“I’m rich and she’s the best attorney in the world and will get me out of anything.” – Justin Gimelstob’s comment to his victim Randy Kaplan
Justin Gimelstob is a charismatic presence who’s seemingly everywhere. A restless and driven overachiever, he was once No. 63, twice won a mixed doubles major with Venus, is on leave as a Tennis Channel broadcaster, is an adviser to John Isner and a powerful member of the ATP Player Council. Not long ago he was seen as a possible executive director for the group. “Everyone knows how ambitious I am. I’m the most obvious person in the sport,” he told the New York Times in a March interview. But for four years he’s been entwined in court cases relating to his divorce, child custody and a felony battery charge, all of which he says have cost him $4 million. Randall Kaplan, a 50-year-old financial investor, claims Justin committed “five assaults in four years – all of which he has denied.”
I’ve known Justin for two decades. And although I often criticized his problematic episodes, we were still friendly colleagues. A while after his Halloween brawl with Kaplan, we were on the phone. “Bill, believe me – stand by me,” was his message. He described Kaplan as a complete liar and a terrible character. He told me that there was far more to this, and everyone was going to look very foolish. Justin claimed the charges were based on hearsay and minor facts and said it was a manipulated, sensationalized story for money. He assured me, “My side will come out.”
It never did. Justin told me that the truth would fully vindicate him. It hasn’t. Instead, on April 22, he pleaded “no contest” to a felony battery charge, which the fourth judge on the case reduced to a misdemeanor. Justin was sentenced to 60 days of community labor, a year of anger management and a three-year probation. This was an important moment in one of the most troubling narratives in tennis history.
We feel compelled to at least mention incidents in Justin’s family history. His late father, who had been buried just 48 hours before the brawl, in 1995 ended up in a New Jersey courtroom after allegedly holding a butcher knife to his wife’s neck and threatening to kill her. About a year later, Justin’s brother pled guilty to and was jailed for negligent homicide in the 1996 hit-and-run death of a New Orleans policeman. But it would be wrong to visit the sins of Gimelstob’s kin on him. And we’ll only briefly touch on Justin’s own many wrongdoings: his saying that many WTA women looked like “beached whales” and they “should keep their clothes on,” that Anna Kournikova was a “bitch” and a “douche,” and he wanted to bash her with a ball and leave her in tears. He added, “I wouldn’t mind having my younger brother, who is kind of a stud, nail her, and reap the benefits.” At other times, Gimelstob said demeaning things about gays and was critical of Barack Obama, which prompted the Tennis Channel to briefly suspend him. Kaplan claimed in Venice, CA Justin called a paddleball champion a “faggot” and a “girl” and grabbed him by the throat. The London Telegraph reported that Justin threatened a man outside a Santa Monica restaurant. Justin’s former wife accused him of physical and verbal abuse. And Kaplan reported that Justin told a woman involved in Gimelstob’s divorce case, “Tell your f–king husband I will break his neck if he ever writes another affidavit in my divorce.”
The deeply disturbing victim impact statements by Randall and his wife, which were read in court and are on insidetennis.com, are some of the most chilling documents in sports history. Randall states that at a restaurant (and in the presence of Justin’s own lawyer) Gimelstob threatened him, saying, “You don’t return my f–king phone calls.” And (referencing his divorce battles), “You are either with the Gimelstobs or the Sinnots.” Kaplan claimed Justin then said, “I’m going to f–king kick your ass and kill you.”
Kaplan states that last Halloween, while pushing a stroller with his two-year-old and in front of his wife and many other trick-or-treaters, the 6’5” 42-year-old Justin violently ambushed him from behind, sent him flying and pinned him to the ground so he couldn’t move or defend himself. Justin yelled out, “You f–ked with my family,” and again and again roared: ”I’m going to f–king kill you.” For three minutes he punched Randall some 50 to 100 times on the head, ears, cheeks and shoulders. Kaplan wondered who “the lunatic” was who was pulverizing him with “devastating and brutal punches.” He went into shock, and feared he would be paralyzed or die.
It took three good Samaritans to pull Gimelstob off. Having been told by his girlfriend that the police were coming, Justin ran away and threatened a woman who was photographing him. Kaplan said that Justin’s claim that Randall had originally shouted from 30 feet away that he was glad his dad had died was “something that was absurd from the beginning.” The judge described the incident as “a violent and unprovoked attack.” Kaplan said that it took eight attempts to serve Justin with a temporary restraining order.
After the incident Kaplan’s wife Madison suffered a miscarriage. She said the beating “was beyond petrifying – I’ve never been so scared…I [was] really thinking he was trying to kill Randy…Thankfully my husband survived, but our unborn child did not. My doctors said…the only reason…was the stress from the attack. Justin might not have gotten his wish in killing Randy, but he did kill a tiny innocent little baby girl.”
The attack left Randall sad and depressed, with open wounds and a lasting concussion. He was “dizzy, bruised, swollen” and felt as if layers of his scalp had been ripped off. His wife and four kids were traumatized. He endured flashbacks and faltered at work. He found out that Justin had twice tried to buy a video a man had made of the attack. As Justin entered the courtroom he showed a Telegraph reporter photos of the Kaplans on vacation and enjoying a birthday party after Halloween, which Justin said indicated that “the attack had little effect on them.”
Before sentencing, Justin told the court there was “no place for violence in society” and that he now “takes responsibility” for his deeds. But Judge Upinder Kalra told Gimelstob’s high-powered attorney Shawn Holley that while the Kaplan’s impact statements were being read, Justin “couldn’t stop with his movements, his shaking of his head [and] statements of ‘not true.’…His behavior indicates to me that he is not accepting any responsibility. If he can’t control himself in a criminal court, how can I trust he’s going to control himself out there in the court of public opinion?”
In his curious interview with the New York Times, Gimelstob seemingly let himself off the hook, saying, “I wouldn’t be the first person who’s had a major issue, extenuating circumstances and ascended to tremendous positions of responsibility, power and leadership. I could turn it around, and I think that would be one of my greatest, most proud accomplishments.”
In the interview Justin also leaned on an “I’m not perfect” defense. He noted, “I’m not saying that I am perfect or that I shouldn’t have handled that night differently. I’d give every dollar that I have [he’s said to be worth $8 million] to take that five minutes back. But I didn’t do what he said, and my whole life…career and my relationship with my son should not be ended because of it.” Then again, if you want a good relationship with your son, it’s best not to attack people.
Time and again Gimelstob’s missteps have been overlooked. Authorities have generally offered slaps on the wrist. Many institutions and people, it could be contended, have empowered the man who seems to have never really “gotten it.” After calling some players sexpots, disparaging lesbians and saying he wanted to attack Kournikova, Justin said he “didn’t understand the magnitude of his comments.” Many wretched tennis incidents go unpunished. Lest we forget, Monica Seles’ attacker was let off. Wimbledon didn’t ban Gimelstob, but at least will no longer be giving him VIP treatment.
As for his future role in the ATP, Gimelstob apparently still has many backers, like ATP President Novak Djokovic, Isner and board member Vasek Pospisil. Some, like Rafa Nadal, have remained mute, while others, like Lleyton Hewitt and Martina Navratilova, have said that Justin should not be reelected to the ATP Board at the group’s May 14th election in Rome. Andy Murray told the Telegraph, “I don’t see how, with everything that has gone on, how it’s possible for him to remain in a position of authority or management at the ATP right now.”
With more than a hint of arrogance, Justin claimed in his Times interview, “I’m very good at what I do, and that upsets people in our structure. The players know how good I am…Even in a compromised state, I’ve been able to outwit, outmaneuver, outstrategize and outmobilize them.” At least six people, including Brad Gilbert, will be running for Justin’s seat. Gimelstob was at the forefront of the recent ousting of ATP chief Chris Kermode. As for Justin’s relationship with Isner, the No. 10 player said his advisor is a “misunderstood character” who is “going through a tough time…He goes to bat for us.” It’s doubtful Isner will distance himself from Justin. The Tennis Channel seems to greatly value Justin’s role as a broadcaster and hasn’t provided any comments that address the magnitude of his actions and threats.
The whole issue is such a troubling one, and raises so many questions. What kind of person says, “I’m rich and she’s the best attorney in the world and will get me out of anything.” Why was Justin’s sentence so light, and what would have happened if he were poor? Why didn’t someone step in sooner to stop the brutality? Don’t we expect civil behavior and appropriate decision-making from our leaders? What will it say if the ATP, the Tennis Channel, and Isner proceed without imposing serious consequences on Justin? Won’t they be empowering him and be giving us a terrible example? And what is wrong with Justin? Is he self-sabotaging? Why does he so often resort to verbal and physical abuse? What will it take for this profoundly unaware man to really understand that violence, bullying and taunting are not acceptable?
We hope that someday Justin, who has so many talents, will manage to redeem himself. But for now, tennis must send him a clear message: enough is enough.