Monday, July 15, 2013

Gilbert Q&A: Murray, U.S. tennis, QuickStart, etc.

Brad Gilbert appeared at the Olympic Club in San
Francisco on Tuesday to promote clay courts in
Northern California. Photo by Paul Bauman
   SAN FRANCISCO — Brad Gilbert calls himself a "lifer."  
   "I've been playing tennis since I was 3 years old. I'm almost 52," Gilbert told about 125 juniors and parents on Tuesday during an appearance at the Olympic Club to promote clay courts in Northern California. "All I did in my life is cross one bridge from Piedmont to San Rafael (in the San Francisco Bay Area). And just like so many of you, I grew up here playing tournaments. That's what our family was all about."
   Gilbert has done more than cross the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. He has been phenomenally successful in every area of tennis he has pursued: playing, coaching, broadcasting and writing. 
   Gilbert played professionally from 1982 to 1995, winning 20 singles titles and reaching a career-high No. 4 in 1990 by outsmarting more talented, stylish players. He earned a singles bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and compiled a 10-5 Davis Cup record.
    After his playing career ended, Gilbert coached Andre Agassi for eight years (1994-2002). During that time, Agassi won six Grand Slam singles titles and an Olympic gold medal and reached No. 1 in the world for the first time in his career.
   Gilbert then coached Andy Roddick to the U.S. Open title in 2003, the last time an American man has won a Grand Slam singles crown, and the top spot in the rankings.
   Gilbert joined ESPN as a tennis commentator in 2004. After coaching rising star Andy Murray in 2006 and 2007, Gilbert returned to ESPN in 2008 and has worked for the network since then. He is highly insightful, colorful and entertaining on the air.
   Gilbert also has written two highly acclaimed books. "Winning Ugly," on how to beat opponents mentally, was published in 1993, and "I've Got Your Back," on his coaching career, came out in 2004.
   After extolling the virtues of clay courts on Tuesday, Gilbert fielded questions from the gathering at the Olympic Club. Following are excerpts.
  Q: What was the biggest win of your career?
   A: The best win that I had in my life was any win. Anytime they said those four valuable words — "Game, set, match, Gilbert" — life was good.
   Probably one of my proudest moments as a tennis player was walking in front of 60,000 people (during the Opening Ceremony) in Seoul, (South) Korea, and playing in the Olympics. I was fortunate enough to get a big penny (bronze medal).
   I had a chance as a little kid to ballboy for Davis Cup and then play Davis Cup. Anytime you got a chance to do something for your country was probably one of the proudest moments for me as a tennis player.
   Q: You used to coach Andy Murray. How did (training) on clay (in Spain) help him develop as a junior, and what did you emphasize when you coached him?
   A: Andy Murray was 14 1/2 years old. He's from Scotland. His mom is a coach for the LTA (Lawn Tennis Association). He had a brother (Jamie) who was a year older and living in London and training at their facility there. She wasn't happy with the direction, what she was seeing with her older son, so she made a bold decision. She didn't take the funding, and she sent (Andy) at 14 1/2 years old for the next 3 1/2 years to Barcelona to live at the Casal-Sanchez Academy. He didn't know one person there, nor did he speak Spanish. Amazingly, he still doesn't speak Spanish.
   But that 3 1/2 years shaped him as a tennis player. Clay probably is not his best surface, but it shaped his overall game, shaped his discipline. It improved his movement dramatically, and more than anything, it improved his footwork. He probably would be the first to tell you the reason he became great was his mom made the hard decision to move him to Barcelona.
   When I started coaching him (in 2006), I knew was going to win Wimbledon one day. No doubt.
   (Gilbert elaborated later in an interview.) The first time I hit with Andy when he was 18, what struck me was how clever his brain was, how high his tennis IQ was and how amazing his hands and feet were. He didn't have the biggest forehand, the biggest backhand, the biggest serve. ... So few guys could move well on grass, you just knew he would be the guy to break (Great Britain's) curse.
   At 18, he already had over 10,000 hours of people that he played against on his computer. He was already studying tape all the time, long before other guys were doing it. He already was breaking down opponents and thinking about strategy. Plus, a lot like Andre, he has a photographic memory remembering points and what he's done on the court. Not quite at the level of Andre. He had a photographic memory of every stroke of every rally of every point in the match. 
   Q: How do you feel about parents coaching their children?
   A: It's one of the most (unusual) things I've ever seen. They could be just a club player, and they coach their kid full-time. There are a lot of success stories out on the tour, and there are a lot of (failures). It's a really, really tough situation. My two girls don't really play. I never pushed them. My son plays, but I didn't really coach him that much, and if I did, sometimes we'd have a difference of opinion, and my wife would really get mad at me.
   I'd like to tell you that there's a perfect answer, but there isn't. A lot of times when you see it on the tour level, it's hard to separate being a parent from being a coach. Sometimes it's an economic situation where the parent wants to hire a coach but can't afford it. I would say, be careful not to become more of a coach than a parent.
   Q: How can kids keep their cool on the court, especially against better players?
   A: I always say, "How many times when you get mad and lose focus do you start to play better?" I tell kids and parents of kids who are intense, start doing yoga. Start doing breathing exercises and relax. We all want to be better, but when we're stressed out 24-7, that's too much of a cost. The one thing you can ask of yourself every time you play tennis is that you tried your best and you competed. You don't always win, but that's one thing you can control.
   At 14, every time I played a match, I wrote down notes -- what worked and what didn't work. If I was watching a match between players I would play against, I would make notes of their strengths and weaknesses. But the most important thing is competing and playing fairly. That will take you (further) in life.
   Q: What was it like coaching Andre Agassi?
   A: It was a great eight years. Andre is a wonderful human being. We had highs, we had lows, but we had a lot of great times. I told him the other day that he's impacting more lives now (with the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy in his hometown of Las Vegas) than when he was playing tennis. He has a wonderful heart. That's good people, right there.
   Q: It seems U.S. women's tennis is more successful that men's. What is it going to take for U.S. men's singles to get to the top?
   A: That's the $64,000 question that the USTA is probably thinking about 24-7. Why are (U.S.) women so much better than the men? Just off the eye test at the moment, we're getting a better athlete on the ladies' side than we are on the men's side. You have to remember, tennis is by far the biggest sport in the world for women. It's the most participated in, and it's the most watched. ... In the States, we have the best (male) athletes in the world, but maybe they're not playing tennis.
  Q: What's your stance on QuickStart Tennis (with smaller rackets, slower and lighter balls, smaller courts and modified scoring for 10-and-unders)?
  A: It's funny. So many of the older guys and coaches that I know, it's 50-50. Some really like it; some hate it. I think it's phenomenal. It has been a long time coming. It should have been around a long time ago. I've embraced it. I like the short court.
   I played a ton of basketball when I was 7. We didn't play with a 10-foot hoop. We played with a 6- or 7-foot hoop.When you play baseball as a kid, you don't start out playing regular baseball. You play T-ball. You play soccer on a smaller field. Every other sport, you play on a smaller level. But for some reason in tennis, we expect a little kid to play on a full tennis court. My first tennis racket when I was 3 was a 390-gram Dunlop with a sawed off handle. There were no kids' rackets. There was no technology.
   I think our mentality has gone a little wack thinking that every single person should be No. 1 in the world. We want to encourage kids to play tennis as something you can do for your whole life. You can become fitter, and it will help you in life, so I'm massively in favor kids starting that way.
   Q: Why isn't there more interest in doubles?
   A:  We get asked that question all the time on ESPN. If the Williams sisters are playing doubles, we usually show it. We have to pull teeth to get the Bryans on. The sponsors don't want to see it. They want to see singles. They want to see the stars.
   The USTA and ITF (International Tennis Federation) are trying to encourage more kids to play doubles. When you're 13, 14, 15, doubles actually helps you with your communication skills as a human being. We all play doubles as an adult. I do my part all the time trying to get it on TV, but I'm not the one who sells advertising. (Doubles) is a tough sell sometimes.
   Q: Do you favor the current Davis Cup format (four weeks spread throughout the year at host nations for each best-of-five-match series) or a one-week tournament?
   A: I'd like to see Davis Cup every other year. If possible, I'd like to see four regions. Maybe you qualify for your region during one week, and then you have a super-event. I'd like to see it more on the world stage. Let's say eight teams play over two weeks at one place. It would be a super-event like the World Cup or the Ryder Cup.
   The Davis Cup has lost a little bit of its luster in the current format. If you win the (title) in December, then you have to be back playing the first round in (February). Playing four (weeks) a year seems like a lot for the top players.
   Q: What were your impressions of Wimbledon?
   A: Upsets were contagious. But the great thing about tennis and life is that everything moves forward. Five days later, everybody still wanted to talk about Fed (Roger Federer) and (Rafael) Nadal losing. I'm like, "Well, that was five days ago. The tournament moves on."
   The people who beat (Maria) Sharapova, Fed and Nadal ended up losing in the next round. The most shocking upset was Serena (Williams) losing because she was playing phenomenal tennis, but the two guys we thought would be there at the end of the tournament (Novak Djokovic and Murray) were there.
   Marion Bartoli didn't beat anyone in the top 15 in the world, but she took advantage of a great draw and made it happen. You had to feel good for somebody like that who would never have been on the radar. I think I saw at the beginning of the tournament that she was like 350 to 1 (to win the title), and I guarantee you not one person bet on her.
   I really enjoyed the grass. Twenty-five years ago, watching men's grass-court tennis was like watching grass grow. It was awful. The courts were lousy, they were too fast, the balls didn't bounce, and it was serve, volley, missed return ... a huge rally was five shots.
   The old-school guys hate (the slower surface). They think, "Where's the serve-and-volley?" I like what I'm seeing. I like the variety. I like all-court tennis. I don't want to see a point end with no thinking.
   To me, this modern grass-court tennis is so much more interesting than when I played. When you drop the ball and it lands by your sock, that's not interesting to me.   
   Q: What was the most upsetting loss of your career?
   A: I had a lot of trunk-slammer days. That's where you throw your bag in the trunk and slam it shut.
   Maybe the semis of the Olympics. A few guys in the tournament lost. (Stefan) Edberg was playing before me against (Miroslav) Mecir. If I won, no chance I was going to beat Edberg. We were playing on these lightning-fast hardcourts. You could literally see your reflection. They're were straight, old-school asphalt courts. And then Edberg goes out and loses.
   I'm playing my (U.S.) teammate Tim Mayotte. I'm thinking, "Man, I'm going to beat Mayotte, I'm going to beat Mecir, and I'm going to win the gold." Got ahead of myself. I slept about 22 minutes that night because I was thinking about winning the gold. I went out and got beat 4, 4 and 4.
   Two weeks later, I beat both Mayotte and Mecir. Paris Indoors. Wasn't the same.
   Q: I talked to a pro in Florida who said performance-enhancing drugs are more common in tennis than most people realize. Do you know anything about that?
   A: I would have no clue. It's unfortunate that in every sport now, kids, parents, coaches want a magic pill. I wouldn't do something that could alter my life. I remember at the Olympics, they had this survey of like 10,000 athletes: "If you could take a pill that would guarantee you the gold but in 10 years you would pass away ... " Over 60 percent of the people said they would do it.
   There's (no drug) that will help you with your serve or your forehand or pressure. You can do things to help with recovery, but to me, tennis is still about how you manage your nerves, how you play points, how you strategize, how you move, how your technique is. If there's a magic pill for those, I don't know it yet. Unfortunately, I'm probably fairly naive, though. I'm old-school. I would never do anything, and if I saw it, I wouldn't be a part of it.
   Q: (From a young junior.) How does it feel to be between normal and a celebrity?
   A: I'm a tennis player. I've been really fortunate that my entire adult life, all I've done is tennis, from playing to coaching to doing TV. I try not to take myself too seriously. My three kids still call me "Dad." My daughter says, "Can you give me another credit card?" Kids keep you grounded.                 

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