From the LA Times:
From outer limits of Europe to inner circle at French Open
by Chuck Culpepper
PARIS -- The phrase "Latvian tennis" doesn't tend to come up in conversation, and the phrase "Canary Islands tennis" sounds odd given that most people go to Spain's Canary Islands to avoid exertion such as tennis.
Still, somehow, against global odds, both phrases have popped up at the 2008 French Open because both places have sent out sudden 19-year-old quarterfinalists born four days apart in the late summer of -- please don't spit out your coffee -- 1988.
From extreme northeast Europe here's Ernests Gulbis, surely coming to a world top 20 near you, and from extreme southwest Europe here's Carla Suarez Navarro, the Canary Islander and qualifier whose ranking figures to bounce from its present-day 132.
Here's the first of the 2.2 million Latvians to say, "I'm the first guy who is in the top 100 from Latvia," as Gulbis put it. "There was one man who was 300, only, before me."
In fact, the upper crust of Latvian sports were pretty much limited to hockey, soccer and basketball -- at which Gulbis' grandfather, Alvils Gulbis, excelled on the old Soviet national team as well as the 1958 European champion club. A few years ago, Gulbis said, the national government gave only about $8,000 worth of lats, the Latvian currency, for tennis.
Then this wunderkind came along and literally altered the landscape, after he arrived at the 2007 U.S. Open having played all of 23 career matches, yet reached the fourth round.
Now . . .
"I mean, the courts in Latvia are fully booked always," he said. "If I go practice at home, I don't get a court, really. It's full."
With a businessman for a father, a theater actress for a mother, a movie director for a maternal grandfather, and four siblings including a student in England, it's no wonder Ernests jet-setted Munich at 12, entering the tennis academy of Niki Pilic, the Croatian who lost the 1973 French Open final to Ilie Nastase.
There, Gulbis would meet one Novak Djokovic, fellow Pilic pupil, Serbian, now barely 21 himself, the Australian Open champion and, look here, Gulbis' quarterfinal opponent.
"Already then he was very powerful," Djokovic said. "So he was about to grow up and, as you can see, he's very tall (6 feet 2). He's using his height for his serve, which is one of his biggest weapons. He makes a life really difficult for his opponents when he's serving well."
Djokovic, No. 3 on Earth, claimed Gulbis "was destroying me in practices" two or three years ago. "I couldn't win a match. . . . So all the pressure on him, OK?"
Still, this clay surge by the Latvian would be unanticipated, especially since, as Gulbis said, "One year ago, I was playing pretty stupid on clay." One year later, he plays with calm and maturity that seem preternatural.
Said France's Michael Llodra, Gulbis' fourth victim on a list that includes eighth-ranked American James Blake and capable Ecuadorian Nicolas Lapentti, "You don't defeat Blake and Lapentti just by chance. So I probably overestimated him rather than underestimated him," and either way, lost in straight sets, 6-4, 7-6 (4), 6-3.