While many may find my contention that Brad Gilbert was an exceptional tennis player an overstatement, particularly top players who lost to him in matches in which they were heavily favored, I have no reservations in making this assertion.
Gilbert’s winning record in matches of significance against players ranked higher than he, players presumed more talented and considered in gambling vernacular, “A mortal lock,” is legendary.
Though Gilbert never enjoyed the notoriety of players such as Pete Sampras, Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker, Jim Courier and John McEnroe, those players all fell victim to his underrated abilities.
McEnroe, once assailing Gilbert’s game, stated that if he lost to Brad Gilbert, he needed to retire. Gilbert wasted little time in issuing McEnroe his “walking papers.”
I witnessed a number of Gilbert’s wins over players against whom he appeared overmatched.
During his dismantling of a big name player, I’m sure I was at least as perplexed as was his victim. Initially, I just couldn’t discern what it was he was doing that was so effective. So I continued studying his matches.
Sometimes I wondered if he was using smoke and mirrors, if he was simply a magician. But where were the props? There were none, at least none visible to the naked eye.
Finally, it dawned on me. It was so obvious that I, his high profile victims and the galleries of fans who were present at those incredible upsets, missed it.
It wasn’t impeccable strokes. It wasn’t fluidity of movement or outstanding court coverage. And it was neither extraordinary athletic ability nor exceptional power. It was none of the array of physical skills that one equates with a highly successful tennis player.
It was that Gilbert was not just a tennis player, but a competent player with an extraordinarily analytical mind.
Brad Gilbert was a master tactician. He was exceedingly proficient at identifying and exploiting his opponents weaknesses while still playing within his own comfort zone.
I think Gilbert was astute enough to realize early on that he was not blessed with a plethora of prodigious skills. However, he was fully cognizant of and comfortable with the skill set he did have.
So Gilbert effectively equalized the playing field by maximizing his abilities and using the greatest of those assets, perceptive intellect, to impose his will upon his opponents.
Many called Gilbert a “pusher,” meaning a player who doesn’t give opponents pace and rhythm to work with. To that, I say, “yeah, and…your point is what?”
Tough luck complainers. Gilbert was under no mandate requiring him to supply you with what you needed to win.
Gilbert retired from the circuit in the mid 90’s.
What’s equally if not more significant than his competitive exploits is that he has successfully condensed his strategies and tactical abilities into a coaching career second to none. That’s not easily done. There’s no guarantee that successful players will transition to superior coaches.
Gilbert didn’t win a singles slam title yet he’s a proven commodity at coaching others to that summit of achievement.
Amongst players to have benefited from Gilbert’s coaching are Andre Agassi with whom Gilbert worked for about eight years. During that period, Agassi won six of his eight slams and was not remiss in crediting Gilbert with having played a crucial role in those successes.
Gilbert signed on with Andy Roddick in 2003. That union produced the only slam Roddick has won, the 2003 US Open. Roddick ended that year ranked number one. He also reached the 2004 Wimbledon final while still under Gilbert’s guidance. Why Roddick didn’t retain Gilbert’s services is a mystery to me.
Three years later, Gilbert must have been enticed by the proverbial “offer you can’t refuse” deal (minus a horse’s head a la The Godfather), as he signed a three year deal with the BLTA (British Lawn Tennis Association) to assume the duties of coaching Scottish player Andy Murray and work with some of the younger British juniors.
As with Roddick, I’m perplexed as to why Murray didn’t retain Gilbert. They parted company in less than a year and a half.
Gilbert also worked for a short time with Britain’s Alex Bogdanovic and later with Japan’s Kei Nishikori.
Unquestionably, players flourish under Gilbert’s influence. That’s not coincidence.
It’s Gilbert’s intuitive grasp of what a player has and how best to utilize his strengths while minimizing weaknesses.
In 2012, Gilbert worked for a short time with American, Sam Querrey. Within the brief span of their association, Querrey won his first tournament in some time, the Sarasota Open. The win was a much needed boost for Querrey whose confidence level was low due to a lack of match play resulting from an elbow problem.
Hopefully his physical woes are behind him. The Sarasota win sparked a productive summer for Querrey as he reached the mid-rounds of several tournaments and looked solid doing it. The big guy has serious ability.
I’m unsure if Gilbert is still working with Querrey but I hope so. He’s definitely the right man for a high-level player aspiring to move up to have in his corner.
If in fact Gilbert and Querrey are no longer working together, it would behoove some hungry American player to try and secure Gilbert’s coaching services.
He/she could benefit tremendously from the association.
Brad Gilbert may very well be a bit of all that the title of this post implies, ex player, magician, guru, but without doubt…
he is a coach extraordinaire.