Justin Gimelstob (above, r.), who went big time, with sickening Jay Leno.
We did not think Rafael Nadal played very well in his much ballyhooed return to the tour on South American clay, as we watched him labor to beat Jeremy Chardy 6-2, 6-3 in a mid round match. The score line may suggest relative ease, but that wasn’t the case. The match took 1:31, a long time for a match to go in which you only drop 5 games, and Chardy had plenty of chances to make it even closer. The rallies were long–too long for Nadal who is still out of shape–and Nadal drifted well beyond the baseline, practically playing many strokes with his back against the back wall. And then there was the stalling. Nadal was called, given warnings, for not serving within the allotted 25 seconds, which frankly, is always there when Nadal plays but seldom called.
A lot is being made over Nadal’s win in the final last weekend in Brazil over David Nalbandian, but one day before, Nadal was mere points away from being eliminated, down a set and fighting for his life in the second set breaker. And that was against world # 91, poor man’s journeyman Martin Alund, who is now 27 and has zero titles in zero finals made. We’d say that Nadal does not look good here in this return, and that had he returned for the Australian Open, he would have probably had a bad showing.
We were all over Justin Gimelstob that week on Twitter in the first week of Nadal’s return in Chile at Vina Del Mar, with good reason. Gimelstob, a Nadal sycophant, seemed to have a list of Nadal talking points he wanted out there, which we have no doubt came from the star himself. Like how Gimelstob urged that the chair use discretion when calling the time code, and how people were wrong to assume Nadal was stalling because of his knees when he routinely abuses the code as ritual, because Nadal likes to, as he explained, ‘really think through strategy between points.’
Really? Because a guy that misses 7 plus months due to injury and who has chronic knee problems which have kept him out of 3 majors since 2009, would really raise the ire of an announcer when it is suggested that he stalls because the guy is lame? By the way, we find Nadal’s one more ball back/heavy topspin forehand to backhand strategy completely simplistic and elemental, and the suggestion that Nadal is doing all of this thinking is insulting to us as real fans. Especially when we feel that enforcing the time code is an important step that the chair has made collectively to improve the game. Really, who in the game does not enforcing the code help other than Nadal?
Then you had Gimelstob state that Nadal is “one of the best doubles players in the game”, which, when considering the disservice that playing doubles at IW did to his career to follow, and how Gimelstob lauded Nadal for winning there, conveniently omitting the fact that Nadal has not even set foot on a hardcourt since, is questionable at best. Nadal is a very talented doubles player, and we’ll not argue that. But doubles has decimated Nadal, as has Plexicushion, and for everyone to pretend this is not the case for the sake of a constant Nadal love fest is disgraceful. As is Nadal for missing a major in order to practice on clay instead, though if again, he is shaky on clay, it does not bode well for the rest of his game. It’s nice that Nadal, at the age of 25, has finally figured out that Plexicushion is ruining him, but to say he’s needed a brick to fall on his head in order to realize as much would seem totally accurate. It would also be nice if a high profile commentator like Gimelstob, who was himself an attacker, would acknowledge that Nadal’s constant grinding, inability to hit winners consistently, and necessity for long points has been essentially Nadal both living and dying by the same sword. This is where we feel Gimelstob, who burst on the scene as a big time commentator due to his honesty and unabashed enthusiasm for the sport, has taken a back seat in recent months to announcers like legends John McEnroe, Boris Becker, and Jim Courier, who we thought for a while he was set to surpass. What Gimelstob should have said was that Nadal’s doubles prowess has come at the expense of his singles career, because his job is to do more than throw out hollow platitudes, by offering more substantial commentary to the hardcore fans who are watching match to match on The Tennis Channel. Because what match in, match out fans of the game are really sitting there marveling at Nadal’s doubles ability in the wake of him missing the entire US Open, Indoor, and Australian seasons, when the guy has zero doubles majors to his credit? What a John McEnroe does in providing meaningful commentary is to point out that Nadal’s excellent hands at net, which he seldom showcases in singles, could be a boost to his longevity and might serve to prevent him from breaking down so much if he could find a way to be more intrepid.
But therein lies the rub with Gimelstob, who, we assume in his role as an official ATP guy, is looking to divorce himself from controversial, i.e. honest stances. Guys like Nadal and Murray, who are talented net players, but who only approach net a handful of times per match have essentially rendered that skill moot by way of ignorance, and so wouldn’t it be more relevant for him to talk about why these guys would squander such ability due to under use? Instead, we hear Gimelstob pushing Nadal’s agenda, which is to suggest the YEC be played on clay, rather than questioning Murray’s lack of initiative, we hear him talking all about Murray’s new apartment in London.
A guy like Boris Becker, who shoots straight as an arrow, has even been heard to criticize the great Roger Federer. Martina Navratilova, as solid in the booth as they come, has panned players like Murray and Wozniacki, labeling their failures and the correlation to passive play as “the same old story.” She has labeled Nadal’s injury woes as “the same old story.” These announcers have done something serious by denouncing the style of play, and in Nadal’s case, have connected the style of play with the physical toll, which Gimelstob disservices us by failing to admit exists.
Gimelstob doesn’t have the star power that they do, making honesty all the more precious a commodity for him, though he has definitely lost it along the way somewhere. In fact, upon reflection, we’re happy that we were not subjected to this type of hack announcing from Gimelstob, who was noticeably absent from the AO ESPN mix channels coverage.
So Nadal plays perhaps his worst match on clay ever in that final and loses in a 3rd set breaker to Horacio Zeballos, then around world #73, and it is obvious to any true fan of the game that this is not the same indestructible clay court Nadal we have come to expect. Gimelstob essentially tiptoed around the issue, another real disservice, we thought, to the tennis world. As it would be to play the YEC indoors on clay, as indoor clay is the height of tacky, the most bush league a move there is, reserved for clay court specialist team tennis nations and the Porsche Cup at Stuttgart, which is a high quality surface in exactly zero arenas, and in most cases, is just clay heaped carelessly atop a hard wood, like the surface upon which John Isner, who we don’t see ever beating Roger Federer on an outdoor clay court, upset Roger Federer in Fribourg in February of 2012. And frankly, we recall Federer’s back tightening up in that match, which we attributed to traction issues.
The next week, Nadal is set to play doubles with Nalbandian, and withdraws due to “knee overuse.” The finals loss and the subsequent doubles withdrawal, coupled with the fact that playing doubles helped put Nadal in this predicament in the first place, was a huge tennis story, and we commend honest reporting like Matt Cronin’s, who was all over the withdrawal, calling it one of the strangest bits of phraseology he could ever remember regarding injury/non injury propaganda. But then Nadal goes on to win Brazil despite the showing against Alund, which now seems a non a issue.
Today the story broke on Twitter regarding Nadal skipping Indian Wells, which Nadal already refuted, since putting out a statement through his camp that he ‘intends to play.’ Nadal has not played on hardcourts since IW in 2012, and at this point in the season he is usually playing on hards, but obviously this year he has played exclusively on clay. If he missed a major where he was a defending finalist, why would he risk playing at IW in the Masters Series, with relatively little at stake besides points?
We think Nadal is playing coy when he says he ‘intends to play.’ We think he said he intended to play Melbourne, and how’d that turn out? It seems to us that Nadal is trying to pull it together to play the soft court season only, and that like last season, he will barely keep it together through Wimbledon.
What would Gimelstob think of that? We think we know already,though we don’t expect him to tell the truth. We think Gimelsob is, at this point, resigned to seeing Nadal on a limited basis, and that he feels a little Rafa is better than none, which is probably why he has been on the shill for a clay court YEC. One thing you can’t fault Gimelstob for is wanting Nadal back at a high level, as it is good for the sport, which is why we are always outraged when players who can go skip majors, as we do not think that is good for the sport or show’s the proper respect to the majors that they deserve. Instead of getting together with Nadal to disseminate propaganda, Gimelstob and Nadal should deliver the bad word about Plexicushion and other soft hards, which beat the hell out of the players worse than anything, while promoting bland, timid, reaction tennis and one dimensional defensive style tennis. Since Roger Federer has already announced that he will skip Key Biscayne and it’s tacky, bland, frustrating Defense Pro soft hardcourt, which frankly, we feel plays worse than fucking Lenglen and Philippe Chatrier.