It’s been more than six years since Jan-Michael Gambill played on the biggest stage in tennis, testing his skills against the top ATP players, with serious prize money on the line.
He no longer darts around north Spokane in one of his many Jaguars, taking the back roads to his parents’ house in Colbert. But at age 35 Gambill is hardly living the life of a retired professional athlete.
He is coaching a rising player on the women’s tennis tour, satisfying his competitive fix through World Team
Tennis and playing in charity events with celebrities such as Elton John, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert attached to the causes.
And when Gambill has a moment to kick back, he does it at his home in Kailua-Kona, on the big island of Hawaii.
“I love Spokane, but I also partially grew up in Hawaii,” said Gambill, a 1995 Mead High School graduate who has enough aunts, uncles and cousins around Spokane to fill a banquet room.
“As a young kid, I thought I’d never leave the place. But the place that makes me the happiest is the big island of Hawaii.”
Life hasn’t always been perfect for the athlete with good looks who is signed with Wilhelmina Models and was named as one of “People” magazine’s “most beautiful people” in 2000.
There was the time after playing professional tennis when even Gambill faced the unsettling question of “What’s next?”
Gambill never retired from professional tennis in the sense of a formal announcement. He stopped playing when his body gave out. It began with injuries to both shins in 2005, where Gambill said the pain got so bad he could barely get up and down stairs. The next thing to go was his right arm, the result of over compensating for his aching legs.
“I’m not one of those people who needs everyone to know I was hurt,” Gambill said. “For two years, I couldn’t hit a tennis ball with my right arm. It was depressing, it was hard, I couldn’t do anything.”
There were some attempts at comebacks as recently as 2010, playing in small tournaments in places like Savannah, Ga., and San Jose, Calif.
But it was a second- round loss to Tim Henman at a U.S. Open tune-up in 2006 that Gambill remembered as his last “big tournament.”
During his career, Gambill reached as high as No. 14 in the rankings, made it to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and had wins over Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. His singles and doubles earnings topped $3.6 million.
“I don’t know if I ever had one defining moment,” Gambill said. “It was really about competing. I loved competing, and tennis was my vehicle for doing that. I liked competing more than I liked tennis.”
What was next for Gambill included World Team Tennis. He played for the now-defunct Houston E-Z Riders before joining the Boston Lobsters four years ago. The league’s month-long season attracts past stars and current players who are taking breaks from the men’s and women’s tours.
“This was the first year my shins didn’t hurt,” Gambill said, about the season that ended in September.
He credits the turnaround to the rigorous CrossFit gym training. Always one to hit the gym hard, Gambill said his new daily strength and conditioning routine saved him.
“I don’t know what it is in CrossFit, some sort of flexibility. I’m not getting back on tour, but it’s been a godsend.”
Keeping relevant in the tennis community also led Gambill to a coaching job for Coco Vandeweghe, who was his teammate on the Lobsters.
Gambill is also regularly asked to play in charity tournaments, his latest the Mylan WTT Smash Hits in Pittsburgh.
The annual event, hosted by John and King, raises money to support HIV and AIDS prevention and awareness programs.
“The last few years, it’s one of the reasons why I’m so proactive is because of Elton John. He said I have to go out and live my life and do something. I was tired of sitting around and feeling sorry for myself, even if it was in Hawaii,” Gambill said.
Vandeweghe, meanwhile, keeps Gambill hopping on the court, as student and coach practice most days in Orange County, Calif. They have traveled together on the women’s circuit for more than a year.
The 20-year-old comes from a family of athletes that includes her mother, Tauna, a 1976 Olympic swimmer and 1984 volleyball player; grandfather, Ernie, who played for the New York Knicks in the 1950s; and uncle Kiki, the general manager of the Denver Nuggets and former UCLA and NBA basketball player
“He’s a great guy. I really enjoy working with him,” said Vandeweghe, who saw her ranking jump as high as 69th this year after being in the mid-100s. “I knew from team tennis he’s a pretty intense guy once he gets on the tennis court.”
Gambill said he hasn’t been back to Spokane in about two years, but would like to return at some time. Although he’s been a resident of Hawaii since 2005, he lives in Orange County most of the year. His father, Chuck, who coached him throughout his career, and mother, Diane, live about 30 minutes away. They, too, left Spokane for Hawaii and then relocated to California. His younger brother, Torrey, who is teaching tennis at a club, is also nearby.
As for the collection of Jags: They’re mostly just a good memory of Spokane. I have one in California and one in Hawaii.,” Gambill said. “I sold most of the cars, although I wish I hadn’t sold the E-Type.”