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Steve Flink: Gulbis Here to Stay

8/28/2008 1:36:00 AM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS--- When I looked at the schedule for the third day of the U.S. Open, the first name that I noticed was Ernests Gulbis. He was playing 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, a 33-year-old Swede with a wealth of experience and a playing style that has held up remarkably well. I had watched Gulbis confront Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals of the French Open, and he had handled that assignment admirably despite losing in straight sets. At Wimbledon, I saw Gulbis take on Rafael Nadal, and on that occasion he never allowed Nadal to settle into a rhythm, extending the Spaniard to four arduous sets. I came away from that confrontation enormously impressed.

Having seen Gulbis perform on the clay of Roland Garros and on the lawns at the All England Club, I was eager to get another look at him here on the hard courts in New York. This gifted shot maker from Latvia--- who is just turning 20--- has an extraordinary future. And it is always a treat to watch a player of immense potential when he is not fully polished, when he is still getting acclimated in the world of big time tennis, when he is just beginning to explore his potential. Gulbis falls into that category at the moment, but I know it won't be long before he establishes himself as a front line competitor with a major presence on the international stage.

And so, as I wandered all over the grounds on Wednesday in search of gripping matches and appealing players, there was no way I was going to miss Gulbis in his opening round contest with Johansson. My wife Frances was here that day with a cluster of her tennis playing friends, women that play the game craftily at the club level and follow the pro game probingly. They were all watching a doubles match when I urged them to walk over to Louis Armstrong Stadium and see this great young prospect up close and in person.

They all joined me at Armstrong a few minutes later, and no one was disappointed with what they witnessed. Gulbis had taken a hard fought first set 7-5 from Johansson, and when we arrived he was in the process of closing out the second set 6-1. The stadium was not even half full because many fans were on the outside courts, and a good number were next door on the Grandstand watching Robert Kendrick defeat Nicolas Mahut in one of those rare matches these days between a pair of attacking players. But even if the atmosphere was not electric, Armstrong Stadium was a delightful place to be in the early evening. The fans assembled there seemed to fully appreciate the talent flowing from the racket of Gulbis, recognizing simultaneously that Johansson remains a first rate player.

In the third set of this showdown, Johansson tried everything. He served big, went for some risky yet not outrageous shots to catch Gulbis off guard, and even approached the net behind a return of a 129 M.P.H. delivery from Gulbis. He did not win that point, but he let Gulbis know that he was willing to take chances and be boldly experimental. More importantly, Johansson made a tiring Gulbis realize that he was not giving up despite being two sets down.

At 4-5 in that high caliber third set, Gulbis was hard pressed. He was down a set point. The loss of that point would have had serious consequences; he admitted later that he was feeling some fatigue, and Johansson was revitalized at that stage. In any case, Gulbis could not afford to let that third set slip away. He would have found himself in a real skirmish, and anything could have happened from there. Gulbis knew full well that this was a propitious moment, and he responded appropriately, sending a timely ace out wide to the backhand, stifling Johansson at a crucial moment. They moved on almost inevitably to a tie-break, and Gulbis played that sequence almost impeccably. He came away deservedly with a well deserved 7-5, 6-1, 7-6 (3) triumph. My wife and her friends marveled at his talent and flair, at his rich stroke vocabulary and match playing sparkle, at the fluidity of his stroke production.

Gulbis will now take on Andy Roddick in an eagerly anticipated second round clash under the lights tonight. Roddick surely recognizes as he heads into that contest that he would need to serve an outstanding match to keep Gulbis at bay, and clearly understands that he will be facing a competitor who is destined for greatness. As they approached that battle, there was no way of knowing how capably Gulbis would handle the situation. Playing the 2003 Open champion Roddick on his favorite stage in front of a vociferous New York crowd is not the most facile of assignments, but then again Gulbis stood up ably to the challenge of competing against Djokovic in the Roland Garros quarterfinals, and performed magnificently in his match with Nadal at Wimbledon.

Win or lose against Roddick, Gulbis seems certain to make big strides in the game across the next couple of years. He stands already at No. 40 in the world, and the way I see it he will be among the top 10 by the time the 2009 U.S. Open rolls around. His game is already strikingly well rounded. He mixes up his serve well, exploding with big first serves, using the wide slice serve effectively in the deuce court, throwing in heavy kicking second serves that bound up awfully high on the backhand side of his opponents. Off the ground, he plays the running forehand with grace, power and precision, can create improbable angles off his two-handed backhand, and makes superb use of the sliced backhand.

There is no doubt that Gulbis can get decidedly better. He has a tendency now to play too many drop shots, although his touch is at times astonishing. His shot selection is occasionally immature. He failed to put away some relatively easy volleys against Johansson. But he has so much going for him. His game is unusually diversified. He seems highly motivated and deeply ambitious. He acts as if he belongs on a tennis court with anyone in the world. He knows he has a chance across the next two years to make a big impression in this game.

No matter what happens at this U.S. Open, 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.

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