From head case to head honcho: Ernests Gulbis finds his form

24 Feb

For tennis fans who thought Grigor Dimitrov was the only up-and-coming player from Eastern Europe worth watching, it’s time to think again. Long better known as the son of a billionaire with explosive but vastly unfulfilled talent, and a seemingly unnecessary “s” at the end of his first name, Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis is finally finding his form. This process of self-discovery could carry him to the top of the men’s game.

Gulbis

For years, Gulbis has proven an utter disappointment. What he had in raw talent he lacked severely in mental fortitude. But there are signs that Gulbis is finally pulling it together.

Last week, Gulbis stormed thru the draw in Marseille like a German general on the offensive (too soon?), blowing by world number ten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to claim his fifth career title. The week before that, in Rotterdam, Gulbis  coasted to routine victories over Dimitrov and world number four Juan Martín Del Potro en route to the semis, before falling to world number seven Tomas Berdych in the final four. This week, the Latvian will carry his winning streak to Acapulco, hoping to build on his success in Europe and ride a wave of momentum into U.S. hard-court stops at Indian Wells and Key Biscayne, tennis’ sixth and fifth biggest tournaments, respectively, where major ranking points will be on the line.

After falling to 123 in the world less than a year ago, Gulbis has just cracked the top-twenty for the first time, surging to a career high 18 in this week’s rankings. At this pace, it’d almost prove disappointing if the Latvian didn’t crack the top ten by the time the U.S. Open rolls around.

Defending ranking points this spring should not prove difficult. Gulbis successfully defended the points he earned from his Delray Beach triumph in 2013 by claiming the title last week in Marseille. And the Latvian’s best results last year from March-July include a smattering of round of 16 finishes, at Indian Wells, Rome, and Barcelona. Gulbis was a non-factor at the French Open and Wimbledon, bowing out in the second and third rounds, respectively. Hell, last year, he didn’t even play Key Biscayne!

A multi-dimensional player, it’s easy to imagine Gulbis capturing his first master’s series title on the European clay court swing, and then making a run into the second week at Roland Garros or the All England Club. Either development would propel Gulbicito’s ranking to new heights. And given Rafa’s struggles on the red dirt in Rio (yes, I’m aware he won the tournament), it’s not unfathomable that the Spaniard will make an early departure in Paris, opening up the draw for other bidders, of whom Gulbis represents a prime candidate.

With everything looking up for Gulbis, it’s worth asking: How is this all happening? And to be sure, several mainstream tennis writers are right now asking themselves: Who the f*#% is Ernests Gulbis? But analysts who look at the game more critically have long had this player on their radar, and noticed four telltale signs that his ascendance represented a question of “when”, not “if”.

First, Gulbis has the sheer power to blast top players off the court. When he’s on, he’s nigh impossible to stop. Just ask Richard Gasquet (a personal favorite of your author), who got bludgeoned by the Latvian 6-3, 6-2 in the Marseille semis.

To complement his massive ground strokes, Gulbis adds a booming serve, which routinely tops 130 mph and paints lines. Variety on service placement keeps opponents guessing, and backing it up with a penetrating first strike off the ground creates a one-two punch that makes Gulbis hard to break. Gasquet is prescient, here, too, noting in his post-match interview in Marseille that he failed to earn a single break point against his powerful Latvian opponent.

Second, on the return side, Gulbis takes deep cuts, a low percentage play that often ups the error tally but that, when successful, instantly neutralizes his opponent’s serve. Once the point has commenced, Gulbis employs sprightly speed to keep opponents working and position himself to go on offense. This combination helped the Latvian earn 11 break points against Tsonga (though he converted just one; low break point conversion has long been a bugaboo for the talented righty).

Third, Gulbis rises to the occasion. He’s a career 5-0 in ATP finals, and says he feels most comfortable and confident when a title is on the line. After topping Tsonga, Gulbis observed “When I get into finals, I really have good form and good confidence and play my best tennis. Today, I was serving really well and in the tie-break I was feeling really, really confident.” Champions play their best when the stakes are highest; Gulbis’ are the sentiments you’d expect from a budding star.

Fourth, beyond these tactical factors, an attitudinal shift leaves me convinced Gulbis is ready for prime time. After collecting the title in Marseille, Gulbis made clear the extent of his ambition: “My long-term goal in tennis isn’t to be top 20. It’s to be number 1. Anything less than that wouldn’t make me fully satisfied. Everybody’s looking for satisfaction in life, and my joy and happiness is based on my tennis career.”

Dreams of tennis pre-eminence are a dime a dozen, but with play like this, it seems increasingly possible that Gulbis will reach his goal. Plus, the bluntness of his words connotes the brand of maniacal focus one often sees in exceptional sports stars. It’s the kind that leads initiates to spend hours in an oxygen chamber, drink avocado juice, and forego life’s basic pleasures, all in pursuit of athletic glory.

To be sure, Gulbis still has a lot to prove. He’s never won a master’s series tournament or made a serious run at a slam. There are probably more reasons to think that his latest streak of brilliance will fade out like those before it than to believe it will evolve into sustained greatness.

But I’m ready to go out on a limb and say Ernests Gulbis is a player whose time has come.

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