Djokovic as well at the Grand Slam events. That didn’t happen. “If you would have told me,” he explains, “that Murray and Djokovic would not win any majors in 2009, I wouldn’t have seen that coming. But these major tournaments are really tough to win and the mere fact that Fed was in the final of every single one in 2009 eliminates a lot of chances for other players. You expected Fed to slow down a little bit but as Andre Agassi said, Federer is the Everest of his generation and that is why it is important for these other guys to try to get their shots because you never know when the next crop is coming.”

Reflecting on 2009, Gilbert speaks with genuine sympathy about the plight of Andy Roddick, who came agonizingly close to winning Wimbledon before falling 16-14 in the fifth set against an obstinate Federer, who claimed his sixth crown on the Centre Court. Roddick, of course, had won the first set and led 6-2 in the second set tie-break, only to squander that set and eventually lose the match. “That match was a killer,” laments Gilbert. “The guy was right there. You felt so bad for him. He will probably have another shot next year in the majors and he has a couple more years at a high level, but that loss at Wimbledon was such a tough beating for him.”

Shifting his attention to the women’s game, Gilbert is no less effusive in his outlook and assessments.  “It could be a tremendously awesome year for the women in 2010,” he projects. “You’ve got Justine Henin coming back and Kim Clijsters continuing her comeback. You’ve got the Williams sisters, hopefully a healthy Sharapova and a healthy Safina, the young Danish player Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, not to mention Jankovic. There are as many possibilities in the women’s game for 2010 as I have ever seen.”

Gilbert was impressed by the sparkling return made by Clijsters in 2009, most importantly her U.S. Open triumph. He was expecting that kind of a triumphant run. “Look at Clijsters,” he says forcefully. “Boom, she came right back and she did it so quickly. When she first came back I thought she would get back to the top five and win a major. I said I would not be surprised if she din win a major. I would be surprised now if she does not stay in the mix. The women’s game is like the men’s in that it is as deep as I have ever seen it, but you would be hard pressed not to think Henin could do the same as Clijsters with her comeback.”

Does Gilbert look at Serena Williams in the same light as he examines Roger Federer? Does he anticipate Serena remaining at the loftiest levels of the game for the immediate future, and retaining her status as a supreme big occasion player? “Absolutely,” he answers. “She has an awesome ability to pace herself at these big events, and her doubles play was phenomenal in 2009. What gets forgotten is that she was close to winning a Grand Slam in doubles. Like Rog, she is 28 and she has got a good two to three years at the top big time. These other gals coming back like Henin and Clijsters are going to inspire Serena for some time to come.”

He is hopeful that Sharapova will be able to perform at the height of her powers in 2010 after making an encouraging comeback herself in 2009.  As Gilbert says, “It is the same for her as Nadal. As long as she says healthy and doesn’t have any significant injuries, I have to believe she will be back in the top six in the world for sure, and she is at least 50-50 to win one major. You kind of feel it would not be surprising if she has a breakthrough at one of the four because she is such an incredible competitor.”

We knew Brad Gilbert as one of the most durable competitors of his time as a player, and watched him rise to No. 4 in the world early in 1990, after celebrating a terrific 1989 campaign. As a player, he was always probing, thinking one or two steps ahead of his rivals, displaying phenomenal strategic acumen. We saw him transfer that gift into the realm of coaching, as he worked with Andre Agassi for eight eventful years, helped Andy Roddick to reach No. 1 in the world in 2003, and guided Andy Murray a few years later.

Nowadays, Gilbert is one of the premier tennis commentators on ESPN, and he brings the same unbridled enthusiasm and professionalism to that venture. Gilbert has grown measurably in that role over the last year, and he plans on working about 75 days for the network in 2010. He takes considerable pride in his work behind the microphone.

“I really enjoy what I am doing as a broadcaster,” he told me.”I get to work with a bunch of great people at ESPN, and I have learned a lot from Chris Fowler about how you have got to take it seriously and you can’t just wing it. Sometimes I have to pinch myself and say, ‘Man, I am calling a tennis match, and it is a great one.’ I really like the people I work with and there are a lot of great people behind the scenes who make us look good in front of the cameras.”

I asked him how he felt about being an insider in the game, speaking to a well informed public that expects insightful and authoritative commentary at all times. How does he meet those expectations? Laughing as he answers, Gilbert replies, “God, you have got me stumped with that question. But, seriously, I think more than anything else I just try to be myself and to add to what people want to hear. I have to say that it is a lot of fun when I am down on the court because you can really feel the pace of the match when you are down there. I love that.”

Does he prefer being at courtside to calling a match from up in the booth? “It seems like you can feel the match better from down below. Sometimes in the booth you are way up high and looking down on the court and you can’t really feel how big the players are hitting the ball. There were a couple of matches this year when I was down on the court that really stand out in my mind, like the Nadal-Verdasco five hour semifinal battle at the Australian Open. To sit down on the court for a match like that was just epic. You get a great sense of the match from there.”

Naturally, Gilbert is excited about doing his commentary in 2010, and being in the thick of things at all of the majors as an up close observer. As he puts it, “I am looking forward to 2010 starting in Australia. I will get to all of the majors and it keeps you amped up when you go to these tournaments. And, believe it or not, the time when I am most amped up is this period now leading up to Australia. You see what is going to happen early in the year and we start off with a big one, which is such an interesting element for the sport.”

As we concluded the interview, I asked Gilbert for any final thoughts on the year ahead. He responded, “I can tell you this: 2010 is going to be another great year in men’s and women’s tennis. I can’t see it turning out any other way.”

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