In many ways, athletes die twice: once when they retire and again like the rest of us. A 30-year-old lawyer might barely be a partner in his firm, a doctor barely starting his practice. But a 30-year-old athlete is either a marvel or, most likely, headed into the sunset.
Which leads us to the instructive fable of 31-year-old Justin Gimelstob and one of the most roller-coaster post-playing years in the history of professional tennis.
Gimelstob describes himself as a "serviceable pro," a man who over the course of 13 years on the tour played more than 600 singles and doubles matches, attained a career-high singles ranking of 63 and earned just over $2.5 million in prize money before ending his career in the fall of 2007.
Most tennis players opt for a period of decompression once their playing days are over. Pete Sampras went more than three years without hitting a tennis ball. Activities such as golf, sleep, family and new friends are tonics for a life spent flying more than 150,000 miles a year in a sport with an 11-month season.
Gimelstob took another path. At the 2007 U.S. Open, the Slam he'd decided would be his last, he was already hosting an Internet highlight show, working as an analyst on an international broadcast, writing a column for Sports Illustrated's Web site and lining up gigs for everything from the corporate world to his own charity event. Upon losing to Andy Roddick in the first round, Gimelstob conducted his own interview with the winner on USA Network, revealing the verbal agility that had marked his entire playing career.
"I hit the ground running so hard," Gimelstob said. "I didn't want any lull, didn't want any time to ponder the unknown. I was just throwing everything against the wall."
As he rapidly segued from a client of sports management firm IMG to Beverly Hills-based talent agency William Morris, Gimelstob was a star in ascent. TV work in tennis with the likes of Tennis Channel and Fox was an obvious spot. But he also began to dip his toe into places such as "The Tonight Show."
But here, perhaps without being aware of what his new life was all about, Gimelstob was entering new and dangerous emotional territory. His approach to a career in broadcasting was similar to how he'd pursued his tennis. Said Jim Courier, "Justin was always a serious, hard-working player who left no stone unturned in his quest to improve both on and off the court."
The difference, though, between tennis and other endeavors is significant -- a lesson Gimelstob has only learned conclusively in retrospect. Said Gimelstob, "Tennis is totally finite. Even more than a team sport, you have control over everything. You don't realize the damage that does if you don't assess it honestly. In the rest of the world, you're at the mercy of other peoples' opinions. You need people to listen to you, watch you, help you."
One area where Gimelstob applied these lessons was in the political realm. In 2007 he'd run for a seat on the ATP board. "That year I didn't understand what it entailed," Gimelstob said. "I didn't grasp the process. And I lost, which in the end turned out to be a blessing." A year later, more aware of the nuances required for interacting with players, tournament directors and other officials, Gimelstob won a board seat at an election held during Wimbledon.
So by the summer of 2008, Gimelstob was, in his words, "going a zillion miles an hour, and in my ignorance I thought everything could be compartmentalized -- tennis, radio, sports radio, TV, commercials, appearances."
But then he got sloppy -- and paid a price. During a radio interview with a Washington, D.C., program, Gimelstob made a series of vulgar comments about Anna Kournikova, touching on everything from his contempt for her, to his plans to hit her with a tennis ball when they met up in a future World Team Tennis match, to his desire for his brother to have sex with her. Needless to say, the language was somewhat coarser. When word of the interview hit the tennis world, Gimelstob -- for good reason -- was vilified.
"I made a wrong move," Gimelstob said. "I admit that 100 percent. I take full responsibility for what I said. I went down a path of being flippant and talking in a way that was unacceptable and said stuff that was regrettable. It was unfortunate."
Gimelstob's lead role in a USTA advertising campaign for the summer's U.S. Open Series was killed, his place taken by the allegedly reformed rogue, John McEnroe. His work with Sports Illustrated ended.
It was rumored that Gimelstob would lose other gigs soon enough. But he remained visible. During Wimbledon, as statements, press releases and public reprimands and apologies flew around Gimelstob, he continued his work for the Tennis Channel, hosted a radio show for Fox Sports and participated in tons of meetings in his new ATP post. His U.S. Open itinerary included time as an advisor-hitting partner to Lindsay Davenport and on-air for a feature on the Bryan brothers that aired on the CBS "Early Show."
When Gimelstob and I spoke, he was just back from being a last-minute substitute for one of Courier's Outback Champions Tour events; packing for a trip to Chris Evert's charity event, which he'd been invited to at the last minute; and preparing for his work as an analyst during Fox Sport's coverage of the ATP Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.
Said Gimelstob, "It was a painful period, but also a time when I learned a lot about people. I'm not asking to get a pass. But I'm disappointed I got so little respect and took in these levels of venom. I took a deep, hard look at myself and asked if those comments I made completely revealed what kind of person I am. I don't think so. I'm glad this happened early in my career. I can guarantee it won't happen again."
This story is not intended to admonish or exonerate Gimelstob, but instead to reveal a certain aspect of how a tennis player finds his or her way after hanging up the racket. As Gimelstob's public journey demonstrates, life after tennis requires new and ambiguous levels of maturity. That's particularly true for one who never cracked the top 50. John McEnroe, in contrast, has generated far more controversy over the years than Gimelstob, punctuated by hostile encounters with neighbors, airline personnel, media and, of course, on-court tirades with officials that have become so iconic they're deployed in commercials for the likes of American Express.
But everything from McEnroe's gold-plated tennis résumé to his current stature as a TV personality provides him with a powerful foundation of prominence -- and the sober truth of the marketplace that a star like McEnroe is a source of revenue for people who will gladly turn an eye from his misdeeds. "I understand the pecking order," Gimelstob said. "I understand how John McEnroe can move the needle in tennis. But the accountability is disproportionate."
But again, what would proportionate look like? In his quest for meaning and success without holding a racket, Justin Gimelstob has learned the hard way that he has little margin for error -- and that the landscape won't change too much. The tricky part as he navigates his post-tennis journey is that the land will constantly be shifting, the borders always in flux, the rules and terms of evaluation uncertain. Said Gimelstob, "From the age of eight, I was trying to get better, to improve my technique, to get stronger, more consistent, hit closer to the lines. Now, even though I'm pursuing another career at 100 mph, it's not easy to measure how much you're improving."
For a man who feared the unknown, Gimelstob is now, at age 31, about to face it the way we all do. His TV work may be aired in high-definition and showcase brilliant colors, but it's the shadings of gray that will require much of Gimelstob's attention from here onward.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.