Thinking Big: Ernests Gulbis Finds His Groove And Game In Delray Beach
By Richard Pagliaro
(February 25, 2010) Ask Ernests Gulbis how he spends his spare time away from tennis and he'll tell you he regards "thinking" as his favorite hobby.
A contemplative conversationalist off court, Gulbis was hardly the thinking man's player on court during the first five years of his career.
In fact, there was a time when Gulbis constructed points with all the thoughtful subtlety of a man using a jackhammer to squeeze juice from an orange.
Times have changed — a little bit anyway — and these days Gulbis is playing with a bit more patience, precision and consideration rather than resorting to the grip-and-rip game he used to play.
Varying the height and pace of his shots to navigate his way through the wind-swept conditions on Court 1, Gulbis dispatched Teimuraz Gabashvili, 6-1, 6-4, to advance to his third quarterfinal of the season at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships in Delray Beach today.
Reigning champion Mardy Fish moved into the quarterfinals for the third consecutive year with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over Germany's Mischa Zverev. It was Fish's seventh straight Delray Beach victory. He could face fourth-seeded Frenchman Jeremy Chardy for a semifinal spot if Chardy holds off Santiago Giraldo.
Benjamin Becker reached the quarterfinals without striking a shot as American Wayne Odesnik, Becker's scheduled second-round opponent, conceded a walkover with a sprained ankle. The third-seeded Becker will play Jarkko Nieminen in the quarterfinals.
The left-handed Nieminen continued his comeback from right wrist surgery that sidelined him for more than three months last season, masterfully mixing his spins and speeds to befuddle 2009 runner-up Evgeny Korolev, 5-7, 6-1, 6-0.
Gulbis broke serve in the opening game and the last game and dropped just five points on his first serve to post his fifth win in his last six matches.
"I pushed myself more to (break) with the wind. It was the most important thing," Gulbis told the media in the post-match press conference. "We can't get good timing (in the wind). I broke him immediately — he wasn't ready — I took the initiative and it went much easier. I was a bit lucky to break him in the last game. If we go to a tie break he could win."
It was Gulbis' first win over Gabashvili, who toppled top-seeded Tommy Haas, 7-6(3), 7-5, in the first round. Three of their four of the prior matches had gone the three-set distance with Gabashvili winning all four matches as Gulbis, who concedes concentration has not always been a major asset to his game, sometimes crumbled in the latter stages fighting a two-way battle between himself and Gabashvili.
"It is tough because sometimes you are fighting with yourself," Gulbis said. "Sometimes you are embarassed by how you are playing. Sometimes you want to be there, sometimes you want to go home. Sometimes you are fighting hard and sometimes you are fighting yourself."
The 72nd-ranked Gulbis' moment of truth came in the final two games today.
Serving at 4-all, Gulbis hit his first, and only, double fault of the match to face a break point for the first time all morning.
Frustrated, he belted a ball out of the court in disgust and did not pause to watch it bounce off the roof of the nearby player lounge.
In the past, Gulbis might have let the mistake fester into a mental migraine and start swinging for the lines in a reckless effort to hit through his opponent.
The 72nd-ranked Latvian worked the ball to set up a short forehand he pounded for a winner to erase the break point. Gabashvili netted a backhand trying to hit the ball down the line then committed a brain cramp when he momentarily stopped play, mistakenly believing Gulbis' shot sailed long. Chair umpire Ali Nili immediately called the ball in, Gabashvili dropped his racket to the court in disbelief and Gulbis walked to his seat with a 5-4 lead.
Working with coach Hernan Gumy since last year has helped Gulbis stabilize his emotions on court and smarten his shot selection. He's no longer the baseline gun slinger prone to imploding when his groundstrokes go askew. Gumy, a former Argentine pro, has a history of helping impetuous players. He worked with Marat Safin in the later stages of the two-time Grand Slam champions career and kept almost constant eye contact with Gulbis in the latter stages of today's matches, urging his charge to stay the course and play high-percentage tennis.
Like Safin, Gulbis oozes the type of natural power that can make even the hardest-hitting opponents looked positively pedestrian in comparison and like Safin, Gulbis has been known to play without conscience and try to blast his way out of trouble. Gumy has not only urged the 21-year-old Gulbis to play more considerate tennis, he's tried to teach him to learn from his mistakes and make immediate corrections on court rather than after the match.
"I think (Gumy has helped me with) more consistency from the baseline," Gulbis said, pausing to add. "Actually, he's helped every aspect from my game. My shots were a bit out of something and if I made a mistake I really didn't know why I made it. Now, I know how to make it better. Basically it's not one thing — it's everything. He's a really good coach."
Gulbis' talent for tennis is unquestioned — he reached the St. Petersburg semifinals in his ATP main draw debut in 2006 and advanced to the Roland Garros quarterfinals two years later — it is his work ethic and mental game that have been question marks in the past.
Asked what he needs to do to break through and win his first ATP title, Gulbis replied: "I'm doing it now, I think. I'm trying to play with more consistency."
He is seeking his first career ATP final and with the top-seeded Haas out of his quarter, Gulbis knows he has a legitimate shot to play for the title on Sunday — if he can keep his head together and his mind focused on the job at hand.
Gulbis, who speaks perfect English, showed his sense of humor when asked the importance he places on breaking through to his first final.
"I want to be quarterfinals all my life," Gulbis said with a smile. "Come on? Don't ask rhetorical question, please. Of course I want to win the tournament. I really want to win a tournament badly. I am playing much better every week. The first seed is out and not a lot of high ranked players are in this tournament. I really want to play well here. I feel more confident now than ever because I didn't win a lot of matches for a long time."
As he takes another step closer to his first final, Gulbis can draw confidence from his leap to another sports milestone that instilled a sense of invincibility on court — he blocked 6-foot-10 Ivo Karlovic's shot in a pick-up basketball game earlier this week.
"I can beat anyone in basketball. I'm more confident in basketball than in tennis," said Gulbis, whose father Ainars is a former basketball player. "Me and my father beat Karlovic and his coach, I blocked Karlovic's shot but he said I fouled him."
Some nice quotes in this article
All the best, Ernests
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