It was 20 years ago this summer that a rising tennis star from Colbert was poised to either make history or be a part of history.
Jan-Michael Gambill, the 56th-ranked player in the world at the time, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 2000. Gambill lost to Pete Sampras, who went on to make history when he won his record 13th Grand Slam singles title, defeating Pat Rafter for the Wimbledon championship.
Sampras defeated Gambill 6-4, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4 in that quarterfinal, ending the deepest run the 24-year-old Mead High graduate with a two-handed forehand had made at a Grand Slam event. Gambill opened the tournament with a straight-sets victory over No. 7 seed Lleyton Hewitt then defeated Fabrice Santoro, Paul Goldstein and ninth-seeded Thomas Engvist.
The Wimbledon run, though not historic, made a celebrity of Gambill. As his tennis career continued, he landed a modeling contract, was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” and made Sports Illustrated for women’s “The 10 Hottest Men in Sports” list, for example. His charity work has included events associated with Elton John, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert.
Attempts to reach Gambill for this story were unsuccessful, but longtime Mead tennis coach Bill Wagstaff, who first met Jan-Michael when he was a preschooler, spoke highly of his longtime friend.
“He is such a gracious guy. He is just really a nice person,” Wagstaff said. “Even as a youngster, Jan-Michael was always really nice. I’ve always thought very highly of him.”
The Wimbledon run raised expectations for Gambill’s appearance at the 2000 U.S. Open. He had a strong tournament at Flushing Meadows, advancing to the third round before losing to Thomas Johansson. The summer’s momentum carried him to a No. 33 ranking by the end of the year.
Beginning in March 2001, he reached the quarterfinals at Indian Wells, won at Delray Beach in Florida and finished runner-up in Miami when he lost in straight sets to Andre Agassi. By June, Gambill was ranked No. 14 in the world and third among Americans, behind No. 3 Agassi and No. 10 Sampras. Seeded 12th at Wimbledon, Gambill lost a five-setter to Chris Woodruff in the opening round.
In 2003, Gambill won at Delray for the last of his three career titles (he also won five times playing doubles, each with a different partner). He maintained a top-50 ranking through most of 2004, but shin and shoulder injuries hampered his play. By the end of 2005, he was no longer ranked in the top 200.
Gambill only played a few matches for Mead’s tennis team during his freshman year.
“It was just going to be really hard for Jan-Michael to get the quality of practice that a player who is aspiring to that level would have needed,” Wagstaff said.
Still, Wagstaff’s long association with the Gambill family – he said he even played rec-league volleyball with Gambill’s parents, Chuck and Diane – gave Wagstaff a good sense of what Jan-Michael brought to the court.
“I’ve hit a lot with really good players through the years, and to me Jan-Michael just had this mental focus that set him apart, and I think that’s what it takes when you get to that level,” Wagstaff said.
“Jan-Michael has had a great career. He was just a different sort of athlete and I think that’s what it takes in a lot of sports. It’s just that different sort of mindset,” Wagstaff said.
Wagstaff’s observation supports what Gambill said in a 2006 article in The Spokesman-Review.
“I don’t know if I ever had one defining moment. It was really about competing. I loved competing, and tennis was my vehicle for doing that. I liked competing more than I liked tennis,” Gambill said.
Gambill’s Instagram account shows a world traveler who has visited places such as Jamaica, England and Mexico in the past year. Having left Spokane several years ago, he splits his “home time” between Southern California and Hawaii.
He is still active in tennis, working as an analyst for the Tennis Channel. As a coach, CoCo Vandeweghe and Jared Donaldson have been two of his prominent players, although he and Vandeweghe parted ways in 2013.
To say Gambill owes his lasting measure of fame to the performance of his racket on the grass courts of Wimbledon in 2000 would be a stretch, but it played a big role in creating a little piece of history that he can call his own.
“Tennis is a different sport, in that as you go out there, it’s the quality of your play and your racket that determine whether or not you’re going to survive at this. You are not signing a contract,” Wagstaff said. “Your racket is going to speak for itself.”
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