Column: Nicole Gibbs’ cancer battle has bolstered her commitment to tennis

Nicole Gibbs makes a backhand return during a World Team Tennis match for the Orange County Breakers in 2016. Gibbs is making a comeback to the sport after undergoing surgery and treatment to remove a tumor in her mouth.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

The offer was too good to refuse: Visit the dentist and get a free teeth-whitening procedure. And since Nicole Gibbs realized she hadn’t gone to her dentist for a couple of years — and because she wanted to look good at a bachelorette party for fellow tennis player Caroline Wozniacki — she gladly accepted.

When the dentist noticed the tumor on the roof of her mouth and asked if she’d ever had it checked out, Gibbs brushed it off. She had previously been told it was a bony growth. The dentist thought otherwise and insisted on having it biopsied, but the surgeon she consulted wasn’t alarmed. “He said, ‘Go and have fun this weekend and not worry about it,’” said Gibbs, who lives in Venice. “I came back and found out it was cancer and not too many details beyond that at first, which is really stressful.”

For three days after the diagnosis, Gibbs, a graduate of the Crossroads School and a two-time NCAA singles champion at Stanford, was plunged into a worst-case world. “It was a total nightmare,” she said. “The first doctor we saw kind of told us it was a treatable form of cancer but that was it. And he said, ‘By the way, if they radiate you, come here first and we’ll try to prevent all your teeth from falling out.’ So we were definitely on this roller coaster of, wow, I might lose all my teeth. Should I even be concerned about that if I might die?


“I just had no bearing, but honestly, I’m just so thankful for the experience because I think you can’t have a true appreciation for everything in your life until you have some wake-up call type of moment, and this was it for me.”

A blown suture after her surgery in May complicated her recovery and kept her on a feeding tube for weeks instead of days, but Gibbs is back on the tennis court with a renewed appreciation for the sport. In her first competition since the surgery she surprised herself by reaching the final of a tournament in Hawaii and then jumped into a busy World Team Tennis schedule with the Orange County Breakers. She didn’t play in their win over the San Diego Aviators on Saturday but she’s scheduled to return Monday, when the Breakers play host to Springfield at the Palisades Tennis Club in Newport Beach.

Gibbs, 26, has played World Team Tennis before but welcomes this opportunity to again become match-tough. The WTT format is unique: The first player or doubles duo to reach five wins the set, and each team plays one match in men’s singles and doubles, one each in women’s singles and doubles, and one in mixed doubles. It’s entertaining and the quality often is high. “There’s a lot of pressure,” said Gibbs, who defeated world No. 8 and longtime friend Sloane Stephens in singles at New York last week and teamed with Andreja Klepac to defeat Stephens and Kirsten Flipkens in doubles. “It’s a very shortened format so you have to come out of the gates well and you have to compete well.”

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Gibbs’ prognosis is good and she said she feels good, although she still has a small hole in her mouth and must remember things can get messy if she drinks too much water too fast. “I was not a fun dinner date for a while,” she said, smiling. In addition to her WTT commitments she signed up for qualifying for a premier-level event in Toronto next month and to play in Vancouver, and will go through qualifying for the U.S. Open if she can’t get a wild-card entry into the main draw. She’s also planning a November beach wedding in Mexico with fiance Jack Brody, the head of product for Snapchat. When they began dating he knew little about tennis. “Every time someone would hit a winner he would call it a kill, like in volleyball,” she said. “Now, he sometimes gives me feedback after my matches.”

Ranked as high as No. 68 in the world three years ago, she dropped to the 130s in June after her surgery but moved up to 125 after her runner-up finish in Honolulu last week. Before that tournament, she sent members of her team a soul-baring message. “I kind of rattled off everything,” she said. “Fifty-three days since I was in the hospital, it had been 28 days since I was off a feeding tube, and 21 days since I could get back on a tennis court. I was like, we’ve got to lower the expectations and just try to enjoy the moment like this. It’s a huge testament to all the people around me that I was able to bounce back that quickly.

Nicole Gibbs plans to take part in U.S. Open qualifying if she doesn't receive a wild-card entry to the tournament.
(Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images)

“I just felt so lucky that whole week to be on the court. I definitely felt like I was less tense, less outcome-oriented and looking for progress in different ways. Just enjoy being out there and enjoy competing, don’t really worry about what anyone thinks or what the results may be.”

Getting to that point wasn’t easy. Her father, Paul, started her in tennis, “and it never really was my choice, my mission,” she said. “It’s a love-hate relationship sometimes.” Her talent was obvious, but her passion wasn’t constant. “I think I had always grappled with, ‘How much do I really care about tennis, and would I be happy if I stopped playing?’” she said.

“To have gone through this, one of the first things through my mind was, I’m actually really uncomfortable with the idea of tennis being taken away from me, and that reinforced what I had hoped to be true, which is I care deeply about the profession, way more than I’d realized. You can take things for granted until you have them taken from you, or you deal with the idea that they might be taken. It’s definitely allowed me to view my tennis with a more long-term commitment than I had been and yeah, it’s more enjoyable.”