Saturday, May 1, 2010

Gulbis' Proving Ground

Does the Rome breakthrough portend more stellar tennis from Ernests Gulbis?

Ernests Gulbis fell short today after a 2 hour and 47 minute semi-final battle with the King of Clay Rafael Nadal, but don't think for a second that this wasn't a monumental week for the young Latvian.

It's not the first time we've been made aware of just how lethal his game is. Gulbis has attracted a lot of attention - both positive and negative - since he began plying his trade on the challenger and futures circuits in 2004. He is a gifted athlete who has a very natural predeliction for hammering his opponents before they even have a chance to breathe. His big serve and lethal forehand are complemented nicely by a surprisingly steady backhand and an uncanny ability to play steep angles and high-risk drop shots with eerie precision.

And all the while the young Gulbis looks slightly disinterested and disheveled as he does it, almost as if he went straight from his bedroom, bypassing the bathroom and the breakfast table, to center court.

Regardless of his grooming acumen, the Latvian has enough potential to make a tennis coach salivate like a Saint Bernard. And he's also garnered some results on the ATP tour to prove that the hype isn't just all, well, hype. Playing his shock-and-awe brand of first strike tennis, Gulbis reached the 4th round of the U.S. Open in 2007, then followed that up with a trip to the French Open quarterfinals in 2008. In the very next tournament he turned more heads when he took a set from Rafael Nadal at Wimbledon. Yep, he's got potential for sure, but that potential has yet to transform into consistent winning as of yet.

But even when Gulbis loses, or loses consistently (something he was doing quite a bit of in 2009) he's hard to ignore. If he were a baseball or a football player he'd be a "scouts dream," one of those can't miss kids that every coach wants to get a hold of and mold into the next Roger Clemens or John Elway.

And like most can't miss kids, Gulbis' rise to the top of the sport has been less meteoric than first anticipated. Somewhere around mid-2008, when Gulbis' progress slowed to a halt, critics came out of the woodwork and bashed him for losing to players that they felt he should have beaten. Pundits were dumbfounded on many occasions by the disconnect between his grade A talent and his grade C results, and the prevailing sentiment by the end of 2009 had gone from can't miss to can't do anything he's supposed to do.

2010 has been better, to say the least.

We may forever be talking about Rome 2010 as the week that Ernests Gulbis finally took all of his potential and turned it into something tangible. But in reality, the transformation might have started when Gulbis signed on with Marat Safin's former coach, Hernan Gumy, late last year.

Whatever the reason, it isn't just Rome that the 21-year-old Latvian has flourished in. He was a surprise winner at Del Ray in February and has also reached the Memphis semifinals and two other quarterfinals this season.

For those who have witnessed Gulbis perform over the years, his success isn't that difficult to fathom. Sure he has the game to strike fear into the hearts of even the most established top ten players, but in spite of his natural gifts he most definitely lacked commitment, conditioning, and focus - all things that appear to be changing since his tenure with Gumy began last year.

This week in Rome we saw the same gifted Gulbis, but with a slightly different demeanor. No longer was he inexplicably prone to long periods of mind boggling decisions, no longer was he looking disinterested or mentally inferior to his older more experienced opponents.

And his spurts of brilliance - tantalizingly perfect drop shots that even Nadal couldn't reach (you had to see it to believe it), laser guided forehands that appear to reach the speed of light, and a heavy serve that pops off the strings - lasted longer than ever. I couldn't help but think, as I watched him hammer away at Nadal in a valiant effort that came up just a smidgen short in the semis, that here was Gulbis finally shedding his juvenile tendencies and stepping into the world of men to represent himself with a sense of pride and belief that had heretofore been missing from his psyche.

Aside from the final score there was so much to like about Gulbis' effort against Nadal. Not only was he able to shorten points and consistently strike winners against the Spaniard, but he was also able to win his fair share of the baseline rallies - no small task - and seemed relatively unflustered by Nadal's brand of trench warfare.

Even more importantly was the mental hue of Gulbis. After coughing up a break in the first game of the match, the 21-year-old held serve under extreme pressure until the very final game. He was calm, focused, intense, engaged - everything we've always wanted him to be but were afraid he never would - and he acted like he belonged out there in a Semi-final in front of 10,000 fans and a six time Grand-Slam champion.

Eventually, Gulbis did falter, and he handed Nadal the match just when it seemed like an improbable upset might be occurring. A few ill-timed drop shots (more importantly poorly executed) and a few critical unforced errors sealed his fate for the day.

But his fate for the longer term appears to be anything but sealed. Gulbis proved to the world in Rome that his arduous journey may still be just beginning.


  1. This guy is good and I'm glad he's finally breaking out and proving himself.

    His play this week in Rome reminds of Del Potro at the U.S. Open last year, playing fearless tennis. Even against arguably the greatest clay court player ever, Gulbis kept his demeanor and poise, playing his powerful offensive game.

    I didn't know he picked up a new coach, but that has definitely benefited his game in every aspect. I think his determination was questioned at first, because he comes from a very rich family and people thought tennis was a sort of extra-curricular for Gulbis.

    I believe he's proved those people wrong with his performance this week and this year.

  2. Your analysis of his loss to Nadal covered most bases save the crucial one: his percentage of points won after second serve was 26%. That means, once he missed a first serve, he was almost bound to lose a point.

    And he rarely missed his first serves in this match (his percentages by sets were ridiculous, close to 90% in the third set, 76% for the whole match). Until he did miss ALL of his first serves in the very last game and lost that game and match.

    Oh, and he also missed almost all of his first serves in the very first game of the match. And guess what - he lost that game as well.

    So, young Gulbis at the moment depends too much on his booming first serve (and the ensuing booming forehand that ends a point, or a cheeky dropshot when the opponent is pushed off by booming forehand). But if the serve is even slightly off, his game is not good enough. No first serve, no possibility for easy putaway forehand and his once cheeky droppers turn to desperate flops. His beating of rusty Federer and fight against Nadal were exception, fuelled by exceptional serving days.

    He has a lot to work on gamewise, not to mention other aspects (conditioning, mentality). I'm still not convinced.

  3. Anonymous: good counter points. Of course Rafa has a little something to do with losing those 2nd serve points (as he's probably better than anyone else at attacking his opponents 2nd serve).

    Ernests did exceptionally well in the quarters with his 2nd serve (72%), but against a much different Spaniard (Feliciano Lopez).

    Yes though, you hit upon something that Gulbis can definitely improve upon. But I'm not so sure that the excellent serving is that much of a fluke for Gulbis. Sure 90% is a lot to ask, but the guy is a very good server (consistently around 70!).

    I'll agree with you that Gulbis has more work to do (yes, conditioning for sure, and dealing with the pressure that comes with winning), but don't you agree that for Gulbis this week in Rome was a major improvement over everything we've seen from him?

    I think he's going to get some good results this year, and maybe even make some noise again at the Slams.

  4. Agreed, his recent results are a major improvement. But remember, only a few months ago he used to wildly shank forehands each time a rally would go for more than 3 shots.

    So, yeah, definitely an improvement, but let's not get carried away yet. Gulbis CAN become a good player, but he has some way to go. At 21, he seems to have become serious about his tennis (finally) and got himself a bonafide coach.

    BTW, nice blog.

  5. Thanks anonymous, glad to have you visit (and Tyler too).

    It'll be fun to see how Gulbis segues from this into the French. One of the challenges of top players is to learn how to maintain momentum. I do believe he's got some now, but only time will tell.


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