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Gambill is still competing

By Nicole Auerbach
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2011

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MIDDLETON - Let’s go back - before Mardy Fish lost weight and went deep in Grand Slam tournaments, before James Blake had a vocal cheering section known as the J-Block, and before Andy Roddick burst onto the scene.

There was a rising American star, a guy who was going to carry the burden of being the next great US tennis hope. His name? Jan-Michael Gambill.

He hit his backhands and forehands with a unique two-handed grip. He didn’t, like many of his peers, train at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida. And by 1999, he had beaten Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, the top Americans he seemed poised to replace.

“At that point, it was funny - they were already asking those questions of, ‘Who’s going to be next?’ ’’ Gambill said last night before his Boston Lobsters met St. Louis in a World Team Tennis match at the Ferncroft Country Club. “It was me. Then after me, it was Roddick, Blake, Fish, guys like that.’’

Gambill peaked at No. 14 in the world rankings in 2001, when he won the second of his three ATP titles. His best finish at a Grand Slam tournament was a berth in the quarterfinals of the 2000 Wimbledon.

Gambill, 34, has continued to play tennis at various levels over the past decade, competing regularly on the ATP tour through 2005 and playing seven seasons of WTT (including the past four with the Lobsters). But injuries curtailed his success at the world-class level.

“You always feel like you could have had a better career,’’ Gambill said. “Injuries really held me back. For the last six or seven years, I have had shin problems. For two years, I couldn’t play at all because I had a bad shoulder injury.

“That was depressing, and that sort of ruined my ATP career.’’

But tour wins aren’t the only way to measure a player’s career.

“The way I look at it, has someone reached their potential?’’ Lobsters coach Bud Schultz said. “How hard did they work? How hard did they compete? What did they give of themselves to be the best they could possibly be?

“At the end of the day, Jan-Michael can look in the mirror and say, ‘I reached my potential. I didn’t take shortcuts. I didn’t bail at any point in time.’ In that sense, I think he’s had a tremendous career.’’

Gambill said he has found a home in WTT, and realized that what he enjoys most is the competition.

“It allows me to once again compete at the higher level,’’ Gambill said. “Most of the guys that are playing full-time didn’t have the career that I did. But you still play all the marquee guys, [and I am] seeing my friends and the guys I played against all those years.

“As long as I can still compete, I’ll be out there.’’

Against the Aces last night, Gambill split his matches (winning the men’s doubles match with partner Eric Butorac, and losing to Aces marquee player Mark Philippoussis in men’s singles). The Lobsters lost the match, 23-11.

Schultz, who has coached Gambill for the past three years, has been impressed with Gambill’s serve, groundstrokes, and team spirit.

“You get to compete in 14 matches in 18 days,’’ Schultz said. “For really competitive people, that’s an attractive thing.’’

Because of the WTT’s compressed season, it frees Gambill up to pursue a variety of other interests, including modeling and a foray into reality television. He appeared as a blind date for one of the female cast members on the VH1 reality show “Tough Love’’ in April 2009.

Lately, Gambill has been devoting a lot of time to supporting the Cat Tales Zoological Park in Spokane, Wash., where he grew up.

Cat Tales is a nonprofit organization that rescues and provides homes for endangered cats - from lions and leopards to lynx and tigers - founded in 1991 by Mike and Debbie Wyche. The Wyches are parents of one of Gambill’s former classmates.

“I’d always loved big cats, loved animals in general,’’ Gambill said. “I’m very much an animal rights kind of guy. We need to help. [The Wyches] get calls every day for cats to be rescued, and they have a very finite space. They can only house 40-50 cats depending on size. They have no federal, no city support.’’

Gambill has helped Cat Tales build new habitats and buy food to feed the animals. He said he hopes to make a reality show about the Wyches and Cat Tales. The next step? Pitching it to a network.

It’s all a competitive process, but if anyone’s up for the challenge, it’s a competitor such as Gambill.

Nicole Auerbach can be reached at nauerbach@globe.com.