Most people can name a famous Jewish baseball player, maybe even several. But what about men’s tennis?
Well, there’s Brad Gilbert … but beyond that?
The name Justin Gimelstob might not be one that would jump into the minds of even diehard sports fans, but Gimelstob was a better-than-average player on the pro tour for 12 years.
So when talk turns to the greatest Jewish American tennis players of all time, he at least deserves mention as a top-five candidate (along with Aaron Krickstein, Eliot Teltscher and Paul Goldstein).
Gimelstob’s career came to an end at the U.S. Open in August 2007, when he decided to retire and turn his attention toward other pursuits, such as becoming a tennis commentator on TV.
He quickly has achieved that goal and, in fact, has been in the Bay Area this week preparing to serve as color commentator on Comcast SportNet’s telecast of the semifinals and final of the SAP Open. The annual men’s pro tournament in San Jose began Feb. 9 and concludes Sunday, Feb. 15.
Gimelstob also serves on the men’s tennis tour’s board of directors and still brings his racket wherever he goes, often taking to the court when a pro player is looking for someone to practice against.
“What I know best is tennis, and I love being around it,” the 32-year-old said from his Santa Monica office last week before finding his way to San Jose. “You miss the competition, the intensity, the incredible feeling of competing. Still, I was content leaving my career knowing I had a drop left in me.”
Gimelstob has taken that “drop” and squeezed out a second, successful career. He’s a regular face on the Tennis Channel, and he also does tennis-oriented features and interviews for the TV Guide channel and other media entities.
He also blogs for Sports Illustrated at SI.com — and he does it under the title “Gimel Takes All,” a subtle nod to the dreidel game.
Gimelstob never won a singles title on the ATP pro men’s tour, and that includes all ATP tournaments, not just the “majors” such as Wimbledon and the French Open. The highest he got in the world singles rankings was No. 63 in 1999, but he was a super doubles player, winning 13 career titles, including the 1998 Australian Open and French Open mixed doubles crowns with Venus Williams as his playing partner.
“I wish I would have done better. I wish my ranking were higher. I wish I had won a singles title,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I did the best I could at the time. And that’s it.”
Gimelstob did have some notable singles wins in his career, such as upsets of two top-12 players in consecutive years at Wimbledon. He also had a 1997 triumph over Andre Agassi (then No. 32 in the world) and a 1998 win over Patrick Rafter (then No. 5), both in matches in Los Angeles.
Those wins were especially sweet for Gimelstob, who was a star player at UCLA in the mid-1990s and has a strong attachment to the area. He even was inducted into the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. Three years later, the MetroWest Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in New Jersey extended the same honor; New Jersey is where he was born and raised.
“I only have 48 states to go,” he joked. “There’s obviously not a large number of pro Jewish athletes, and I’m very honored to represent that demographic.”
Gimelstob, who calls himself “culturally Jewish,” grew up in a household that “wasn’t overly religious.” His family belonged to Temple B’nai Jeshurun, a Reform congregation in Short Hills, N.J., and he took private Hebrew classes to offset some of the pressure that resulted from his busy tennis schedule.
When he was at UCLA, Gimelstob celebrated Passover and other Jewish holidays with some of the team’s boosters.
“When I played, I got a lot of support from the Jewish community,” he said. “People identify me as a Jewish athlete. It’s a strong responsibility, and I appreciate that.”