Ernests Gulbis (pictured) is only the latest player to attract attention for the velocity with which he hits the ball, and to prompt confusion due to his lack of favorable results.
The 6'3" Latvian first drew notice in 2007 when he, at age 18, defeated Tim Henman in the first round of Roland Garros, and drubbed No. 8 seed Tommy Robredo to reach the fourth round of the U.S. Open. He was described by British Davis Cup captain and former pro John Lloyd as "pure and utter talent."
The following year he reached the quarters in Paris, took a set off of Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon, and another off of Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open. He then beat world No. 3 Novak Djokovic at Brisbane to start 2009.
Since then, his results have been stagnant, with second round losses in every major so far this year, no titles, and a 46-54 record on the ATP Tour. Gulbis will turn 21 in August, so there is time for him to turn his career around, but many pitfalls await the game's most powerful players, as tennis' history attests to.
Let's look at some of history's hardest hitting yet most erratic players, each of whom could've been the best of their time, and find out what derailed them on the way.
"...On his best days, Vines played the best tennis ever. Hell, when Elly was on, you'd be lucky to get your racket on the ball once you served it."
- Former World No. 1 Jack Kramer
Attributes: Vines won Wimbledon in 1932 as an amateur, along with the U.S. Championships in 1931-32. In 1934 he turned pro, and was the preeminent pro until 1939, when he was narrowly overtaken by Don Budge.
Vines was an outstanding natural athlete with an exceptionally flat, overpowering serve and forehand. These shots were notable for their elongated wind-up and lack of spin, and were the most overpowering of their day.
On-court problems: Budge defeated Vines in 22 of their 39 matches in 1939, results that proved Vines unbeatable at his peak, but Budge to be the more consistent player. In fact, his greatest asset—sheer natural athleticism—contributed to his greatest problem, which was laziness.
Furthermore, Vines was one of the first players to force opponents into realizing that pace wasn't the only way to win. Commentator and tennis historian Bud Collins writes, "Opponents came to realize that the way to beat him was to keep the ball in play, hitting him soft stuff until he started making errors."
Off-court problems: Tennis also took a toll on his long, lanky form. Physical problems, along with his loss of the No. 1 position and an increasing passion for golf lead him to quit the game in 1940, when he was only 28.
Fate: Vines became a professional golfer in 1942, where he achieved a pair of professional tour victories and twice finished in the top 10 in winnings. As the above quote indicates, Jack Kramer considered Vines the best player of all-time, "on his day," but considered Budge greater due to overall consistency.
Lessons learned: Maximizing one's professional tennis career often requires tunnel vision; the willingness to sacrifice competing interests.
The above photo belongs to Collectr.com.
"He was the only guy who, if I was playing my best tennis, could still beat me. I think his game was the best game ever. Better than mine."
-- Former World No. 1 Pancho Gonzales
Attributes: At 5'10", this Australian dynamo is considerably smaller than the other men on this list, but didn't play like a man that size. Hoad was known for his tremendous strength, his superb volleys, and dominant overhead. Gonzales called him "most natural tennis mind with the most natural tennis physique."
In 1953 he led Australia to victory in the Davis Cup, defeating Tony Trabert in an epic five-set match. In 1956 he won three-quarters of a calendar year Grand Slam. In his first year as a pro he defeated world No. 1 Gonzales 18 of 27 times before the great American rebounded to capture their series 51-36.
On-court problems: Fellow Australian Kramer was also impressed with Hoad's game, listing him among his 21 best players of all time. However, Kramer noted Hoad's tendency to try and hit winners from the most unthinkable of positions, and said that Hoad's biggest problem on court was that he "just didn't give a damn."
Off-court problems: In "The Game, My 40 Years in Tennis," Kramer said that Vines was similar to Hoad in many ways. "... both were very lazy guys. Vines lost interest in tennis before he was thirty, and Hoad never appeared to be very interested."
"Despite their great natural ability, neither put up the outstanding records that they were capable of."
Like Vines, Hoad also had physical ailments, and was driven from the game by back problems in the mid-60s.
Fate: Weakened by leukemia, Hoad died of a heart attack at age 59 in 1994. These days he is most often referenced for his raw athletic ability and the outgoing personality that made him extremely popular with his peers, including the notorious loner Gonzales.
His raw potential on the tennis court is for the most part considered to have been unmet, however.
Lessons learned: Even the most talented of us need a game plan, and there's no substitute for really, really wanting to win.
Photo used courtesy of estadium.ya.com.
"Out of all the guys who were real or potential rivals, Stich was the one who scared me the most—just look at his superior head-to-head record."
- Former world No. 1 and 14-time Grand Slam champion Pete Sampras
Attributes: There is a wide gap between Hoad and Stich chronologically. That's not to say there weren't underachievers in between: Vitas Gerulaitis and Ilie Nastase were both expected to win more majors, but their games were less power-based. Roscoe Tanner was a huge server with one slam to his credit, but few honestly expected him to be No. 1, especially while Bjorn Borg was active.
The streaky player came roaring back in the early '90s, first when Goran Ivanisevic beat Boris Becker in the 1990 Roland Garros, and then when Stich won Wimbledon in 1991.
Thanks to his all-court game and huge serve, Stich also reached the finals the US Open in 1994 and the RG in 1996. He won the Wimbledon doubles title with John McEnroe in 1992, and the gold medal with Becker in that year's Olympics. As the above quote indicates, Stich beat Sampras five out of nine times they played.
On-court problems: A shoulder injury eventually prompted the lanky German to retire in 1997.
Off-court problems: But long before his problems with the shoulder, Stich often struggled with the knowledge that he would never be the most popular player in his home country as long as Becker was active. Furthermore, Sampras said in his autobiography that Stich didn't thrive under the pressures of the tour as the American did, and his results waxed and waned because of it.
Fate: At what he announced would be his last tournament, Stich reached the semifinals of the 1997 Wimbledon. Since then he's been active with his own AIDS foundation, as a tennis commentator, and on the seniors tour.
Lessons learned: Sampras and Stich were like mirror images in many ways, thanks to their well-rounded games and the fact the neither was their nation's most beloved player. But in 1998, while Sampras was withstanding insomnia and his hair was falling out in clumps during his quest to finish as the world No. 1 for the sixth straight year, Stich was already retired.
Sampras' life isn't for everyone.
"Mark's problem appeared to be that deep down, he just didn't seem to want greatness badly enough ... Fair enough, it was his life, after all. But it was a shame to see that big, big game go unfulfilled."
Attributes: If you didn't watch tennis much in the 1990s you might not understand the ramifications Philippoussis suggested. Huge servers and big forehands were becoming more and more common by then, but The Scud regularly hit second serves at 110 mph and had a forehand even Andre Agassi wouldn't play to.
Sure, his game had obvious holes, his movement being the biggest. But when Philippoussis beat Sampras in straight sets in the 1996 Australian Open, it appeared that his power rendered those flaws irrelevant.
Richard Krajicek and Goran Ivanisevic were also big servers expected to achieve more than they did, but the Aussie was the hardest hitter of them all, was expected to succeed on more surfaces, and purists feared his all-out assault on subtlety was the blueprint game of the future.
In the end, though, all he proved to be was that era's biggest disappointment.
On-court problems: The Scud's win over The Pistol at the '96 AO increased the hype for their US Open rematch. On that occasion, Sampras took the speed off his serve, blocked back the returns and watched the Aussie self-destruct.
With his determination to slug every ball as hard as he could, counterpunchers always troubled Philippoussis, who lost his first five matches with Michael Chang and three of four against Lleyton Hewitt.
His greatest problems, though, may have been physical. His first major knee injury denied him a chance of upsetting Sampras at the 1999 Wimbledon, and their recurring instances eventually drove him from the game.
Off-court problems: The Scud is living proof that being good-looking and rich is not necessarily to a young man's benefit. His taste for supermodels and actresses is well-documented, and in a recent interview he compared his life on tour to an episode of Entourage.
Fate: Philippoussis reached two major finals but never won one, and his ranking topped out at No. 8.
Fast cars and beautiful women may sound more appealing than a successful tennis career, but Philippoussis recently revealed that, as he has been unable to play for three and a half years, he is now more than $1 million in debt and facing the loss of his family's home.
Lessons learned: Prodigious talent is great, but it counts for little without some forward thinking.
"It's too much pressure ... If I was the type of person who had tennis, tennis, tennis all the time and I went to bed and ended up dreaming about tennis, I would go nuts." - Safin
Attributes: Like Philippoussis, Safin was 6'4", a big server, and had heavy groundies. Unlike The Scud, Safin moved well and his every backhand reverberated with the crisp sound of a ball that had found the racket's sweet spot.
When he arrived on the scene in the late-90s, he appeared to be the game's most natural athlete ever, and he showed that in his 2000 season, in which he won the US Open, captured six other titles, and came within one match of finishing the year No. 1.
At the Open, he became the first player to give Pete Sampras the Sampras treatment, meaning he turned The Pistol into an onlooker powerless to stop the barrage of winners.
After a stay in the wilderness, he returned to the elites in 2005, outdueling the seemingly invincible Roger Federer in the Australian Open.
On-court problems: Like so many on this list, Safin has struggled with those who refuse to fuel his need for pace. The tricky Frenchman Fabrice Santoro knows this especially well, having beaten the towering Russian seven of nine times through his patented two-handed slice forehand.
In recent years, Safin has also succumbed to another common complaint here, which is injury. His knee has ached perpetually since 2005, which was the last year he won an ATP title.
Off-court problems: The biggest problem for Safin, though, has always been desire. This is belied by his tendency toward racket breaking and audible obscenity while losing, but Safin was, after all, one of the first players to be fined for lack of effort.
His lazy loss in the 2002 AO final, his befuddling months-long periods without a match win, and his almost gleeful kiss off toward Wimbledon at this year's event point toward a trend: Safin doesn't mind winning, but doesn't find it essential.
Perhaps this is because, unlike Sampras, Safin was not groomed to be the best player of his era. Sure he hasn't won as much as he could've, but from that perspective two Grand Slams and $14 million in career earnings by age 30 isn't bad either.
Fate: Safin has announced that this will be his last year on tour. A lot can happen between now and November, but as of this week his 2009 record is 6-12.
Lessons learned: Learn to hate losing, and learn it early.
Pete Sampras enjoyed basketball, and had the kind of speed and leaping ability that could've made him a hell of a player. However, The Pistol refused so much as even a pick-up game during his pro tennis years, refusing to risk injury.
Roger Federer could've had his choice of any number of beautiful women—or perhaps all of them, one night at a time—but chose a monogamous, supportive relationship with Mirka Vavrinec early in his career.
These guys, along with Don Budge, Rod Laver, and a few others, are not only great talents, but have hated losing, have committed to the game, and have had remarkably few distractions in their personal lives. Considering the temptations that await them while on tour, these guys are minor miracles, perhaps the exceptions rather than the rules.
As the game grows more international and technical knowledge increases, huge hitters are becoming more common. As the game grows more competitive and the schedule more demanding, more and more of them will not fulfill their potentials.
Can guys like Ernests Gulbis, Marin Cilic, and Richard Gasquet (hopefully he'll be more careful in nightclubs from now on) learn these lessons before it's too late?
Some of them are bound to disappoint, but hopefully at least one of them will, as Jack Kramer put it, "achieve the outstanding records (he is) capable of."
PS-This is something of a special occasion for me: On July 16, 2008 I discovered the Bleacher Report site, quite by accident, published my first article about tennis and have never been quite the same.
I've had a very full year since then, having gotten married and had my first child. While Bleacher Report can't really compare to those experiences, all the sports fans from around the world that I've gotten to know since then are still owed my thanks.
You've made the last 365-day period a great one.
(Sources for this article were Wikipedia and "A Champion's Mind: Lessons from a Life in Tennis" by Pete Sampras.