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Steve Flink: Gulbis Reintroduces Himself

3/2/2010 1:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

Across the summer of 2008, from the red clay of Paris to the lawns of Wimbledon and on to the hard courts of the U.S. Open, Ernests Gulbis impressed me and a good many other observers with the way he was playing the game of tennis. During that span, Gulbis, an explosive shot maker with multi-faceted skills, demonstrated persuasively that he was destined for future glory in his profession. The young Latvian got all the way to the quarterfinals at the French Open before a more seasoned Novak Djokovic took him out of that tournament. At Wimbledon, he confronted Rafael Nadal in the second round and he had the Spaniard in an uneasy state of mind before losing a hard fought, four set meeting. Finally, at the U.S. Open--- where he had already reached the round of 16 in 2007 at 19---Gulbis was striking the ball with effortless power and was utterly in control until he served for a two sets to love lead against 2003 champion Andy Roddick. Although he did not exploit that opportunity and subsequently bowed out in four sets, the fact remained that Gulbis had announced his arrival, encouraging all of us to follow him attentively from that point forward.

 In 2009, Gulbis did not find anything like the same kind of inspiration or panache that had characterized his play the previous season. He fell into a perhaps inevitable slump. His ranking slipped from No. 53 at the end of 2008 to No. 90 upon the conclusion of 2009. In his first match of the year, he upended Djokovic in Brisbane, but thereafter he could not get any traction. No longer did he look so imposing. Gone was the swagger of 2008. The seeds of doubt crept in. The self conviction evaporated. The joy of competing--- one of his most appealing features in 2008--- was hardly ever evident. Adding to his woes, Gulbis had some tough draws, falling against Andy Murray in the second round of Wimbledon and the first round of the U.S. Open.

But as soon as the 2010 season commenced, it was apparent that Gulbis had his mind and heart set on making amends. At Doha in his first tournament of the year, Gulbis got to the quarterfinals and made Roger Federer work inordinately hard in a close encounter. Federer prevailed 6-2, 4-6, 6-4, but Gulbis had acquitted himself remarkably well. Federer gave his rival high marks when it was over. Gulbis struggled through a few more events after his appointment with the world No. 1, losing in the opening round of the Australian Open to the industrious Juan Monaco, bowing surprisingly against Leonardo Mayer of Argentina in the first round of San Jose.

And yet, he was not discouraged.  In Memphis, Gulbis turned an important psychological corner. Having already toppled Radek Stepanek in the round of 16, he overcame then world No. 23 Tomas Berdych 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the quarters. Berdych served for the match but Gulbis held his ground, kept his nerve, and battled back gamely for the victory. Although he lost in straight sets to Sam Querrey in the semifinals, Gulbis was on his way back to his best form. He must have known that his fortunes were brightening as he headed into the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships last week.

In that tournament on the hard courts in Florida, Gulbis captured his first ATP World Tour title without losing a set in five matches. He held off a strong challenge from the promising American Ryan Harrison, taking that contest 6-4, 7-6 (5) in the first round. Then Gulbis took apart Teimuraz Gabashvili 6-1, 6-4, and next he avenged his San Jose loss to Mayer, coming through 7-6 (2), 6-4. In the semifinals, Gulbis stopped Jarko Nieminen, and so he found himself up against the formidable Ivo Karlovic in the title match.

The 6’10” Karlovic had been overwhelming his opposition all week long. Only once in four matches had he lost his serve. He had crushed defending champion Mary Fish in the penultimate round. He seemed poised to collect the title as he walked on court to celebrate his 31st birthday, and the skeptics wondered if Gulbis could find a way to disrupt the Croatian’s rhythm on his fearsome delivery. My feeling was that Gulbis would have no alternative but to work his way into tie-breaks and take his chances there. But that assessment was completely off base.

In a first rate demonstration of his talent, Gulbis dismantled Karlovic with consummate ease, coming away deservedly with a 6-2, 6-3 triumph on a windswept afternoon. In the two nearly immaculate sets he played, Gulbis broke the most daunting server in the game no fewer than four times. That rarely happens to Karlovic on a hard court surface, but Gulbis’s returns were sweepingly beautiful off both sides, and seldom if ever have I seen Karlovic so befuddled by the shots that were coming back at him with such accuracy and severity.

Down 1-2 in the opening set, Gulbis cast aside two break points. Karlovic missed with his trademark inside-out forehand on the first, and Gulbis caught his towering adversary off guard with a body serve to the forehand that saved the second break point. Gulbis held on for 2-2, and never looked back. He broke in the fifth game with an inside-out forehand winner right smack on the line, held easily for 4-2, then broke again for 5-2, producing two magnificent forehand return winners in that game. He closed out the set easily on a run of five consecutive games, and a beleaguered Karlovic could hardly believe what was happening to him.

Gulbis was essentially in the zone, and Karlovic was way out of sorts. Gulbis broke for a 2-1 second set lead and he was soaring. He held for 3-1 at 15, releasing two aces in that game. Karlovic aced Gulbis out wide in the Ad Court to save a break point in the following game, but Gulbis held on for 4-2 with consecutive winning volleys from 30-30. Gulbis advanced to 5-3, and then saved himself from the tension of having to serve out the match. With Karlovic serving at 3-5, the big Croatian was down 15-40, double match point. He reached back and cracked two aces to save those match points, then saved a third with his 14th and final ace of the match. But Gulbis had rattled the psyche of Karlovic with his uncanny ability to read his adversary’s serve, and Karlovic then double faulted consecutively to lose the match.

Most impressive of all, Gulbis made one penetrating, low return after another off Karlovic’s first serve. Perhaps the swirling wind interfered with Karlovic’s execution, and made him compromise too much with his location. His capacity to send that first serve into the corners is normally unassailable. His slice serve wide in the deuce court breaks wider than any other server’s in tennis, and his wide serve in the Ad Court is similarly devastating, and virtually unreachable. But on this windy day, Gulbis seemed to pick the direction of that awesome serve with astonishing ease, and his propensity to do that shook Karlovic to his very core. It was a terrific piece of business from Gulbis.

The hope here is that he will be reignited, and will comprehend just how good he is and what he might accomplish. Two years ago, I felt that Gulbis would be a top ten player by now. I did not allow for the growing pains suffered by so many gifted individuals who try to climb irreversibly up the ladder of success. He got into an awful rut a year ago, which was entirely understandable for a player of his age and inexperience. But I sense a renewed commitment from Gulbis now to make the most of his potential. The way I see it, he can compete with anyone in the world on any given day. He has it all going for him off the ground, driving the ball relatively flat off both sides most of the time, flicking stupendous winners off the forehand,  walloping the two-handed backhand with controlled aggression either down the line or crosscourt.

Gulbis is a player of growing maturity. In 2008, he was prone to trying an excessive number of drop shots, a habit he seems to have largely put aside as his shot selection improves. But he has improved in different ways. His first serve remains an immense weapon but he also mixes it up well, and he can go out wide with great effectiveness in the deuce court.  His second serve is decidedly better; he gets more depth on it, and it is harder to attack. And Gulbis has a growing command of the volley, although that remains the most under-utilized part of his game. He has the entire package to succeed at the highest levels of the game. 

His Delray Beach triumph is only a beginning. Now Gulbis needs to prove that he has the goods to start capturing titles of greater consequence, to beat the leading players, to come through with big wins on auspicious occasions. The only competitor among the top five in the world that Gulbis has defeated thus far is Djokovic. I have a strong feeling that will change this year. In my view, Gulbis, who will not turn 22 until the end of August, will make it to at least one semifinal at a Grand Slam event, and he will topple one of the estimable members of the top tier along the way.

Back in 2008, in the midst of the U.S. Open, I wrote in this space, “I am convinced Ernests Gulbis will be contending for major titles no later than 2010. In the long run, I just can’t envision him anywhere else but in the upper regions of his sport. I really hope he can deliver on his vast promise, because he has so much to offer the game of tennis.”

I stand by that point of view now. He will make it to the latter stages of a major this year, and there is no reason why he should not claim one of the Grand Slam titles by the end of 2012. In a very short span, Gulbis has moved from his status as the No. 90 player in the world back up to No. 45. As a player of supreme capabilities, he will be in the top 20 by the U.S. Open this year, and I will be disappointed if he does not reach the top ten by the middle of 2011.

Ernests Gulbis is on his way to a place where he belongs, approaching the zenith of his game, pushing on determinately toward the territory of the elite. He still has far to go if he wants to realize his largest dreams, but the feeling grows that Delray Beach was a significant turning point in the career of an extraordinary young man who has the gifts to match his lofty aspirations.

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