Heroes and Zeroes
Hero: Ernests Gulbis You have to hand it to Ernests Gulbis. He declared his intention of bursting through to a career-high ranking early in the season, and, lo and behold, seven months later the Latvian is on the cusp of making it happen. After winning his second title of 2013 on Sunday in St. Petersburg, Gulbis sits at No. 27 in the world with barely any points to defend between now and the end of the season.
In Rotterdam in early February, Gulbis called his shot, saying, "I think I'm gonna make it this season -- back to top 20 for sure (Gulbis is a former world No. 21). I prepared well, and I quit a lot of stuff in my life.” When pressed about what exactly he quit, Gulbis said “Smoking, drinking, staying up late.” It was yet another classic quote from Gulbis' gift that keeps on giving—his quote machine, which is never switched off. (Exhibit A: He said his opponent behaved like a “spoiled princess” after an incident during their quarterfinal match.)
But this year, his normally on-again, off-again tennis has been switched on more than ever before, and it has showed in Gulbis' results. On Sunday Gulbis showed determination and resiliency in coming back to defeat Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in the final. He was down a set and a break and he could have easily thrown in the towel, smashed a few racquets and brought out that nihilistic, volatile temperament of his to the detriment of his comeback hopes. Instead, the 25-year-old kept up the chase, never giving up belief that his opponent might give him something he could use to scratch and claw his way back into the match.
Trailing 4-1 in the second set, Gulbis scratched, then clawed, then raced to a sublime finish, reeling off the final 11 games of the match, never showing even a shred of nerves when it came time to close out his fourth career title.
The good news for fans of Gulbis' tennis is that the Latvian truly does appear to be reaching a higher level of consistency and competitiveness with his game. One needs to look only at the fact that he has reached a career-best 34 wins with five tournaments yet to be played, as well as the fact that he has earned multiple titles in single season for the first time.
And fans of Gulbis' theatrics and gleeful, sardonic wit needn't worry either. In the true spirit of his good friend Marat Safin, Gulbis is as committed as ever as bringing his unique brand of playful tennis nihilism to a tennis venue near you. The man refuses to be boring, just check the trail of broken frames and frustrated opponents that he left behind him in St. Petersburg for proof. “I broke two today, and overall I had come here with seven or eight racquets,” said Gulbis after the final. “I'm leaving with three or four.”
In an age of so many carefully cultivated quotes and watered-down interviews, Gulbis has always taken the lead role as tennis' most unboring, unscripted personality. Now that his tennis is taking flight, things could really get interesting.