Unseeded Gulbis Seriously Challenges the King of Clay
Anyone who watched the Ernests Gulbis v. Rafael Nadal semifinal match at the Rome Masters tournament on May Day 2010 was treated to some of the most amazing scrappy tennis possible. Rafa was given a heaping dose of his own medicine by a young talent from Latvia who emerged during this tournament as a very important player to watch. Both players chased down every ball in a “never say die” manner that made it very entertaining. Gulbis has a sneaky, effective drop shot that challenged Nadal to slide forward when he least expected to. Gulbis also has an angelic, almost choirboy face, pale skin, and long fine hair curled in ringlets-all of which emphasizes his youth.
Although Nadal eventually prevailed 6-4,3-6,6-4, there is no question that he was pushed hard by the young Gulbis, just 21 years old and ranked 40th in the world. It was interesting to see the wunderkind Nadal (now 23) struggling so hard against an even younger rival. This was the first time Rafa dropped a set during the tournament and the first set he has dropped during the 2010 clay court season (Monte Carlo, Rome). Gulbis kept Nadal on court for nearly three hours and the match was competitive throughout. During the final set, Rafa was especially grim and clearly digging deep to claim the win. The score was 4-4 in the third set before Nadal gained control and clinched the victory.
Gulbis, a lanky 6’3,” 169 pounds, and right-handed, served powerfully and accurately throughout-one of the key elements of his strong performance. With a first-serve percentage above 70 and at least 11 aces, he out-served Nadal for certain. Gulbis showed a great deal of focus and no signs of being intimidated by Nadal, who had won the Rome tournament four times and was expected to sail through to his fifth victory. In fact, after his struggle with Gulbis, Nadal resumed sailing-he dismissed his countryman David Ferrer easily in straight sets to win his fifth title in Rome.
Earlier Gulbis Dismissed the French Open Champion
Earlier in the week the unseeded Gulbis earned a great deal of international attention by sending home world number one Roger Federer in the second round-Federer’s first match in Rome, since he had a bye in the first round. Federer has struggled in the past few ATP tournaments, losing to Marcos Baghdatis at Indian Wells in the third round, and blocked by Tomas Berdych in the Round of 16 (fourth round) in Miami. Ironically, Gulbis had to get past Baghdatis in the first round in order to confront Federer in Rome. And he did, whipping the Cypriot convincingly in straight sets, 6-2,6-2.
Federer is known to play with somewhat less intensity in the non-grand-slam ATP tournaments. However, his early loss 2-6,6-1,7-5 to a young unseeded player ranked 40th in the world was genuinely shocking. It was particularly shocking because this was Federer’s first outing on clay this season; the early loss bodes poorly for his chances of defending his hard-won 2009 French Open title later this month. Federer has not lost his opening match of the clay court season since Monte Carlo in 2000. He has only a few weeks to regroup. He will be playing on clay in Estoril, Portugal (Masters 250 tournament) in the coming week and is under heavy pressure to regain his winning form.
So Who is this Gulbis?
Ernests Gulbis is a tennis talent from an athletic, well-to-do Latvian family. He was born in Riga, Latvia and now resides in Jamala, Latvia when he is not on the pro tour traveling the world. Introduced to the sport at age 5 by his grandmother, he chose it over the obvious possibility of basketball-a sport in which his father and grandfather excelled. His grandfather was a starter on the national team of the Soviet Union (of which Latvia was a part) which won the European championship. His father is an investment businessman and his mother is an actress. He has four siblings, two of whom play tennis seriously and one of whom is studying golf.
Gulbis trained from age 12-18 at Niki Pilic’s tennis academy in Munich, Germany. He turned pro in 2004 at age 16. His highest career singles ranking was 38 up until now. With his tremendous success in Rome, a new career high ranking seems inevitable. He has been coached by Hernan Gumy of Argentina since September 2009.
Even before his breakout performance in Rome, this year Ernests Gulbis played some outstanding tennis. He captured his first ATP Tour Title at the Del Ray Beach International Tournament in February. He defeated Ivo Karlovic of Croatia, the second seed, in the finals. In other tournaments this year he has beaten Radek Stepanek and Tomas Berdych-both top 20 players.
Pre-Rome he ranked number 7 in both aces and first serve points percentage across the entire ATP tour. In the first four months of this year (pre-Rome), he scored 211 aces and won the point on 77 percent of his first serves. He won 85 percent of his service games. However, he is not a one-dimensional player relying on a big serve. For someone so tall and thin, he is amazingly agile and fast-moving on court. He also plays smart tennis, picking his shots carefully and adjusting to his opponent’s game.
And He Also Has Personality…
At 21, Ernests has a lot of poise in his press conferences as well as a sense of humor. For example, after he lost to Nadal he said, boldly:
“Honestly, I expected a little bit more from him today. I thought he was going to be much tougher on my backhand against his left-handed forehand with spin… but actually I… did not have any problems in going into rallies with him.”
About his chances in upcoming French Open and Wimbledon grand slams, he remarked:
“I think I have a good chance… if I’m stable enough, if I don’t go out of my mind, and I if don’t take a holiday when I shouldn’t be taking one.”
When asked if he realized that women’s tennis pros Victoria Azarenka, Daniela Hantuchova, and Melanie Oudin were in the audience for his match, he broke into a grin and said:
“I’m becoming popular with the girls now! I’m flying home tonight and there in Latvia it is Saturday night…! Vika is just an old friend and I think she likes the way I’m playing. I think she might want to learn something from me!”
“Vika” is a reference to Azarenka, age 20, who hails from Latvia’s neighboring country, Belarus.
Note: All quotations are from the website of the Internazionali D’Italia tournament.
Latvia’s Best Tennis Player Ever
When he won the title in Delray Beach, Florida, he not only won 250 ATP points, but he also became the first Latvian ever to win a tournament on the ATP tour. Using sincere but imperfect English, he said after winning:
“Everything what I do now is first time for my country. I hope much more players will start to practice in Latvia. It’s good for tennis in Latvia. They see that a guy also from Latvia can make it and win an ATP tour tournament.” (quotation from ATP tour website)
Ernests Gulbis has been a boon to Latvia’s Davis Cup team, which plays in the Europe/Africa Group I. (That is one group higher than Great Britain, which was mortified to lose to Lithuania in Europe/Africa Group II in March). Gulbis has been playing Davis Cup tennis since 2005 when he was 17 years old and has a 10-4 record in singles from the eleven ties in which he has represented Latvia.
All the attention will next be focused on the upcoming Madrid Open ATP 1000 clay court tournament beginning May 7, which is the last significant tournament before the French Open gets started in Paris on May 24. All the major contenders are expected in Madrid, so it will be the next opportunity for Gulbis to demonstrate that his outstanding performance in Rome was not a fluke. And then we’ll see what he can do at Roland Garros.
Tennis Channel Coverage of the Gulbis v. Nadal Semi-final match at the ATP Internazionali BNL D’Italia Masters 1000 Tournament, Rome, Italy, May 1, 2010
Website of the ATP Tour
Website of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia Masters 100 Tournament 2010
Website of the Davis Cup