Welcome to the Good Life

Tennis simply runs in the family for Zach Gilbert, who has a former star to call "dad."

Evan Walbridge/Staff

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To the rest of the world, Brad Gilbert is the former pro tennis player who climbed to No. 4 in the world and mentored the likes of Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi.

But to Zach Gilbert, he's just Dad - the early riser who never stops moving, the big personality who liberally embellishes stories, the parent who nicknamed him Buck at an early age because he watched Bambi every day for a year.

"People ask me if it's weird whenever I hear my dad on TV," says Gilbert, a senior on the Cal men's tennis team. "It doesn't really feel weird for me. It's pretty much always been normal. For me, it's just how it is."

Gilbert's idea of "normal" certainly isn't. Not when he regularly attended Wimbledon when most kids his age attended summer camp. Not when he decked himself out in Nike as a kid because the megabrand gave his dad free clothes. Not when former world No. 1 Agassi, whom Gilbert reveres as a mixture of idol and uncle, gave him a matching haircut when he was eight.

Nonetheless, Gilbert is down-to-earth and genuine. He doesn't once mention a ranking or statistic or award. He fleshes out his father's character in a way only the son who's spent his whole life admiring him can.

While Gilbert's memories of his father's career have long since faded, the example he set is still ingrained in the forefront of his mind.

"He was and still is this very driven person," Gilbert says matter-of-factly, as if there's no room for dissent. "I really admire how he was able to overcome the obstacles and will himself to become the great tennis player that he was. Still is."

The biggest lesson his dad instilled in him wasn't spoken aloud: it was simply the fact that he never gave up on his dream.

Gilbert has spent his whole life trying to emulate that.

With so much exposure to the world of tennis, Gilbert's fate was all but predetermined. He'd spent his whole life on the courts, watching his dad coach, watching those clients win. When he turned seven he knew he wanted to play competitively.

His father never pushed him over the edge like a "crazy tennis parent," even though he easily could have tried to relive his glory days through his son. He was encouraging but never overwhelming.

Gilbert competed all throughout his adolescence, but the junior tournament circuit is demanding and unrelenting. And by the time Gilbert reached high school, he had burned out.

"There were a couple of years where my focus got a little bit less "

He stops to search for the right word.


Just as in the junior years, Gilbert's dad supported him in the break. But his dad was never his coach. The father-son duo wanted to preserve a professional boundary, a divide between tennis and family. So rather than straightforward coaching tips, fatherly advice poured in.

"I think that's something he's instilled in me," he says. "You don't get that many opportunities in life, so you should really take your chances when they're there."

He realized he still wanted to play college tennis, but finding his way back to that point wasn't going to happen overnight.

"I needed to whip myself into shape in order to be able to do that," he says.

At that point, a less focused player might have lamented his wasted potential and watched a dream slip past.

But Gilbert followed his father's advice. He picked up an opportunity, enrolling for one year at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla., whose hallowed courts Maria Sharapova and "Uncle" Andre once graced in their earlier days.

It paid off. Surrounded on all sides by elite athletes training to be the next generation of pros, Gilbert saw the dedication and drive it took to get to where he hoped to be.

At the end of the year Gilbert realized how much he wanted to remain close to home, close to his dad and his family.

When Wright and the Cal team expressed early interest in him, Gilbert was quickly sold. By December of his senior year he already knew he would trade in his quiet family home in San Rafael, Calif., for the city life in Berkeley.

"Zach had an interesting history," Wright says. "I like a kid like that. You could see that tennis was what he really wanted to do. You could see the determination."

Gilbert isn't a top player with the flawless set of skills. He has only played twice this season, both times during doubles tournaments that didn't count toward rankings. Untimely and unforseen circumstances - a broken finger, a bout of mono - over the past few seasons have set him on the shelf just as he was about to break into the regular lineup.

But Gilbert isn't embittered by the way his collegiate career has turned out. He's just grateful to have had the chance to play for the Bears, to make lifelong friends.

"He's sacrificed a lot for his teammates," Wright says. "He's the consummate team player. His skills are such that he's not afraid to start at a lower level and work up."

Since he couldn't play on the court, Gilbert carved out a place right above it. Before most home matches he announces the names of his fellow teammates.

"Coach just asked me to do it one day," Zach says. "I'm not really afraid of public speaking, so I thought, 'Why not? I'll try it out.'"

One can't help but notice the similarity to his father, who is an ESPN analyst during the Grand Slam tournaments.

But Gilbert insists that it is purely a coincidence. Yes, his path may resemble his father's, but he's making sure to pave it in himself. He may catch a lucky break here or there - consider his recurring internship at ESPN, which brings him into personal contact with Chris Fowler at Wimbledon - but he's not making any apologies. He's going to take each opportunity and mold it into his own experience.

And as in every other aspect of Gilbert's life, his dad will be present on the sidelines cheering him on.

His father showed up to Senior Day at the Hellman Tennis Complex, even though his son didn't play.

That day, he wasn't Brad Gilbert, tennis star.

He was just Zach's dad.


Annie Gerlach covers men's tennis. Contact her at [email protected]

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