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Steve Flink: Gulbis On His Way Back Where He Belongs

8/1/2011 5:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As long ago as the spring of 2008, it was apparent that Ernests Gulbis was a player of rare capabilities, a shot maker who blended astonishing power with dazzling touch, a physical force to be reckoned with. That year, this highly appealing Latvian went all the way to the quarterfinals at Roland Garros before Novak Djokovic struck him down on the clay in Paris. The way I saw it, Gulbis had it all, and it would only be a matter of time before he took his immense talent and his many gifts into the upper echelons of the sport. He had so much going for him that his place as a front line player seemed certain.

But Gulbis has been enigmatic in many ways, as perplexing as he is inspiring, indifferent at times yet admirably ferocious when he makes up his mind to put everything on the line. Gulbis concluded that memorable 2008 season stationed at No. 53 in the world, dropped to No. 90 at the end of 2009, then climbed to a career best No. 24 in the world for 2010, winning 31 of 51 matches that season, including his first ATP World Tour title at Delray Beach, Florida. In the spring of 2010 on the clay courts of Rome, he toppled none other than Roger Federer, and then gave Rafael Nadal a stern test before losing a hard fought semifinal encounter in three close sets.

Gulbis did not finish 2010 as brightly as he began it, but the fact remained that he had set the stage for a terrific year in 2011. And yet, his results this year were dismal almost across the board as he battled poor health and an uncooperative body. As he approached last week’s Farmers Classic in Los Angeles, the 22-year-old had won only 9 of 23 matches he had played across 2011. He was on a depressing five match losing streak. He had not been at full force physically for a long while. His world ranking had dropped to an unimaginable No. 84, and many of his biggest boosters no longer believed in him the way they once whole-heartedly did. I include myself entirely in that category.

But now, a good many of the dark clouds that hovered over the Latvian are largely gone. His run in Los Angeles was the most uplifting stretch of tennis he has played in well over a year. In the opening round on the California hard courts, Gulbis won the kind of match that can often turn a season and even a career around. He confronted the 31-year-old Belgian Xavier Malisse, a sound ball striker who remains a pest for a lot of his opponents; Malisse still prevails in an awful lot of matches he has no business winning. Gulbis had a considerable battle on his hands, but he took that morale boosting contest 7-5 in a final set tie-break. He needed that victory more than most of his followers ever knew, and it propelled him through the week. In the quarterfinals, Gulbis recorded an impressive 6-2, 6-4 triumph over 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, and that was no mean feat. Del Potro has been moving ever closer to the top of his game all year long. Gulbis next accounted for Alexander Bolgomolov, Jr. in the semifinals, and that gave him the right to meet Mardy Fish in the final.

Fish, of course, had been on a hot streak of his own. He had captured his first title of 2011 in Atlanta over John Isner the week before, and had performed like the total professional he is all week in L.A., overcoming the unrelenting Ryan Harrison in the semifinals, taking that high caliber contest in a third set tie-break. Fish never sells himself short these days, and he surely had every reason to believe that he would win back-to-back titles for the first time in his distinguished career.

Yet he certainly did not underestimate Gulbis. The leading players are realistic as well as obstinate, and Fish knows that Gulbis in peak form is a very tough man to beat. Nonetheless, Fish outplayed his younger adversary in a tight first set. These days, the 29-year-old Fish is a masterful percentage player, refusing to give almost anything away unless there is a large gain to be made, serving strategically as well as anyone in the game, attacking at all the right times, and volleying magnificently. His backhand volley at the moment may be the very best in the game.

Fish had two break points for 2-0 in the first set, but Gulbis thwarted him there with a forehand winner set up by a big first serve to the backhand, and a two-hander crosscourt that was too much for the American to handle. The disparity between the two players on the backhand side was in the end one of the fundamental differences between them. Fish could not measure up to Gulbis in the backhand to backhand exchanges. The Latvian had more pace on his two-hander, and was far superior in changing direction by taking his two-hander down the line with striking power, accuracy and deception. In the end, his superiority off the backhand was critical.

In any case, Gulbis erased those two break points and held on for 1-1. Both players then served remarkably well up until 5-5. Fish dropped only three points in his four service games in that stretch, while Gulbis won 16 of 18 points on his delivery. At 5-5, however, Fish was pressed hard. Twice in that eleventh game, the American was break point down as he lost conviction on his forehand. On the first, he played a daring backhand down the line drop shot that Gulbis could not get back into play, and Fish saved the second when Gulbis made a glaring backhand unforced error. Fish escaped to hold for 6-5. Gulbis stood one point from a tie-break in the following game, but at 40-30 his two-hander crosscourt caught the net tape and refused to go over. Fish then took advantage of a brain cramp from Gulbis, who intentionally hit a short ball with slice, allowing the American to approach the net. Fish then punched a backhand volley winner down the line to reach set point. Gulbis followed with a double fault, and Fish had the set 7-5.

Fish was in good shape into the middle of the second set. He led 3-2 on serve. He pushed Gulbis to two deuces in the sixth game but could break through. That game was pivotal. Serving at 3-3, Fish was broken for the first time in the match, driving a backhand down the line into the net at break point after playing a cautious point. Gulbis had the encouragement he needed. At 5-4, he served for the set, reaching 40-15 with a 130 MPH ace down the T. But then he double faulted, and followed with a netted backhand down the line that was unprovoked. Two set points had come and gone, but Gulbis regrouped swiftly, closing out the set from there with consecutive aces.

Toward the end of that set, Fish seemed to be suffering from a problem in his right foot, although he battled on gamely. But Gulbis was on a roll now. He broke Fish in the opening game of the third set. At break point, Gulbis unleashed one of his scorching backhands down the line, forcing a running forehand long from Fish. Gulbis held for 2-0, had a break point for 3-0, but Fish gathered himself there to hold on in the third game. Yet Gulbis kept firing away methodically and unhesitatingly. He held from 0-30 to reach 3-1, serving an ace on for 40-30 and then a service winner. Gulbis broke again for 4-1 as Fish missed a forehand approach volley, a backhand crosscourt wide, and a tentative sliced forehand long. Gulbis surged to 5-1, holding at 15. He was within striking distance of only his second career ATP World Tour singles title.

But perhaps Gulbis was too aware of precisely where he was. Fish held at love for 2-5, and then broke Gulbis at 15 at the younger man made a pair of abysmal forehand unforced errors. Fish held at 15 for 4-5. He had won 12 of 14 points and three games in a row. A debilitated Gulbis was wavering, right before our eyes. And yet, at 5-4, serving for the match a second time, Gulbis charged to 30-0, but he lost the next three points as his nerve seemed to dessert him. Break point down at 30-40, Gulbis was in serious difficulty. But he played an audacious forehand drop shot down the line and followed it in. Fish attempted an acutely angled backhand passing shot crosscourt, but the shot went narrowly wide. At deuce, Gulbis did not lose his gumption, angling his forehand crosscourt to pull Fish wide, then executing an impeccable forehand drop shot winner down the line. Now up match point, Gulbis closed the account in high style, driving a forehand down the line for an outright winner. He had regained his composure and reassembled his game just in the nick of time, toppling Fish 5-7, 6-4, 6-4.

With the tournament victory in Los Angeles, Gulbis has moved from No. 84 back up to No. 55 in the world. He may still have to qualify for the Masters 1000 event in Montreal, but the hope here is that Gulbis will remain healthy, strong, and invigorated. He should be a top ten in the world player who can make his presence known at all of the majors, but since that unexpected run to the quarters at Roland Garros three years ago, Gulbis has not done well in any of them. In his 12 appearances at the Grand Slam events since then, Gulbis has never made it past the second round. That is not the way it should be. It is high time for Gulbis to perform as majestically as he knows he can.

Let’s hope that Los Angeles was the start of something substantial for this individual who has so much to offer the game he plays with such flair and originality. I have a feeling that he is ready to achieve on a much larger scale over the next year.  

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