Wimbledon18

GULBIS: THE LONG AND WINDING ROAD

by

Saqib Ali

I first saw Ernests Gulbis live at the old Grandstand during the 2007 U.S. Open. His was the only name I did not recognize on the order of play sheet that day. He was taking on eighth-seeded Tommy Robredo of Spain in a late-afternoon match.

I made a point to check out the new name in the draw and I was treated to an exhibition of raw power tennis. Gulbis was 19 then. His ballstriking left an immediate impression on me and many of those who were in attendance that day. Here was a boy playing without any fear, just unleashing heavy strokes. Gulbis won, 6-3, 6-2, 6-1 in just over an hour. It was quite similar to the Marat Safin-Pete Sampras U.S. Open final in which Safin took the racquet out of Pistol Pete’s hands. Robredo is a far cry from Sampras and Gulbis did not exactly become the next Safin either, despite many comparisons and some similarities. Nevertheless, the ruthlessness of Gulbis 11 years ago was impossible to ignore.

Since then Gulbis has been on a rocky road with more ups and downs than one can imagine. His big power game drew many admirers from the tennis community. He was labeled as a potential top-five talent by none other than John McEnroe. He can excel on all surfaces like a true modern-day player, but his best results have come on European clay, where he defeated Roger Federer twice in the span of four years — from 2010 to 2014. Gulbis has flirted very briefly with top-flight competition and has made multiple comebacks from the lower end of rankings to the top 40, and even the top 10 once in 2014. He has been plagued by injuries and erratic play throughout his career, and his ranking chart best describes his peaks and valleys.

Right now he is in the midst of another comeback as he attempts to rebuild his ranking and confidence after his run at Wimbledon. What is remarkable is that he had won only one tour-level match coming into these championships, at Roland Garros earlier last month. If you have followed his career closely he often shows up for big-stage matches — not consistently, but enough to take him seriously. Write him off at your own peril.

Gulbis came into Roehampton (Wimbledon qualifying) with a ranking of 139. He had been looking for rhythm and some consistency all year long. He needed matches and wins to advance to the top 100 of the pro rankings. At age 29 Gulbis is a veteran of more than 440 matches on the pro tour, with a modest winning percentage of 51.4.

Losses are a great teacher in any sport and more so in an individual sport such as tennis.

Gulbis is an intelligent man who admittedly loves to read. The connection here is obvious — his failures have prepared him for this comeback. He knows time is passing and there is a fresh class of young ATP talent which is on the move. As always he is a press room delight. He shared his perspective on how he got here after playing more than few two years of challengers on and off:

My best result was in Bordeaux before Paris. It was semifinal. That’s where I started to play well in matches. First time I won three matches in a row after more than three years’ break. I did the same in Paris. I did the same in Wimbledon, here. This is where it started.”

EG.jpgNot too long ago Gulbis was playing his best tennis in 2014, when he reached his career-best ranking of No. 10. The peak was a semifinal at his favorite tournament, Roland Garros, where he defeated Federer in five sets in the fourth round and absolutely decimated Tomas Berdych in the next match before bowing out to Novak Djokovic. This was the best stretch of his roller-coaster career, but this had a great process and a series of wins behind it. In what has become typical Gulbis fashion, he started the 2013 season with a rank of 138, as at Roehampton last week. He started qualifying for main draws and finally broke through by winning eight matches to lift his second Delray Beach trophy as a qualifier. His forehand motion had changed under the watchful eye of coach Gunter Bresnik, who was coaching both Gulbis and Dominic Thiem at the same time.

The Seagull Gulbis forehand was the talk of the town and he was the press room darling as usual, giving journalists quotes they would not usually get from other players. He finished the year with 37 wins and a ranking of 24. When he lost to Djokovic, Gulbis declared this in the presser, “I’m not going to celebrate, It’s not enough. I need to reach more now. Now I’m addicted to success, really. I need to make this extra step now. I’m extra motivated.”  

This was refreshing from a man who had a reputation of not putting in the extra yards of disciplined practice work. But this newfound professional approach was tarnished by the man himself when he declared he lost all his winnings from the French Open at a casino with his cousin. This kind of declaration does more harm than good, but Gulbis always used a different ink to write his story… or maybe he was still growing up, or frankly thought he had time on his side — which is a perennial error in life for many.

Gulbis has worked with Hernan Gumy, Larry Stefanki (briefly), Darren Cahill and Bresnik, to name a few. Bresnik is someone he has reunited with multiple times; Gulbis considers him a great technical coach. Bresnik, who had coached Thomas Muster, Boris Becker and Patrick McEnroe, among others, had said that Gulbis was the most talented player he had worked with, but keeping him motivated was a challenge. The coaching manual had to be innovative to keep the Latvian engaged. These comments are known, and they are enough to paint Gulbis with cliches like loose cannon or Richie Rich. For most part these narratives are fair game considering the wealthy background Gulbis has, but they are not entirely true as well. Gulbis always wanted to be the best tennis player and has not shied away from stating that career goal. Cahill, who worked with Gulbis briefly through the Adidas tennis program, openly said on an ESPN telecast that all Gulbis wanted was to be a tennis player who put his heart into it.

While Gulbis did not have the results of Marat Safin, he certainly matched the Muscovite in his press room persona. English-speaking journalists have always fed off the players who spoke English, but in their own cultural way. Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi were great press room performers, giving long, detailed, sometimes funny and often insightful lectures in the press room. But English was their first language, and the press could not get the play on words which it longed for from Safin and Ivanisevic. Gulbis was an extension of the Safin persona in the press room – he was more blunt and heavy on sarcasm. He spoke his mind always and still does. Like many opinionated stars, he spoke too bluntly and got in trouble a few times.

In 2016 at Roland Garros, he openly spoke about how a player is treated differently once he is not ranked highly enough. He openly questioned that the treatment at Roland Garros was not democratic at all when booking practice court time as the top players were heavily favored even for practice time. He had been away from the show courts for some time, but he had not lost his razor-sharp edge when he finally got behind the microphone after his straight-set win over Andreas Seppi in first round of that tournament:

People in my situation have to beg for practice courts to get a court alone for one hour anytime during the day. And then you see seeded players who are there for two hours alone with a coach. How can you compete? We have one hour with four people on court against a guy who has prepared well, everything perfect.” This was a new Gulbis who sounded more like an elder statesman and wanted to address the inequality of tennis powers. He can be a great voice if the players’ union suggested by Novak Djokovic ever comes to fruition.

This was the last we heard from Gulbis on a main stage for a while. His game and full fitness never regained the same level until this year’s Wimbledon. He had a brief run at Wimbledon last year when he used his PR ranking to get in the main draw and upset Juan Martin del Potro on his way to the third round, when he lost to Novak Djokovic again. Their association is well known: Both men attended the Niki Pilic training program in Munich when they were teens. Djokovic, as expected, was more focused and driven back then. Ironically he had stopped Gulbis three times in majors when it seemed Gulbis gained some momentum. They could have met at this year’s Wimbledon (in Wednesday’s quarterfinals) again if Kei Nishikori had not played two solid sets on Monday.

Gulbis had won six straight matches on grass (including qualifiers) as he headed into the round of 16 clash with Japan’s number one player. His confidence was based on recent wins, but his will is underrated: Gulbis takes himself very seriously as a player. That will and ego must have been fractured after all those humbling losses on the challenger tour. However, it may have helped him appreciate some things that he may have taken for granted all this time. He seems to be a calmer version of himself as a married man and a father, though some would disagree: He still barks away at any noise in the stands during his matches.

Monday against Nishikori, Gulbis almost played two very clean sets and kept Nishikori off balance for most of them. The second set tiebreak was the turning point. Nishikori got the early mini-break and held the lead to level the match. Gulbis was close but yet not there. It became a best-of-three contest. In tennis there are subtle momentum shifts; that tiebreak gave Nishikori much-needed belief and probably left Gulbis a little wanting. The Gulbis of old could have taken a mental break, but he kept his focus and saved a few break points in the early part of the third set to keep battling. Both men held their serves to arrive at another tiebreak, during which Gulbis lost his footing and landed awkwardly. It did not seem good and after watching the replay he was lucky to be able to finish the match. Nishikori won the match, but Gulbis may have won lot of respect from those who watched him compete after that injury. He earnestly displayed his resolve to win the third set and even had a set point on an easy forehand volley, which he netted.

His career is not deprived of injuries, but this one was quite anticlimactic. He had a real shot against Nishikori until the injury came. The road ahead is promising, since he will not have to play challengers for some time. With some form he can build his ranking. This was another moment in the awkwardly brilliant script of Gulbis. Hopefully for him and his fans it will not be a long wait for him to star in main draws or on TV courts… and more importantly in press rooms across the tour.  

Just like his good friend Safin, who had a last hurrah at Wimbledon in 2008, Gulbis too has found a new turning point in his tennis journey at the same place. Safin tried to climb the Himalayas after that run and did a farewell tour next year. Will Gulbis do something similarly adventurous? No one knows.

The knock was always on his work ethic and dedication; his talent was never in doubt. The desire to keep coming back from the lower tiers of tennis may have erased the question marks surrounding his ability to work hard. But all signs are pointing towards winning more matches, as he told the BBC after his win over Sascha Zverev on Saturday:

“I will be around for a few years.”

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