How many journeyman players — guys who fell short of the top 60 — have a signature shot?
Justin Gimelstob does. His “jump now, think later” leaping volley speaks of an impetuous daring that would do Evel Knievel proud. Plus, the often-jolly Jerse
y boy has an engaging, shoot-from-the-hip ability to turn a spicy phrase.
Early on, the man who was hailed as the next Sampras was said to be the most quotable guy on the tour. After all, before his first Slam, he boasted, “I’m only seven matches away from my first Grand Slam title.” He delighted in concocting his own words (“I greased that point and ‘Gilberted’ my way through”) and once claimed he was basing most of his “career on the anticipation of getting a big inheritance.”
The big fellow, who’s dedicated to his own charity foundation, often stirred the milkshake. But all the while, he has sadly offered up a long string of edgy, sometimes questionable comments with reference to women or sexuality. Nah, we’re not referring to his quip about his Wimbledon match against Sampras, when he looked up in the Royal Box and saw “a really hot girl in the front row. I thought ‘Okay, if I play [well] here, maybe I have a shot.’ Then I saw Borg…[and thought it’s] probably not going to happen.”
Rather there was the time he beat Agassi and said, “I feel great to have a win like this on my home court in front of every girl who denied me [in] my first two years of college.” More recently, in a post-match interview after the U.S. beat the French in Davis Cup, Andy Roddick said that when he goes to play against Spain on clay, he would “have to get dirty.” Justin quipped, “You’re good at that.” To which Andy cautioned, “Easy, Gimel, there’re children here…That was a little creepy.”
But all of this is mere prelude. What was alarming was in ‘05 when he claimed that women on the WTA Tour live in a “bizarro” world, with more and more skimpy outfits. Soon he predicted that that tennis “courts will resemble volleyball courts with g-strings and bikinis.” He suggested that the women were in competition with the supermodel types who often date or marry ATP players because they “have to share the players lounge with the 1 percent most beautiful creatures in the world.” Then he claimed, “If you look like a beached whale, keep your clothes on.”
But when he was told his remarks were demeaning, he bristled and offered a tin ear. In denial, he didn’t get how inappropriate his words were. Similarly, his friend Lindsay Davenport noted, “I’m always curious about what the fascination is with men and how they have to judge women constantly, what they wear, who they hang out with, what they look like.” Davenport told him, “You can’t really represent all men?” But Justin insisted, “I do.” So Lindsay just said “Okay” and walked away.
Virtually everyone in the game gave the big guy a generous pass and simply stuck Justin’s “beached whale” commentary in those bulging files crammed with the sexist comments of Bobby Riggs, who famously said, “I want to be the No. 1 pig.” Or Pat Cash, who claimed, “Women’s tennis is two sets of rubbish that lasts only half an hour,” or Richard Krajicek’s claim that “80 percent of the top-100 women players were fat pigs who didn’t deserve equal pay.”
Yes, Justin, who once said, “I’m not going to be mature until I’m 80,” is a controversy magnet. (He drew fire when he accused Jon Wertheim, one of the game’s most respected reporters, of writing defamatory comments about his pal Roddick, and last year Justin had to issue an apology for claiming that Agassi’s agent stole an ATP election from him.)
But nothing in tennis’ male-chauvinist Hall of Shame came close to the demeaning rant ‘n ramble he spewed forth on “The Junkies” — a low-brow, morning zoo Washington D.C. radio show. Here we heard far more than just a harmless stray comment. Any caring person had to be stunned by his mean-spirited string of mindless and abusive comments. He warmed up by saying that Nicole Vaidisova was a “well-developed young lady” who was, along with Alize Cornet “a sexpot.” He contended, “There are fewer lesbians now because they’re all Russian chicks,” and claimed female players “lack social skills. They don’t go to high school, they don’t go to parties.”
Then he went off on Anna Kournikova. Sure, the problematic ex-phenom (who once said, “I’m not Venus. I’m not Serena. I’m feminine. I don’t want to look the way they do”) is an inviting target. But it can be argued that, with her astounding success, she inspired more female players than anyone East of Billie Jean King. All this didn’t deter Justin.
“She’s a bitch,” he said. “We’re going to kick her a—,” and added that he planned to heckle the 27-year-old when her St. Louis Aces visit his Washington Kastles on July 23. “If she’s not crying by the time she walks off that court then I did not do my job,” he said. Ouch!
“I just despise her to the maximum level, right below hate,” he added. “She falls into the Marcelo Rios ‘scumbag’ category…She’s gonna be serving 40 miles an hour and I’m going to be just plugging it down her throat…I’ll mock her, make fun…[and] just make her know she’s stupid…She’ll rue the day that she has to come here and actually share space with me.” Cruel.
Gimelstob added that Anna might not even be smart enough to read the league schedule and, as if turning his racket into an assault weapon, said “I’m going to just serve it right into the body, about 128 mph right into the midriff” and added, “I have no attraction to her, because she’s such a douche.”
Then, if those venomous comments weren’t enough, he seemed to condone the unthinkable, saying, “I wouldn’t mind having my younger brother, who’s kind of a stud, nail her and then reap the benefits of that.”
Despite many stunning advances, tennis remains a massively macho game. Yet even within this context, the response to Gimelstob’s outrageous blast and the (“God forbid we stick out our neck and show some spine”) lack of appropriate accountability – was almost as disturbing as the abusive comments themselves. Many players were silent, but there were a few brief flares of outrage. Martina Navratilova called Justin’s comments “moronic,” but said she didn’t want to get involved.
An outraged Chanda Rubin, the daughter of a judge, allegedly considered resigning from the Tennis Channel, but stayed on.
Kournikova herself refused to retaliate, saying, “I’m going to take the high road,” while Serena, Gimelstob’s teammate on the Kastles, said the comments were “totally uncalled for. Being pro-women’s rights, I just think we’ve come farther than to be referred to like this.” And Justin’s former mixed dubs partner, Venus, chose to ream him in private.
To their credit, Sport Illustrated quietly took away Justin’s blog as Gimelstob and the many institutions he’s come to be involved with went into damage control, complete with a flurry of mea culpa commentaries. Justin, who announced he would be making an unspecified cash contribution to the Women’s Sports Foundation, said “There is no excuse for my actions, and I am extremely disappointed in myself…My hurtful remarks do not reflect the genuine and deep respect I have for women…Nothing but time and positive actions can take back my misguided words…I know I have learned a great deal from this.”
Nice words, but where is the accountability on this landscape?
So many in sports have lost their jobs for just a single comment or two. Dodger exec Al Campanis, who asserted blacks were not smart enough to manage in baseball’s big leagues; CBS broadcaster Jimmy the Greek, who claimed blacks were good athletes because of their breeding; and of course, Imus, who said the Rutgers basketball team were a bunch of “nappy-headed hos,” were all promptly dismissed.
As a new member of the ATP board, Gimelstob helps decide the goals, direction and ideals of men’s tennis. Was he removed, suspended or censured? No. All we got was the usual (Brenda Lee) “I’m sorry” statement.
Any bonafide journalist who made a similar string of comments would be gone in a flash. For instance, the Golf Channel suspended broadcaster Kelly Tilghman (who could point to a notable body of work) for a month for her wretched — but perhaps inadvertent — comment that younger golfers might do well to lynch Tiger Woods in a back alley. So did the Tennis Channel step up and suspend Gimelstob for his vastly worse behavior for a year, a month, a week, a day? No, except for the usual suspects statement, he got nothing.
Worst of all was World TeamTennis. After all, this is the mother church of the voices for equal opportunity in sports; the epicenter of those whose sage and shrill calls for gender equality and (“c’mon, we can do this the right way”) humanity have been sounding for decades. So is Gimelstob promptly kicked out of the league or, if not, at least suspended for the season?
No — we get another “heartfelt remorse” statement and he is benched for a single match and — get this — it won’t even be the match against Kournikova’s Aces, which now will be transformed into a three-ring PR circus and (“cha-ching”) marketing bonanza.
When I spoke to Justin himself, he said, “I was wrong and out of line. It’s all in the statement. I’m contrite. I was fully out of line. It’s all in the statement.”
“Have you actually contacted Anna,” I asked.
Twitchy, uncomfortable and avoiding eye contact, he repeated his mantra: “It’s all in the statement.” Likewise, when I tried to ask more in-depth questions, the answer was the same. Finally, in frustration, I asked, “Isn’t it ironic that a man like you — who makes his living by getting interviews — will not give an interview.” His response: “It’s all in the statement.”
As for King, she told me, “I believe in giving second chances. Bill, you know what will happen if he screws up again. Everyone will see how he does.”
“You know,” I responded, “truth be told, this is not the first time. He’s messed …”
“I know, I know now,” replied King. “But I didn’t know that then. I just found out. This is the first time for World TeamTennis.”
“But why?” I asked. “If you’re going to suspend him for just one game, why not suspend him for the match that’s actually against Anna?”
“Look on the schedule. It comes at the very end of the season.”
“Looking at the big picture,” I continued, “isn’t it ironic that a woman [Billie Jean] who was outed in the early ‘80s because she loved women and immediately lost her Nike contract, numerous other endorsements and [with the notable exception of NBC] was generally ostracized while Justin — who said so many demeaning things about women — just skated?” She replied, “That’s why I took it so seriously and spoke with Justin for an hour and a half.”
At a time of equal prize money, in the 35th anniversary year of “The Battle of the Sexes,” when bonanza contracts swell the coffers of the women’s game and scintillating storylines abound, tennis was burdened with the most crude, expletive-laden rant in American sports history, a callous, indulgent meltdown that makes “you are the pits of the world” seem like a modest civil complaint.
At Wimbledon, my van driver claimed, “It’s impossible to row back from comments like that. Behavior like that just can’t be re-habilitated. That fellow’s not fit to be in public life ever again.”
I disagree. And, like most others, I don’t want to be punitive or vindictive to an engaging man who has the potential to give so much more. But, certainly, Justin shouldn’t have broadcast Wimbledon for the Tennis Channel. He should have been suspended from the ATP board for at least six months and sidelined, at least for the season, by World TeamTennis. Instead, the elders of the game didn’t seem to get what horrific messages he’s sent, nor did they grasp the importance of accountability. In the end, tennis‘ incredibly timid response was simply to be found, as Justin said, “all in the statement.”
NEWSFLASH: As IT went to press — to its great credit — the USTA announced that it would pull a series of expensive and reported highly effective ads for the US Open Series which featured Gimblestob. The federation, which is headed by President Jane Brown Grimes, said Justin’s comments were “derogatory and demeaning to female tennis players and to women in general. The USTA has long championed integrity, inclusiveness, diversity, and equality, and cannot ignore such harmful remarks. More than any other sport, tennis has benefited from pioneering role and achievements of so many women.” The move, which reportedly was a unanimous decision by the group’s top leadership, came after much discussion and lengthy meetings with Justin.