ROME — Ernests Gulbis isn’t one to mince words.
So when the 2008 French Open quarterfinalist was asked to sum up his clay season so far on the heels of his Delray Beach title as a qualifier and his fourth-round appearance at Indian Wells as a qualifier, what started out as a confident defense of his performance quickly devolved into a fit of laughter.
“My losses on clay were against good players,” Gulbis told SI.com. “I lost against Tommy Haas [in three sets in Munich], and he won the tournament not losing a set. I was the only one getting a set from him. I lost to [Milos] Raonic in Barcelona. That maybe wasn’t a good match because I didn’t play good.
“I lost to Juan Monaco [in Monte Carlo], but I went a little bit nuts. I got a game penalty,” he said with a laugh, recalling his racket-throwing tantrum. “That was my, mentally, worst match of the season.”
Gulbis promised his coach he wouldn’t break any rackets after that tirade. It was a promise he couldn’t keep.
“I broke one [against Haas],” he said. “But since then I didn’t. I was good.”
Though his clay season had had some hiccups, the 24-year-old Latvian is still ranked No. 46 after ending last year at No. 136, the first time he finished outside the top 100 since 2006. In his last seven tournaments dating to February, he hasn’t lost to a player ranked outside the top 20. After successfully qualifying for the main draw of the Italian Open, he defeated Jarkko Nieminen and Viktor Troicki (who melted down in a way that even Gulbis thought was over the top) to set up a third-round match with Rafael Nadal on Thursday.
After Wednesday’s victory against Troicki, Gulbis spoke with SI.com about his ups and downs in tennis, explained why he prefers joint tournaments and echoed Jimmy Connors’ opinion that today’s ATP rivalries are “soft.”
SI.com: What do you do to pass time at tournaments?
Gulbis: Oh, my God. I cannot be original on this. I cannot.
SI.com: You can’t?
Gulbis: I cannot.
SI.com: Do you want to pass?
Gulbis: No, no, no, I’m not going to pass. Reading. I’m reading Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer. It’s a cliche. Everybody’s reading it and I always run away from books that everybody reads, from movies that everybody’s watching, but I took it. I hope it doesn’t disappoint me. I read his other stuff. I read like five, six books from him already, so this is just one of them. [Gulbis didn't reveal which book.]
SI.com: When did you first realize you were good at tennis?
Gulbis: I never played tennis because I needed to play it. I never played it because somebody pushed me to do it. Until basically the age of 15, 16, I really didn’t care if I was a tennis player or not. I really didn’t think about it at all. And then slowly I started to win something. I started to play good in the European junior tournaments and it kind of just went and it went really fast. I came up the tour really fast; I was already good at the age of 18, so I really didn’t think about it. Then slowly afterward it turned. I started to make some wrong decisions and I got stuck a little bit. But all this experience was good.
SI.com: If you could replay any match in your career, which would it be?
Gulbis: Too many matches. I would redo a period of my career. From age of 18 to age of 23 and a half. That’s five and a half years.
But actually, I wouldn’t redo it. I wouldn’t. Because I got to know the tour and I got to know the people and I really enjoy being in the situation I am right now. Because when you come up on the tour, and you’re 18 and 19 years old, young gun, everybody kisses your ass and everybody’s nice to you. And then slowly, slowly, slowly, you go downhill, nobody really cares about you, you skip to 150 in the rankings, cannot get a wild card in the Challengers. Now, I enjoy being back even more than I did before.
SI.com: If you were the commissioner of tennis, what would you change?
Gulbis: I would make so many changes. I wouldn’t know where to start. Too many changes.
SI.com: Your mom told you to quit tennis in February after you lost your first-round match at the Bergamo Challenger. So what’s she saying now?
Gulbis: Now she keeps quiet [laughing]. She took it back and she keeps quiet. She doesn’t keep quiet in my personal life, but in my tennis life it was her last comment.
SI.com: How often do you talk to your family?
Gulbis: Every day.
SI.com: Do you like joint tournaments or do you prefer ATP-only tournaments?
Gulbis: I like joint tournaments because at least you see some ladies around. Otherwise, the men’s tour can get on your nerves sometimes. [A joint event] has its minuses, of course, because you don’t get all the practice courts. But I like to see women around. Women are a big part of my life and it makes me happy.
SI.com: Jimmy Connors said the rivalries between the ATP’s top players are “soft” compared with those of his playing days. Would you like to see more tension at the top?
Gulbis: For sure, it’s too much [civility]. I respect them. Great for them. Everything works for somebody. But I miss some fire. I miss some fire that people have in boxing or basketball or hockey. People like it and it makes it more competitive. Here, it’s like, “He did a great game and I was a little bit better.” No. It’s bull—-. “S—, I won the match, I kicked his ass, he was worse than me, that’s it, go home.” That’s the attitude tennis is missing.
SI.com: Why do you think that is?
Gulbis: I think because the top guys made it like this. They started it very nice, very gentlemanlike, and everyone copies them. Young guys coming up, they only see Roger [Federer] and Rafa [Nadal] interviews, which are always picture perfect. For me, they’re boring. Not as people, but the interviews are boring. Because they give the same answers every time to the same questions every time. I want to see some kind of action, more intense.
SI.com: Would you ever write a memoir?
Gulbis: I’m sure it’s a best-seller. For sure, it’s a best-seller. If I would write it, I would write it on my own. Sit down and write, and then we’ll see what’s happening.