SBJ/20100830/SBJ In-Depth

Gimelstob known to serve up controversy

Attend the U.S. Open Tennis Championships commencing this week, and chances are you will see a grinning, 6-foot-5 blur assuredly rush by on the grounds. That would be Justin Gimelstob.

The former player, 33, may be running to announce in Tennis Channel’s studio, to his Fox Sports radio hosting duties, or for similar chores at the ATP’s online magazine. Or he could even be off to a meeting of the ATP World Tour, where he’s a board member. Perhaps it’s for his regular spot on “The Early Show” on CBS or the TV Guide Channel. As he scurries by, he’s likely tweeting, too.

Such career multitasking is uncommon if not unheard of in most other sports’ media. Imagine Cris Collinsworth, the NBC football announcer, simultaneously working for a rival while boasting an authority role with the NFL. But tennis has long smiled upon its talent, media or otherwise, engaging in multiple roles that can be perceived as conflicts of interest. Can Gimelstob fairly opine on players he represents for the ATP? Is he overextended?

“I don’t think I have ever worked with a talent who is more open to criticism, who wants to learn,” responded Ken Solomon, Tennis Channel’s chief executive officer. “He is the first to say, ‘Please be critical and tell me how to be better.’”

And for an outgoing, and some have said bombastic, personality like Gimelstob, there’s been criticism.

Justin Gimelstob (left) joins fellow retired player
Jim Courier and Tennis Channel play-by-play
commentator Ted Robinson.

He’s caused waves with comments about women players and about gays in men’s tennis. Two years ago he offered degrading sexual comments to a Washington, D.C., radio station about Anna Kournikova, causing the U.S. Tennis Association to drop him from its ad campaign. He immediately apologized for the remarks, which to this day he said he deeply regrets.

More recently, in an unpublicized affair, Tennis Channel briefly dropped Gimelstob from the air in March after he made what was perceived as a political knock against President Obama.

Solomon said the problems were more than just the single comment, in which the New Jersey native compared a player’s poor stroke to the president’s policies.

“It got a little heated for a while and we had to have some decisions,” Solomon said, though the popular Gimelstob, known for his incisive tennis analysis and TV presence, quickly returned to the air. The uproar, Solomon insisted, was unconnected to his own high-profile support of the president, pointing to what he said were hundreds of e-mails the channel received complaining about the remark.

Gimelstob acknowledged a disturbance, though he declined to offer details. He conceded, however, that by communicating in so many different outlets, finding a balance is difficult.

As tweeted by @justingimelstob
“Mardy Fish is on fire! Covering the court like a panther/striping the ball like Bonds on the juice! Beats Gasquet 7562.”
Aug. 26
“At airport in Toronto, heading home to LaLa land so if you’re robbing my house please be gone in 5 hours, thank you.”
Aug. 10
“Traffic Court was an unmitigated failure. I will never get this these 2 hours back in my life, and I’m the only one to blame. I’m an idi …”
July 22
“I’m shocked, Charles Barkley is actually making lucid points on Fox Sports Radio right now about the hypocrisy of the NCAA.”
July 22

“I wasn’t conscious of the power of words and platforms and was driving a million miles a minute,” he said of the challenges in sharing opinions and trying to be funny without offending. “I am shuttling between venues and mediums.”

Gimelstob was born in 1977 to a sporting and well-to-do family. His uncle, Gerry Gimelstob, coached George Washington University’s basketball team from 1981-85 and was an assistant coach to Bobby Knight at Indiana. Justin’s father, Barry, is owner and president of Financial Benefits Research Group in Roseland, N.J.

A New Jersey high school tennis star, Justin played collegiately at UCLA for two years before turning pro in 1996. He entered the sport when Americans dominated, with icons like Sampras, Courier and Agassi ascendant, so the press greeted him with gushing profiles assuming he’d join their ranks. But his career peaked at 63rd in the world in 1999. He became known as much for his outspokenness as his game, which suffered as he endured painful back injuries later in his career that forced his 2007 retirement.

“Deep down, in candor with myself, I never believed I was good enough to be on top of the tennis world,” he said. “I take tremendous pride in what I accomplished.”

Some might raise their eyebrows upon learning Gimelstob possessed self-doubts. Ivan Ljubicic, currently ranked 17th and who served on the ATP board of directors for seven months with Gimelstob in 2007, described being shocked at the young American’s brashness in his first board meetings.

Gimelstob retired from the game
in 2007 and now serves on the
ATP’s board of directors.

“He is very loud and energetic, and maybe you like it or don’t,” Ljubicic said. “The board meetings were never very quiet when he was around.”

His directness is a big plus with the players, Ljubicic added, because their time is in such short supply and Gimelstob is able to discuss issues quickly. As a former player, he garners respect.

In 2007, Gimelstob nudged out James Blake’s brother, Thomas, for the position, one of six seats on the ATP board, after narrowly losing a vote the year before. During his first term, he played a critical role in choosing the ATP’s executive chairman and president, Adam Helfant, traveling with him in December 2007 to lobby top players for their support. In June, Gimelstob won unopposed a new three-year term, reflecting the positive view players hold of his performance, Ljubicic said.

Last year, Gimelstob moved full time to Southern California, giving up his apartment in Manhattan after breaking up with a girlfriend there. He is trying to complete his UCLA degree, and residing in the entertainment hub of the world doesn’t hurt his ambition to win an even greater media profile.

Despite his lingering back problem, he’ll return to New York in November to run his first marathon, raising money for his charity that benefits children with cancer and blood diseases in his native New Jersey. His friend, the top American player Andy Roddick, bet him $10,000 he couldn’t finish. If he doesn’t, Gimelstob will instead pay $10,000 to Roddick’s charity.

These days, Gimelstob has learned to hold back his opinions. And the man who once touted himself as the most accessible man in tennis, now admits that’s a title he can no longer wear given his ATP responsibilities and growing public persona.

“It’s very hard,” he concluded. “My nature is one of inclusion and being fully accessible. It is an adjustment on my end.”

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