Tennis: Author Gilbert starts to play right: Wimbledon '94: Slovak misses chance of surprise result as McEnroe's erstwhile ogre proves almost as good as his word

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The Independent Online
IF YOU possess an average talent, have no charisma at all, and want to become the kind of millionaire who is still able to wander unmolested through Woolworth's without having to resort to false beard and dark glasses, then tennis is probably your game.

Golf is the only serious contender, especially on the American tour, and if the 32-year-old Californian plying his trade on Court 11 yesterday had gone down that path instead, he would be not so much be a Fred Couples or John Daly, as a Duffy Waldorf, or a Rocco Mediate.

Brad Gilbert is what is known, somewhat disparagingly, as a 'journeyman' pro. Gilbert should care. Most of his journeys are made to the bank, and in a 12-year career of 20 low-profile singles titles, his share of tennis' obscene mountain of swag is dollars 4 1/2 m ( pounds 3.04m). Add on earnings related, and Gilbert's own estimate is dollars 8m.

How then, with a game more glamorous opponents would give their right arms not to have, does he do it? He has been described as a 'caveman who found a tennis racket', and John McEnroe got so upset (surprise, surprise) after losing to Gilbert during a match in New York in 1986, that he packed the game in for seven months. 'When I start losing to the likes of him' the Brat snarled at the time, 'I've got to consider what I'm doing playing the game'.

Neither did McEnroe wait until the end of that game before offering the benefit of his opinion on Gilbert's talent. During a changeover, McEnroe (whose eyes, according to Gilbert, had the 'look of a kid who had just set fire to the neighbour's cat') said: 'Gilbert - you don't belong on the same court. You're the worst. The effing worst.'

Gilbert regarded this as a slightly hurtful overstatement, but concedes that McEnroe had half a point by the title of a book he has written. Winning Ugly it is called, and is basically an instruction manual for club class players (based on Gilbert's sharp eye for tactics, preparation and mental pyschology) on how to maximise lesser talents.

Curiously enough, yesterday's match against Karol Kucera, a 21- year-old Slovak whose career earnings amount to Gilbert's loose change, provided a certain amount of evidence that while Gilbert might have written the book, he has yet to get around to reading it.

Early on, there is a passage headed: 'Six reasons why you should not serve first.' Gilbert won the toss yesterday, chose to serve first, and promptly lost it. I had the relevant chapter open when he stalked back to his chair, but something in his eyes (like a kid who had just set fire to the neighbour's cat) advised against pointing it out to him.

Kucera's idea of the starting time failed to correspond to Gilbert's by several minutes, and when the umpire was finally forced on to his mobile phone to find out where Gilbert had got to, I searched (in vain) for a chapter entitled: 'When it's windy and perishing cold, keep your opponent hanging around as long as possible.'

In fairness to Gilbert, he was probably delayed packing his kitbag. Under 'My Tools of the Trade' he revealed what every aspiring player should have with them on court. Spare racket, spare shoes, tape, bandage, spare socks, ache pills, hot weather pills (not needed yesterday), sunglasses (ditto), cap, visor, candy, grips, sweatbands, towels, ice, string supports. Then he gets onto the blindingly obvious items, like pencil and paper. Gilbert is so meticulous, he even makes notes during the changeovers.

Gilbert finally arrived. 'Great book, Brad' a spectator shouted. 'Thanks' said Brad. Kucera's ears pricked up. Gilbert had never played Kucera before, but his KGB-like reputation as an intelligence gatherer on an opponent's game and pysche had clearly filtered through.

Having noted Gilbert's failure to take his own advice on serving first, Kucera's mind drifted uneasily on to the chapter in which Gilbert notes his own ability to play better when he's behind, and probably wondered whether it was a deliberate ploy. In any event, Kucera promptly dropped his own first three services, and the set.

Kucera's concentration during the changeovers would also have been affected, while he kept an anxious eye out for Gilbert changing his equipment. Chapter 3: Playing Smart. 'Remember the old right tennis shoe change that helped me win dollars 114,000 against Jim Pugh at Stratton Mountain?' asks Gilbert, as if we could ever forget it.

Gilbert finally got home in four sets just before the weather closed in, thus depriving Kucera of the opportunity to clue up overnight on the 'how to win from behind' chapter in Gilbert's guide, and become the bookworm that turned.

(Photograph omitted)

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