Getting To Know Ernests Gulbis: Raw Talent Meets Initial Success
It's that time of week again, folks. The time of week where we take a look at a new, familiar, or rejuvenated ATP World Tour star, and his success on the circuit.
In the circle of many tennis enthusiasts and fans alike, the name Ernests Gulbis has always remained a familiar constant. Beginning his professional career in 2004, a 16-year-old Gulbis had already earned high accolades from his peers and coaches. Holding significant power off of both his forehand and backhand strokes, Gublis played tennis—even from his early teens—like it was a magnified version of ping pong.
Making himself a viable name on Tour by reaching the fourth-round of the 2007 US Open, Gulbis dismantled No. 8 seed Tommy Robredo in the third-round before losing to veteran Carlos Moya. It was during his match with Robredo (a match which I attended) where the promise of the young Latvian was ever present.
Picking apart the rock-solid strokes of Robredo was never an easy task, considering his consistent track record throughout his career (especially at the Majors). For Gulbis to defeat the Spaniard 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 in 89 minutes—taking into account that it was his debut in New York—was a testament to his tremendous talent. Although Gulbis would lose in the next round to Moya, I would leave New York with a new red circle around a surefire future champion.
Well, my vision of Gulbis' future would soon take a hit.
Although Gulbis' 2008 season would feature his first-ever Grand Slam quarterfinal finish at the French Open, his year would remain without a maiden title, and no better than a quarterfinal finish on Tour. My darkhorse pick of the Latvian as a Grand Slam contender was surely under fire.
I met Gulbis during the US Open in '08 at the players' hotel in Manhattan, the day before he was set to take on Andy Roddick in the second-round. At the time, Gulbis seemed very poised and confident for a player with his track record—he provided a casual smile here and there, but for the most part his answers were filled with tales of improvement and hard-work. Although he would lose to Roddick in four sets in Ashe Stadium, Gulbis accepted his defeat like a consummate professional."I wish Andy well for this tournament, and I will go and practice and come back stronger," said Gulbis during the on-court interview.
To me, anyway, that attitude was a breath of fresh air coming from an up-and-coming player—one that didn't take his losses too hard, and one who was willing to enjoy the process of reaching the top.
Alas, Gulbis did not follow through on his words of wisdom. His 2009 season was filled with a trainwreck of results, followed by a puzzled head-scratching session from the nearby viewership. Gulbis' year was such a disappointment that the highlight of his season came in the form of an alleged arrest for soliciting prostitutes during the event in Stockholm, Sweden. The irresponsible side of Gulbis had become prevalent to the public; a dark side that did not warrant much respect.
With a dismal record of 20-27 (three of those wins were against lesser foes in Davis Cup zone action), Gulbis' stock and limelight appeal had all but faded.
The once promising superstar had become an underachieving, not-caring playboy tennis player—all the wrong and none of the right if you will.
But through the ashes of his failing career, Gulbis turned to Herman Gumy for a new perspective on his struggles, while dedicating himself to a fitness regime to rekindle his career (ironically Gumy had coached another talented but "special" player, Marat Safin). Under the tutelage of Gumy, Gulbis reached the quarterfinals in St. Petersburg, Russia to end the year. A decent finish to a turmoil filled season; one which saw Gulbis win back-to-back matches on only two occasions—finished on an encouraging note.
I remained skeptical towards Gulbis' future in the game, purely because he appeared rested on his wealthy upbringing and immense talent. The Gulbis that I had met in 2008, and saw take apart Robredo in 2007, had become a proverbial headcase, one who could not be counted on—anyone for a Tomas Berdych chant?
However, in the true spirt of the ever changing demeanor and outlook of the world's best players, Gulbis began his 2010 campaign by nearly defeating Roger Federer in Qatar. Even though the top seed prevailed in three tough sets, it was evident that Gulbis was not bothered nor frazzled by playing the 16-time Grand Slam champion. That look of reckless, but controlled abandonment was back in Gulbis' eyes; a look that would assist him when marching back to the forefront of the men's rankings.
In many ways like a Safin, Gulbis' game is uncoachable. His technique is all but flawless and his physique is well chiseled for the Tour. If anything, a player like Gulbis requires a voice of reason that he can make sense of; a voice that for whatever reason he'll listen to.
Luckily for Gublis, the encouragement from Gumy quickly made a positive impact. Reaching the semifinals in Memphis in mid-February, Gulbis progressed to the final four of a Tour event for the first time since reaching the semifinals in St. Petersburg in 2006. Nearly three-and-a half-years parted from his success in Russia, Gulbis appeared destined for continued success.
Arriving in Delray Beach, Fla. last week, the 21-year-old Riga native poured in a riveting performance which included capturing his first career title, while not losing a set en route. Gulbis' defeat of No. 2 seed Ivo Karlovic in the finals was ironically his easiest victory of the week, considering the thundering pace of the Croatian's serve.
Hoisting the first title of his career, Gulbis remained calm and collective while assessing his performance. Becoming the first Latvian player to capture an ATP World Tour title, Gulbis shared his outlook with reporters during the post-tournament presser.
“I’m never impressed with statistics,” Gulbis told the Associated Press . “I’m impressed I won the title. So I didn’t lose a set, I don’t see that as a big accomplishment."
The honest nature which Gulbis conducts himself leads me to believe that his future on the circuit will depend on his commitment to becoming a "true professional." There's no doubt that he has top five talent; perhaps top three potential if he works really hard. The desire to refine his skill-set and make it into a consistent entity on Tour, though, remains an assumption I'm not willing to take.
The day will come when Gulbis will have his shot at a Major title, or perhaps the upset of Federer or Rafael Nadal. Will he take his opportunity, or will he fade again? It's a tough one to call.
Here's hoping the hardwork sticks around of "Ernie" Gulbis.
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