By Jane Voigt
Ernests Gulbis. Wild-man tennis genius from Latvia. Temperamental and talented. And into his first-ever semifinal at Roland Garros.
“It’s very special. Today was the best match of the tournament, I was doing everything right,” Gulbis said on-court. “Tomas got a bit upset that I was hitting all of the lines. I’m sorry, but that’s part of the game.”
He didn’t need to apologize. He might have wanted to apologize for the years he had fans on the edge of their seats, only to disappoint them over and over and over. He wasn’t such a genius then, but showed sparks of what could be if only he’d commit himself to the game.
Well, twenty months ago he did. He supposedly gave up smoking, drinking and partying. It was a tough choice because he pissed away a good six years of his tennis career running up and down the ranks. In 2010 he peaked at 24 in the world, then slid to 129 in 2012. He is currently at his highest of highs … No. 17. It’s very possible he could crack the top 10 come Monday.
Many wonder what took him so long to straighten out, if for a fact he is in the game 100%. Because as the son of a wealthy oil investor, Gulbis’ life was pretty dandy without excelling … at anything.
Here’s how the 25-year-old answered that question today, after laughing, “I answer this question many times. What took me so long? I think I was eating wrong. I had the wrong diet. Everybody was talking about this gluten-free diet. My diet is full on gluten. I like a lot of ketchup, a lot of unhealthy stuff so there is a balance which I found in the last couple of years (smiling).”
Gulbis is the only Latvian to ever play in a Grand Slam. He also holds the distinction of upending Roger Federer at a slam, and then not losing in the next round. The last eight players to defeat Federer lost their next match. Today, though, Gulbis thwacked Tomas Berdych (No. 6) 63 62 64. Next is Novak Djokovic who, today, defeated Milos Raonic (No. 8), 75 76(5) 64.
Novak and Ernests go back to the juniors. They both attended The Niki Pilic Academy in Austria. They practiced together at times, but not much. “We had to practice. I couldn’t really beat him. But I could beat him on carpet. There was really fast carpet indoors.” However, Gulbis remembers Djokovic as an earnest student. When friends would go out after practice, Novak would stretch. “To be really successful in tennis, you need to … something like that he said to me,” Gulbis said. “That’s a kid who is 15 years old. I didn’t forget.”
The two met in the 2008 quarterfinals of Roland Garros where Djokovic took him to the woodshed. The same might not be true come Friday when both semifinal matches will be contested.
During his loopy years, Gulbis would grab media attention after he’d make a splash on court. In 2008 he took one set from Rafael Nadal in the second round of Wimbledon. It was the only set Nadal lost on his way to winning his first-ever Wimbledon title. Gulbis defeated Djokovic back in 2009 in the round of 32 in Brisbane. Andy Murray fell under the Gulbis spell last year at Rogers Cup, a title Murray was trying to defend. In all these instances, Gulbis holds a losing head-to-head record. Except Federer. They are now 2-2.
Gulbis’ game spins around his serve and backhand. For the tournament he has served 62 aces in five matches, which puts him third to Raonic’s 93 over five matches. One of the more interesting and crucial stats — second serve return points won — puts Djokovic and Gulbis at the top of the tournament list, #1 and #2 respectively. Novak has won 131 points and Ernests 125. Considering that the two most important aspects of tennis are serves and returns of serve, we could have a fairly balanced semifinal act coming up.
With Gulbis winning Marseilles and Nice coming into Roland Garros, fans could be on his side, too, during the semifinal. Of course that could change with the whack of a tennis racquet coming down hard on their sacred terre battue. Gulbis is famous for this type of antic. Djokovic is not immune, either.