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Steve Flink: Catching up with Justin Gimelstob

12/14/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Over the course of a productive and not unremarkable career, Justin Gimelstob celebrated some good years, played the game with unbridled intensity, and left no stone unturned in his quest to achieve as much as possible. A 6’5” native of New Jersey, he was an attacking player, diving audaciously to make spectacular volleys, coming forward unswervingly, giving the sport absolutely everything he had. He competed for UCLA, finishing the 1996 season as the second ranked college player in the nation, garnering the No. 1 ranking in doubles. As a professional, he climbed to a career high of No. 63 in the world during the 1999 season, finished four years inside the top 100 in the world, and captured two majors in mixed doubles alongside Venus Williams.

Gimelstob left that career behind him a few years ago, and has moved on to establish himself as a highly regarded broadcaster, working primarily for Tennis Channel, but appearing on a variety of other networks as well. He is unmistakably in his comfort zone behind a microphone, speaking freely and lucidly about a sport he embraces unabashedly, offering insights with a learnedness drawn from his competitive days, yet addressing fans as if he were one of them. Gimelstob will turn 33 early in 2010, and the view here is that his analytical skills and quick-witted mind will take him to important places in the television industry. His potential is considerable, and his desire to improve and succeed is almost tangible.

Several days ago, I spoke with Gimelstob by phone, and found him typically genial and ready to talk tennis with his usual clarity. Was his biggest surprise in 2009 the fact that Andy Murray did not win a Grand Slam title. He replied, “I would have anticipated Murray winning a Grand Slam. That was a big surprise, right up there with Del Potro winning the U.S. Open. He was the young player that broke through to win his first Slam instead of Murray, so you could package those two things into one. And then I would say that Kim Clijsters winning the U.S. Open in only her third tournament back was a huge storyline.”

I wondered how Gimelstob felt about the way 2009 unfolded, with Nadal riding so high and winning five tournaments by the middle of May and Federer struggling inordinately, before the two players moved in opposite directions and met different fates. He answered, “It shows how quickly things can change in tennis. Rewind to the semifinals of Madrid in May and you are looking at Nadal having an incredibly dominant year. The guy had won the Australian Open with one of the great physical and mental efforts in our tennis history. He wins Indian Wells and dominates the clay court season as usual. Then he wins that epic match against Djokovic in Madrid in the semifinals, but Federer beats him in the final. And then everything turned.”

That turn was sweeping. As Gimelstob recalls, “Federer won the French to complete his career Grand Slam, Nadal goes the other way, then Federer beats Roddick in the match of the year based on the drama and significance at Wimbledon to break the record at Wimbledon with his 15th Slam title before Del Potro took the Open. Federer turning the pages and flipping that back was incredible, as much as Nadal becoming human was. As I said, it just shows how things can change abruptly over the course of a year to make it all so intriguing. “

Wanting to get Gimelstob to speculate on how differently the year might have turned out had Nadal not been compromised at the French Open and kept out of Wimbledon by knee problems, I asked him to retrospectively examine the season from that perspective. Gimelstob responded, “Up to the finals of Madrid, you are looking at Nadal’s success rate relative to other great players of all time---- Federer, Borg, Sampras, any of those guys--- and you are thinking there is no reason why Nadal can’t win Wimbledon again and I had said he would win the French unless he broke both ankles. The thought of him losing a best of five set match on clay was so out of the realm of conceptual possibility that you are thinking at that time that here is a guy who will dominate the French Open for years to come and pick away at other Slams and be a serious threat to break Pete Sampras’s record as well as Roger’s. You are thinking maybe Nadal will win more Slams than both of those guys. And now it has gone the other way and you are looking to see how many more majors Federer can tack on.”

Following up on that line of thinking, Gimelstob adds, “I always said years ago that Federer’s number of Slams was 18 at least. I think that opinion has been validated. I definitely see that happening for Roger. You look at Nadal now and you know that on clay he is very tough to beat, but you see guys that have the games and the belief and the style and the power to challenge him. You also see on faster courts that aren’t as conducive to Nadal’s style how guys match up better against him. But I have no doubt that Nadal will find another gear, get his confidence, and adapt. Great players go through tough times but they adapt and that is what Nadal and Federer are. They are great champions, not just great tennis players.”

The subject shifts to the two men who finished 2009 at No. 3 and No. 4 in the world, a pair of determined individuals and superior athletes who did not win majors during the year but demonstrated their superiority in other ways. Novak Djokovic won 76 matches over the season, more than anyone else. Andy Murray secured six titles across the year, a mark no one else could match. What is Gimelstob’s take on how these top of the line competitors performed in 2009, and what does he feel it will take for them to step out among the elite in 2010 by claiming Grand Slam titles?

Gimelstob answers, “ Djokovic had an interesting year with some peaks and valleys, won a lot of matches and tournaments, and showed he will be a threat for the foreseeable future at all of the tournaments. For him, it is about being a little bit more opportunistic. If some of the other guys are not at their best, he is capable of beating anyone in the world on any surface. Because of his game, he is not going to blow guys away. He needs to be in form at the right times. He is probably someone that needs to manage his schedule a bit more and be more focused for the bigger events, similar to Andy Murray. Roger Federer is the best at managing his schedule and giving himself the best possible opportunity to peak at the biggest times. That will probably be the shift that we will see in Djokovic’s focus.”

Asked if perhaps Murray may have been too aware this past year that many authorities believed his time had come and were fully expecting him to secure a major, Gimelstob responds, “I do believe he is very self aware, but the reality is he is an unbelievable tennis player, a great mover with a great tennis I.Q, but like most people his strengths can sometimes be his flaws. His confidence in his movement and his belief in his defensive skills is always there, but Murray may need to push himself to incorporate and play a more aggressive style and really push himself out of his comfort zone, which is being more of a neutralizing defensive player at the biggest moments. The players have such big weapons now that executed offense will beat executed defense in big moments. I still believe 100% that Murray will win multiple Slams in his career.”

Mention Del Potro, and Gimelstob effusively sings the Argentine’s praises, with good reason. According to Gimelstob, “Del Potro could very well be the next No. 1 in the world. That guy is dangerous on all surfaces. He really is the new Hybrid player with the huge serve, a big hitter off both sides, and moving very well for a big guy. He also believes in himself at the big moments. It will be interesting to see how he adjusts to higher expectations. I am also interested to see how Soderling does in 2010. He has the potential to have a big year, and not only validate what he has done this year but far surpass that. He is someone with the skill set to take the racket out of your hand.”

About Andy Roddick, Gimelstob is optimistic yet realistic as he reflects on 2009 and looks ahead to the 2010 campaign. Gimelstob says, “Roddick has improved a lot this past year but his ranking is still No. 7. Obviously he had the big opportunity to win Wimbledon, had a great event there, but didn’t get over the hump. The big question after such a devastating loss like that is how well Andy can regroup. Roddick is definitely putting in the work and is still committed to the game. He is definitely at an age where there is a window of time, but the challenges for him are only increasing, with Federer reaffirmed, guys like Del Potro and Davydenko improving, and Soderling and Tsonga in there.”

After making a brilliant late season surge in 2009, Davydenko gained a newfound respect among the public and presumably among his peers. What does Gimelstob expect from the often enigmatic Russian in the coming year? Could Davydenko come through at one of the majors? “That’s an interesting question,” replies Gimelstob. “In best of five sets at the Grand Slams, Davydenko has proven his ability to amass a lot of wins. The type of tennis he played this fall was incredible with his clean hitting, his movement and the way he was redirecting the ball. It was startling. To see how that translates into the Grand Slam events in 2010 will be interesting. He is very slight [of build] but an amazing talent who has taken a big step by winning arguably the fifth major in London. He has shown an ability to beat the top guys when it matters a lot. He definitely has momentum going into next year.”

How does Gimelstob envision the year ahead in the men’s game? He answers, “There is a very good chance we could have four different winners at the Grand Slam events. I still consider Rafa a huge favorite on the clay and Roger a big favorite on the grass, although less so than Rafa on the clay because the margins on grass are so much smaller. Then you have got the two neutral surfaces in Australia and New York and that brings the Del Potro’s and the Soderling’s and the Murray’s into the equation. So a lot could happen. I wouldn’t put it past Murray or Soderling or Del Potro to win a Slam title next year but I am not saying the torch is going to be passed. Over the course of the year, Roger still has the best chance of finishing No. 1. I still think he is the most complete player and he has a lot more gas left in the tank. The level of men’s tennis is increasing at such a high level that it is startling. I am not adverse to hyperbole but 2009 was an amazing year and I expect 2010 to be amazing as well.”

The time has come for Gimelstob to reflect on his experiences on broadcasting, the forum where he has found such a niche for himself over the last few years.  He says, “I was pretty conscious when I was still playing and injured at times to go to some events and so some television, which I did. I did the French Open the last year I was playing in 2007 and at the U.S. Open that year they kind of handed me a mike after I lost to Roddick and then I kind of started full time. I did the show ‘Open Access’ for Tennis Channel, which became Murphy Jensen’s show. I did that in its inception while I had my foot surgery four or five years ago so I was pretty conscious of learning the business for a couple of years before I retired.”

That learning process is ongoing and permanent, and Gimelstob is fully aware of that. “I have learned a lot the last few years and have had a great opportunity at Tennis Channel to work on a wide range of things. I have had the opportunity to host out of the studio, to commentate, to do play by play, interview, do talking over highlights, and do other things like entertainment T.V., “The Tonight Show”, and “Extra”. I will help host the “ATP World Tour Uncovered”, which makes its debut next year. I have tried to spend as much time as possible around mentor types like Ted Robinson, Bill Macatee, and Ian Eagle. I have picked the brains of Dick Enberg and Jim Nance. I get all of the tapes of my broadcasts and review them. A lot of athletes look at their second career as almost a right or an entitlement or almost a pension job. I have looked at it more as trying to learn a second business.”

Nowadays, Gimelstob is not a casual observer of sports on television. He observes it all in another light, as a member of the industry, as a broadcaster seeking to improve his performance every chance he gets. As he puts it, “I watch sports on television now from a different perspective, one of camera angles and what people do with their hands, how they enunciate, how they explain a point, how they set up a picture that can enhance the viewer’s experience. When I am working, I spend time in the truck with the producers and the camera people to see how the whole process gets delivered to the viewers. I ask questions. I am nothing if not inquisitive. I watch Barbara Walters and Larry King and look at different genres.”

When asked what sets him apart from others in the commentary field, Gimelstob responds, “I think it is my predisposed enjoyment of being on camera in front of people, and my ability to process and articulate information in an entertaining way. I have a lot to learn, but I pride myself on my preparation and the work I have put in to try to be professional. I have had to learn in the last few years how to not make it about myself, and how to communicate information to the viewer that is not just how I want to communicate it, but to do it in a way that appeals to the masses.”

And yet, he must always be finely tuned to a particular audience, shaping his remarks to suit their needs and preferences.  As Gimelstob explains, “Doing something for Tennis Channel is different than doing it for an all sports network. We speak to a very informed audience at Tennis Channel. Doing an interview with Roger Federer for Tennis Channel is not the same as sitting down with him as I have done for the CBS Early Show, which is very much geared toward the female demographic. So I have learned how to nudge the information. At Tennis Channel, I can get more technical than I would when I work for Fox at Indian Wells and Miami. I have learned how to tweak it for the different audiences. That is my job.”

Remarkably, despite the fact that he works inordinately hard all year long on his television pursuits, Gimelstob still finds time to devote the ATP Board of Directors, a role that he enjoys immensely. “I am very proud of the work I do for the ATP board. David Egdes— who is Executive Vice President at Tennis Channel-- and I are two of the three player reps on the ATP board and we work very hard to move the game forward. We work on behalf of not just the players but the sport. I have really enjoyed getting that type of business and political experience, as well as doing the television. Very few people in the world get to do something they love that they can make a good living at. Some people make a good living at something they don’t love. Some people love something but can’t make a good living at it. I get the opportunity to do both and am very thankful for that.”

Gimelstob is a ubiquitous tennis figure, and a man with a growing presence in the game. You can find him on Face Book and Twitter. He has his own web site at www.justingimelstob.com. He supports charity exhibitions like the annual Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro Celebrity Tennis Classic in Boca Raton, Florida. So where does he go from here?” My model,” he asserts, “was always to use T.V. skills from tennis to get opportunities and then hopefully stay within tennis because I love the sport so much. But I want to apply those skills to other types of television, whether that is entertainment or news or the morning show format. That is the model I am going with, the Mary Carillo model or something like that. I know that with the forum I am fortunate to have comes tremendous responsibility. That responsibility needs to be acknowledged, and I am always conscious of that. I am always trying to get better at what I do.”

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to tennischannel.com

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