Justin Gimelstob is feigning trepidation.
“Oh, man, he’s dressed like a tennis player. I was expecting khakis and a notebook.”
Indeed, I’ve come armed with my Wilson nTour and a new one of those slick “moisture-wicking” Reebok shirts. Though I do point out that I’m carrying a briefcase instead of a gym bag.
I shake Justin’s hand and take a look around. We’re inside the stadium court at Legg Mason Tennis Classic. I doubt that’s true, but it’s a cool thought.
“So how good of a player are you?” Justin asks, standing up from a bleacher to reveal his 6-foot-6-inch frame.
“I’m a three-five,” I say, referring to the ATP Tour and was once ranked 63rd in the entire world. At that level, they give out big checks, not ratings.
“We’ll see,” he responds with a wry grin.
Justin is in town to help promote his debut with the Washington Kastles, a new World TeamTennis franchise that will begin play in the District next month. He’s doing some clinics with kids and also has agreed to play with a few schlubby reporters like myself.
We start to hit a few balls. He’s feeding me easy, waist-high forehands, and I’m getting them back in play. These are right in my wheelhouse, and I’m loving it. I flub a backhand or two. But I’m not stinking up the joint, and this is good.
I start up the small talk, telling him about how I watched him play once at a tournament in Daniel Nestor. He looks at me like I just asked him the square root of 642. I guess he’s not impressed with my knowledge of obscure left-handed Canadian doubles players. I feel like a dork.
“Do you read my column?” he asks.
I hesitate before responding. He’s referring to his column on SI.com, and I know it exists but haven’t read it in a while. I tell him I read it religiously. I’m pretty sure he knows I’m lying.
The rallies are getting more intense. Justin comes into the net, and I try to pound some forehands right at him. He volleys them back with little effort.
I manage a few successful passing shots down the line, though he’s not really going after them. He congratulates me politely. My confidence is building.
“Let’s see if I can handle one of your serves,” I say with more cockiness than I intend.
“All right,” he says, clearly reluctant. He has a cranky back.
After a handful of warmup serves, Justin starts to turn up the velocity. He’s acing me right and left and down the middle. These are topping out at well more than 100 mph, and he’s probably only giving 75 percent. But it’s the placement that’s killing me. Out wide with a kick that sends it high over my head. Or down the center stripe when I’m leaning the other direction. I’m a soccer goalie, just guessing where the ball is coming next.
Justin serves one hard into my backhand, and I’m stunned when I chip it back successfully. We get into a rally, and somehow I win the point when he sends a volley long.
I’m feeling good. But then I look down at my shirt - the one that’s supposed to stay nice and dry - and it is soaked straight through. Soggy as all heck. I am sweating like Roger Clemens in front of Congress. I realize that I am killing myself out here, and Justin is not even trying. It’s not fair.
“Wanna play a tiebreak?” he asks.
“Uh, sure,” I respond as a mixture of nausea and excitement sweeps over me.
It’s best out of seven points, and you have to win by two. Something tells me he will win by at least that much.
I serve first. First ball goes into the net, so I dink the second serve in lamely. Mercifully, Justin declines to smash it back, instead hitting it gingerly back into the court. I respond with an acceptable forehand.
He yells “crosscourt!” That’s right: He’s announcing where he’s going to hit the ball - actually telling me where the ball is going next. And yet, when he sends over a sharply angled forehand, I miss it completely, waving my racquet at empty air.
1-0, Gimelstob. I mutter an expletive.
His turn to serve. He pounds one down the middle. By the time I swing my racquet, the ball already is rattling around up in the seats.
He follows that up with an ace out wide. I grunt, more out of aggravation than exertion.
Ok, I’m down 3-0. I take a deep breath. I’m mildly annoyed. I’m taking this way too seriously.
And then something happens. It’s my turn to serve, and I crush it. I mean, I hit the snot out of the thing. It clears the net and bounces right around the service line. Justin is surprised. He nets the return.
“Woah, nice one,” he says.
I raise my arms like I just won Wimbledon, then lower them quickly before Justin notices. I am glowing internally from my semi-legitimate service winner.
Justin goes on to win 7-1.
We take a break, and this is when he tells me all about his retirement from the tour, which doesn’t seem much like a retirement at all since he’s busier than ever. He has been doing some commentary for the Serena Williams.
“Competition’s competition,” he says. “I have no doubt this will evoke emotions that I haven’t felt since I left the tour. I’m curious to see how my body reacts and how long it takes me to assimilate to the pace.”
Apparently a hitting session with me isn’t cutting it.
Justin tells me that he still “goes at it tooth and nail” on the court with Pete Sampras, his neighbor in Southern California. So in other words, his idea of relaxation is to play tennis with a guy who won 14 Grand Slams.
Some kids start trickling onto the court. It’s clinic time, and we need to wrap up our session. I scan the kids to see whether there are any future Gimelstobs or maybe a Williams sister or two. There’s potential in this chirpy crowd, no question. And they now have Justin to show them how to pull off that kick serve out wide.
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