Posted: Tuesday June 28, 2005 4:57PM; Updated: Wednesday June 29, 2005 9:56AM
LIFE IN THE VILLAGE
Sunday morning, Wimbledon dark day, just before noon. Walking up Church Road in the Wimbledon Village, the usual jaunt for newspapers and coffee. The week's laundry is churning back in the rented flat; I'm down to my last pair of socks. A ridiculous pair of socks, actually, impulse gift from the wife, striped, neon bright, like something out of Dr. Seuss. I have no choice: Need paper, need coffee. Beautiful day: I'm moving fast up to High Street now, feeling the sunshine, taking in the quaint shops, enjoying a day off. I've almost forced the scenes from Horton Hears A Who entirely out of my head.
"Hey," comes a voice. "Where'd you get those socks?"
Busted. I turn, and there's American tennis player Justin Gimelstob, walking with girlfriend Corina Morariu. They're standing close, arm-in-arm. They made it to the semifinals of the '02 U.S. Open together, mixed doubles, the year she completed a stirring comeback from leukemia, chemotherapy, maybe death. "Do you know Corina?" he says. He smiles, she smiles. You never know with couples, of course; but they radiate this sweet contentment. It's somewhat jarring.
Gimelstob's 28-year-old body is a wreck. He had to qualify to get into the tournament, took his 13th cortisone shot to ease back pain so he could play, managed a second-round win over Nicolas Massu, diving and screaming in perhaps the most satisfying moment of his career. Then, last Friday, he lost quickly to Lleyton Hewitt, thoroughly outclassed. "At some point you have to step back," he said that day. "When I grew up, my thoughts and goals were higher. I mean, you always dream about winning Wimbledon; you don't dream about playing guys in the third round. But I look back and, you know, tennis has given me a lot. ..."
Now we stand there, sun beating down. We laugh about the socks, and Gimelstob admits that, yes, he, too, has an embarrassing pair. Argyles. He is out of the singles, had to retire out of the mixed. He has always been funny, very quick and opinionated, and when someone asked him Friday what the most important quality for an athlete is, he said, "For the rest of my life? Probably my mouth." We start walking, and I ask when he's going to get himself a TV gig, and he mentions the injuries and says, "We were just talking about that," and I realize I've just stumbled for the first time upon The Talk -- that moment when an athlete starts wrestling seriously with the end of a career and youth, the end of allowing yourself to dream the most outrageous thing: Greatness. Just once, greatness.
But Gimelstob doesn't seem too torn up. Again, this is strange. The New Jersey-born, 6-foot-5 Gimelstob always had been gabby, high-strung, in his prime too impressed with himself. He was never more than a middling player, topped out his ranking in the 60s, won two Grand Slam titles in the mixed doubles. In '98, his father Barry got into an infamous, dopey scrape with coach Brad Gilbert at the U.S. Open, and was known around the game as that rare type: a tennis dad from Hell, but on the men's side -- potential disaster in the macho confines of the locker room. But Justin came through it better than anyone could expect; his struggle over the last few years proved humbling, made him appreciate the life he'd claimed for 10 years. He's lightened up. He was able to say, after the Hewitt match, "he's a better player than I am," which is progress for the man but fatal for the competitor; in life, in everything but sports, it's best to know your limits.
We stop at the newsstand. I wish him luck and mean it, tell Morariu it's nice to meet her and mean that, too. I watch them walk off toward the center of town, past the tidy shops, walking slow and very close. Pro tennis is an oddly savage life; almost every player gets too jaded, too old too soon. I never would've expected to say the opposite of Gimelstob, but for this one small moment it's true: Happiness makes anyone look younger. I walk in, hand over my money, take the paper away. The courts of Wimbledon are quiet. Middle Sunday, you never know who you'll bump into.
WEDNESDAY'S MATCH OF THE DAY
First on, Centre Court: Feliciano Lopez vs. Lleyton Hewitt. The 26th-seeded Lopez, who dumped both Marat Safin and Mario Ancic out of the tournament with stunning ease, vies to become Spain's first Wimbledon semifinalist since Manuel Orantes in '72. Hewitt won't be able to pass Lopez as easily as he did Taylor Dent, but he should win this in four. Expect a "C'MAAWWWN!" on every winner; Hewitt is in his best form in months, and Roger Federer has had a spotty moment or two. The Aussie grinder wants another shot at the king.