It’s a few hours before the all-important draw for the U.S. Open, and Robby Ginepri sounds a little nervous over the phone, although he insists he’s “keeping it mellow.” Once among the world’s elite players, the 29-year-old needed a wild card invite to enter the tournament he first played as a pro in 2001, and further, he’d need some luck to not be called upon to face one of today’s top guns in the first round.
Luckily for Ginepri, a few hours after we spoke with him, he drew Spain’s Albert Ramos — not a pushover, but not Roger Federer either. Then again, if Ginepri gets through Ramos and 25th-ranked Fernando Verdasco, Federer looms in the third round. Ah, such is tennis, a sport that Ginepri came to late and mastered early. He came of age alongside fellow Americans Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, and if not for some injuries, including two elbow setbacks in the past two years, he may have added a major title to his stat sheet.
When he steps onto Court 4 today to play Ramos, Ginepri will be more concerned with survival than with thoughts of a championship. “I’m trying to find my game again,” he says during a conversation that runs from his hopes at the Open to the trendy Novak Djokovic–gluten-free diet to his favorite off-court passion, cooking.
Ginepri has two good reasons for being able to handle himself in the kitchen — he was raised in an Italian-American family, and he has needed to stay in shape, both for the demands of the tour and to keep up during his rehab from injuries.
“I’m always cooking for myself,” Ginepri says. “I enjoy the process of going to the fresh markets and picking out ingredients. On the road, it’s tougher, but I try to eat healthy.”
How tennis players eat has become an issue over the past decade and a half or so. While a scrawny John McEnroe looked like he subsisted on salads (or maybe junk food) in his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, his contemporary Ilie Nastasie seemed like the type of dude who’d throw down a couple of sausages to go with his beer. Today’s players have to condition themselves on and off the court, and diet plays a part.
Djokovic’s 2011 proclamation that his gluten-free diet had turned around his career and led to an eye-popping undefeated streak sparked much debate. “He was the first guy to talk about it,” Ginepri says of the defending US Open champ. “I think a few more guys followed that.”
Not Ginepri, however, who still enjoys the type of pasta that has grandparents used to make him. He says that calorie-consumption is important to him, and during training periods he eats about five small meals per day. Ginepri adds that he’s on the court less these days; rather, he focuses on fitness and even yoga to increased his flexibility.
While he’s apt to try the fried chicken or steak at local restaurants in his current hometown Atlanta and he spent the run-up to the Open draw eating out at Colicchio & Sons and China Grill, Ginepri can’t deviate from his system too much. At 29, he’s an old man in a sport where most of the top players are in their teens or early 20s, but he notes that Federer, the 31-year-old who won Wimbledon last month, proved that even more mature guys can compete.
“People write Roger Federer off, but he’s still making semis and quarters in every tournament he plays, and even winning finals,” Ginepri says. And later this week, with any luck, Ginepri will have a chance to change that.