When a loss is a win
Published on Monday, May. 03, 2010 11:01AM EDT
Ernests Gulbis doesn’t know it, but losing a thrilling 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 Italian Open semi-final to Rafael Nadal on Saturday may have been a masterful career move.
The Latvian, 21, upset world No. 1 Roger Federer in the second round last Wednesday and he probably has no idea just how much attention he would have received had he also defeated Nadal, and maybe gone on to win the tournament.
Gulbis is a tennis media darling. He reached the 2008 French Open quarter-finals at 19 and has long been regarded as a top prospect because of his phenomenal game – he hits with dazzling power off the forehand and backhand sides, serves huge, returns serve well and has wicked drop shot, which he tends to over-use. The drop shot is a kind of guilty pleasure resulting from his natural flair.
He probably comes by that honestly as a member of one of the most prominent families in Latvia. His remarried mother, Milena Gulbe-Kavace, is a former actress and his father, Ainars, is one of the wealthiest businessmen in the country.
Ernests, as an eight year old, was as a child actor in a film, Hidden Agenda Two, with his mother. Her father was the legendary actor and film director, Uldis Pucitis. In an article in the Latvian press two years ago, his mother, usually not eager to talk about Ernests in the media, was already saying, “I was the daughter of Uldis Pucitis once, now I’m the mother of Ernests Gulbis.”
Along with his mother’s interesting back story and his father’s wealth, his paternal grandfather was a well-known basketball player in the former Soviet Union. Ernests, named after Ernest Hemingway, is very much his own man. He has a wide range of interests and as well as a frequently admitted disinclination to spend much time on the practice court.
Most obvious about him is that he is a chiselled six-foot-three and good-looking, with unruly hair and a disarming smile.
Until a run that resulted in his first ATP title in Delray Beach, Fla., in March and then a recent 7-2 record at events in Barcelona and Rome, Gulbis’ progress had been sketchy. He shares an August/September, 1988, birth date with Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic. But while del Potro won the US Open in 2009, and Cilic climbed to a career-best No. 13 last year, Gulbis tumbled from a career high No. 38 in August, 2008, to No. 101 in September, 2009, in part because of patella problem in his knee.
But now, ranked No. 35 with a bullet, he may actually be a better current-form player than either of them. A right-wrist tendinitis injury has kept del Potro off the tour since the Australian Open, while Cilic has plateau-ed a little lately.
Looking ahead to the Masters 1000 in Madrid next week and the French Open in three weeks, Gulbis quipped, “I think I have a good chance in these tournaments if I’m stable enough, if I don’t go out of my mind and if I don’t take a holiday when I shouldn’t be taking one.”
Following their match on Saturday, Nadal said about Gulbis reaching a top-10 ranking, “I thought that two years ago and, after this week, I think he can do it for sure. I saw him losing last year to some people and sometimes I didn’t understand.”
By losing to Nadal in Rome, Gulbis has avoided the media frenzy that would have resulted if he had become the first player ever to beat Nadal and Federer on clay in the same event. Now, he will have a slightly lower profile heading into Roland Garros, though still an interesting one that seems destined to become even more familiar to tennis followers over the next few months and years.