The first time I met Brad Gilbert was on the eve of the German Open at a plush hotel in Hamburg in the summer of '07. He was coaching Andy Murray; I was interviewing Rafael Nadal and made a point of introducing myself when I spotted him in the lobby.
Gilbert had always fascinated me; he dressed like Darth Vader, played like a caveman and had written a brilliant book on the sport called Winning Ugly. We chatted for a while about Murray and then I steered the conversation to Nadal. "Is there anything about him you're curious about? What would you ask?"
"Ask him to describe his perfect day," he replied.
"His perfect day?"
"Yeah, how would he describe his perfect day?"
It was the following evening before I tracked the Spaniard down. He'd spent a long day practising and fulfilling engagements for sponsors and I was going to have to hit him with my best shots if I was going to engage him.
Q: "How does it feel to be surrounded by people who say 'Yes' to you all the time?"
A: "I don't feel I am surrounded by these kind of people. My family treat me the same and will tell me if I do anything wrong. And my friends have been my friends since I was a little kid."
Q: "How does it feel when John McEnroe compares you to Borg?"
A: "I don't think so, not yet. Borg won five Wimbledons and six Rolland Garros – I have just two Rolland Garros. Yes, I have had three very, very nice seasons, especially on clay, but you couldn't compare me to Borg."
Q: "How did it feel when those drug allegations surfaced at Wimbledon last year?"
A: "I was never accused. There were no real allegations. It was a non-serious newspaper (Le Journal du Dimanche) in France. The person who wrote that article did not even put his name to it. That proves two things: that he is a coward and that he is not serious."
But he wasn't playing ball. He denied he had ever thought about the millions he had banked, dismissed any attempt to discuss his celebrity and practically snorted when I tried to engage him in a discussion about love. Brad Gilbert saved the game. Nadal had never been asked to describe his perfect day before and there was a long pause as he gave it some thought.
It would begin on a beautiful summer's morning in Majorca, he explained, in the coastal town in Porto Cristo. He would rise early and breakfast with his father and then stroll to the harbour to meet his two closest friends – Miguel Cabor and Bartolome Salva-Vidal – by his father's boat.
They push out to sea and spend the morning fishing and return to Porto Cristo with some sea bream and a magnificent stone bass, which they fillet and cook for lunch. The afternoon is spent on the golf course at Son Servera. He tees it up with two of his uncles, Toni and Miguel-Angel, wins the money on the 18th and returns home to watch Barcelona and the evening football game. His friends call after dinner and invite him to a party and it's 3.0am before his head hits the pillow. He's tired but elated. "This has been the perfect day."
"What about sex?" I inquired.
"No sex," he replied.
"You're joking!" I exclaimed. "Surely you'd have sex on a perfect day?"
He thought about it for a moment.
"Sex is important in life, but if you're having a perfect day, you don't have time for sex."
"That's interesting," I smiled.
And finally he began to engage.
The 'perfect day' question isn't popular at press conferences but I've used it regularly since and floated it again last week in an interview with Paul O'Connell. He wasn't quite as expansive as Nadal but painted a similar portrait espousing the simple pleasures.
"It would be the day after winning a big match," he explained. "We head down to Liscannor with the family for the day and have some food in Vaughans and a pint in Egan's and some golf in Lahinch and a swim in Clahane. That would be my perfect day."
The reaction to the interview was mixed: some readers enjoyed it, some were underwhelmed but the most interesting view was a text I received from a friend: 'Read and reread that piece today. I'm a little pissed off with O'Connell. He came across as being quite rude at times. And definitely was terse. By god you had your work done.'
O'Connell was rude?
He was terse?
Sure, there were moments when he could have given more, but there were also moments when he would have been entitled to tell me to get stuffed.
I had my work done?
Perhaps, but it's the O'Connells of this world – the giants of sport – that make it so enjoyable. And I'm not sure how I'd perform sitting in that chair.
Actually, that's not true. A few months ago, I sat on the other side of a microphone and was interviewed by Donal Lynch. I kept trying to join the dots and find the angles. Why has he started there? Where is he going with this? How am I supposed to answer that?
It was a strange and curiously unnerving experience.
Even Gilbert, who gabs more than CNN, has found the process uncomfortable. In January 2008, eight months after we had met in Hamburg, I travelled to San Francisco to interview him for the first time. The following morning at 7.0am, the phone rang. It was Gilbert. He had spent the night tossing and turning and wondering about something he had said.
"Hey buddy, did I wake you?"
"No Brad," I replied. "I'm still struggling with jet-lag.
"Oh, okay, listen, I've been thinking about a couple of those questions you asked . . . you quoted me something Pat Cash said."
"Yeah, it was a column he wrote after your split with Andy Murray."
"No, it was another quote."
"Yes, about the nature of top-flight coaching. I'm actually working on the transcript now. Would you like me to read it out?"
"That would be great, buddy."
"Okay, I've found it, this is what he wrote: 'So what exactly is the role of the top-flight coach? Motivator, shot mechanic, tactical guru, friend, confidante, disciplinarian, occasional surrogate big brother, highly paid skivvy, verbal punchbag? I'd love to ask that question of Andy Murray and Andy Roddick. Better, still, I should ask Brad Gilbert and Jimmy Connors, their respective new coaches.'"
"And what did I say?"
"You asked me to explain what a skivvy was and when I did, you said: 'Well, if you're a highly paid skivvy you are not a coach.'"
"Yeah, that's it. I think a coach should wear a lot of different hats; some days you're a friend, some days a tactician, some days a strategist but the important thing is that you should never go in with a predetermined thought of what you need to be."
"Do you want me to put that in?" I asked.
"There was another question about Andre (Agassi)."
"Yeah, it was a question about an interview you gave to The New York Times where you described him as 'really getting it.' I asked what you meant by 'it.' This is what you said: 'There are a lot of superstars that you feel awe or nervous around but he doesn't give off that vibe at all. There could be 20 people in this room and he would engage everybody. He has that rare ability to make everybody feel comfortable. He doesn't want anyone falling over him because he's a great tennis player. He's thoughtful, incredibly smart; a person you would want to sit down and have a beer with. That's what I mean by it.' Do you want to change or add to that?"
"No, that's fine," he replied.
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, that's exactly what I wanted to say."
I haven't seen Brad since but there's barely a week when I'm not reminded of him. It happens every time I sit down and open my notebook.
Now Eamon-Joe-Brian-Paul, how would you describe your perfect day?
Sunday Indo Sport