It was Friday night at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. There was 121st-ranked Nicole Gibbs, on Court 10, in the final round of the US Open qualifying versus 128th-ranked Naomi Broady. Gibbs had won the first set 6-4, lost the second by the same score, now led 5-2, 40-love in the third and would soon make an unprecedented statement.
And rest assured, this is a woman who’s never backed off from speaking her mind. Politics? Gibbs will wax, earlier this year diving into social issues in a compelling New Yorker article that includes this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. on her Twitter page: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Economics? Here’s Gibbs with a tally on the costs of life as a pro, written as part of her “My Tennis Life” series that airs on Tennis Channel. “In my case,” said Gibbs, “I would estimate my annual expenditure to exceed $200,000, despite constant efforts to cut corners and costs. No worries if I’m not winning much for a while, huh?”
And then there was the supremely cathartic Facebook post Gibbs authored at the end of 2015, comprised of oodles of losses, eight broken racquets, four coaches and a motivational quote first authored by the avatar of life’s abyss, Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Try better.”
At 5-2, 40-love, Gibbs missed a makeable forehand. It was now 40-15, Gibbs again one point away from making the main draw. This time, Broady missed a forehand.
Here is where Nicole Gibbs entered new territory: She cried. There had been tears in defeat, but never in victory.
“It’s been an emotional week,” Gibbs told me as we talked in the US Open player’s lounge. “It’s a pretty amazing feeling to earn my way back…This year there has been a lot of adversity, of not performing the way I’m capable of.”
Gibbs gave significant credit to Roger Smith, the former ATP World Tour pro who’s been her coach since the end of 2015. “He’s incredible,” said Gibbs, “so patient. He’s been through a lot of the ups and the downs. He doesn’t mind the grind. He’s in it for the long haul.”
The grind it must be. For Gibbs, life has always been about the fight. When Gibbs was a child, her parents thought she’d be a lawyer. Be it with her intellect or her tennis game – a style based less on weaponry and more hinged on point-to-point problem-solving – Nicole Gibbs is arguably (sic) never more content than when she has the chance to make the case for herself.