Tennis has a Justin Gimelstob Problem
Let me admit something: I never heard of Justin Gimelstob before 2008, when his mouth, not his racket, brought him to my attention. “She’s a bitch….I wouldn’t mind having my younger brother, who’s a kind of a stud, nail her and then reap the benefits of that,” he said of fellow pro Anna Kournikova in radio remarks widely circulated in the press.
Scheduled to play an exhibition with Kournikova the next day, he declared he would aim his serves hard into her midriff: “If she’s not crying by the time she walks off the court then I did not do my job.”
2008. That should have been it for Justin Gimelstob, forever. After all, the man has amassed zero singles ATP titles: That’s zero Grand Slams, zero Masters 1000, zero 250 events. The trophies he does have are in doubles, courtesy of a brief partnership with Venus Williams. Despite his undistinguished record, despite his controversial baggage, he continued to rise in tennis: He landed a coveted and well-compensated position as a commentator for the Tennis Channel. He landed a coaching job with number one American player John Isner. He was selected for the ATP Board, a post which indicates the approbation of his peers.
While holding such positions, he was arrested on felony battery charges for a Halloween assault on his estranged wife’s friend, hitting him fifty times. His estranged wife had previously charged Gimelstob with domestic violence in seeking a restraining order against him. Suddenly, it was more than Gimelstob’s mouth getting him in trouble.
This was too much for Australian former pro Lleyton Hewitt, who tweeted immediately that the ATP needed to hold Gimelstob to account. Novak Djokovic took up the charge, calling for the ATP Council to hold a vote this week on whether Gimelstob should remain a representative to the Board or get the boot. This is a no brainer of a vote — after all, the bar for serving on the council is high, and the membership has already smoothly voted out Roger Rasheed, over a contract issue.
Yet in the case of Gimelstob, a man who is incontrovertibly corrosive to the sport, the ATP Council is headed for a clash. The story now is not Gimelstob. The story now is male tennis players, what the fuck is wrong with you?
Predictably, John Isner jumped to his coach’s defense, arguing that Gimelstob was “innocent until proven guilty.” He went on to clap back at Hewitt, citing the Australian’s former “nasty situation” with James Blake, the subtext being that Hewitt was a racist.
Where to begin. One might forgive tennis players for being confused about the meaning of “court,” but Isner’s comments suggest that the matter of Gimelstob’s status on the ATP Board should entail the same due process standards of a legal trial.
John, It’s a council. It’s not a court. They can do what they want simply by majority vote, independent of whatever legal proceedings Gimelstob faces. The case of Roger Rasheed proves it. If the ATP Council decides that Gimelstob’s look is a bad one for tennis (and how could they decide otherwise) they can, and should, disassociate themselves from him.
As to Isner’s sudden concern for James Blake, those who know Isner’s fondness for Trump, and his defense of alt-right tennis pro Tennis Sandgren are having a hearty laugh. Now, NOW, Isner is suddenly concerned about racial equity in the sport. Ok.
It should be plain as day that there is no upside to allowing Gimelstob to remain the public face of tennis — either in ATP governance or on Tennis Channel. Whether or not he clears his name of felony charges in his trial (looking doubtful, to a casual observer), Gimelstob is toxic to tennis. He cannot guarantee his behavior. His string of apologies for past transgressions are swiftly followed by worse ones.
The only critical question the ATP Council should consider this week is what’s best for the sport. And the answer is clear: Remove Gimelstob by as impressive a margin in the vote as you can muster.
The ATP has one chance and one chance only to get this right. Either dissociate from Gimelstob, or side with him, and face condemnation together.