Gulbis not an underachiever anymore

BY foxsports • March 1, 2010

It would be presumptuous to assume that Ernests Gulbis was, in any way, motivated to up his game after being named in this column over Christmas as the great underachiever of 2009.

But the fact remains that the 21-year-old Latvian has begun 2010 in such inspired form that he has already won more matches than he did in the first six months of last year. The last five victories helped him claim the first ATP title of his career at the Delray Beach Tennis Center on Sunday with a startlingly decisive 6-2, 6-3 thrashing of Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic – his first title and most certainly not his last.

Of course, one must be just a little wary of making such statements because, two years ago at this very ITC event, a young Japanese man named Kei Nishikori won his first ATP title, stunning James Blake in the final. If you haven’t heard of Nishikori since (he actually re-appeared here this week and lost in the first round), it is because he has been injured.

Heaven forbid that the same fate should befall Gulbis because anyone watching on Tennis Channel will have witnessed the birth of a genuine contender for high honors. Incredibly, Gulbis destroyed the Karlovic serve. Very few players – and you can include such top notch returners as Roger Federer and Andy Murray in that list – break the giant Croat’s serve twice in a match. Gulbis broke it four times.

He did so by heeding the advice of his new coach, Hernan Gumy of Argentina, which was based on a policy of no retreat.

“I knew what I had to do,” Gulbis said afterwards. “I had to step in and take the ball early. I gave him no time to make the second shot.”

So easy to say; so difficult to do. The Karlovic serve descends on you at speeds of over 130 miles per hour from a height of 6-foot-10, plus the length of his arm and the height of his toss. Ivo has turned the phrase “serving out of his tree” into reality.

But Gulbis broke the branches. He did so because he has a remarkable speed of eye and lack of fear. He was taking the serve on the rise and ramming it back over the net before Karlovic, who moves well for a man of his size, could react.

“Everything he touch with his racket was great shot,” said Karlovic, who was not allowed to celebrate his 31st birthday in quite the way he would have wished. “Even frame shots went in. Nothing to do. It was very windy and it affected me.”

Gulbis has a pretty powerful serve of his own, but nothing affected him. Not the wind, not his opponent, not the fact that this was his first ATP final.

“I felt comfortable,” he said. “I like being in the final. I was not putting pressure on myself. No one does that. My father never put pressure on me to play tennis. He let me do what I wanted. At the age of 13, 14, I never practiced more than a few hours a week. I think it is crazy to make kids practice six hours a day.”

Now, there is a back story to this. Most kids who find themselves being forced onto the practice courts are the offspring of parents who do not live in the Gulbis financial comfort zone. Ainars Gulbis is an investment businessman and, reputedly, the third richest man in Latvia. It has been known for young Ernests to be flown to ITF Futures tournaments in his father’s private plane.

So Gulbis carries a certain confidence about him on the tennis circuit, and if he slams a ball high out of court in frustration – as he did during his first-round victory over the highly promising young American Ryan Harrison – and cops a $500 fine, rest assured the hotel bill will still get paid.

So it is the joy of playing the game that spurs him on, and if a slump from a ranking high of 38 in August 2008 to a lowly 90 at the end of 2009 suggested a certain lack of motivation, it was unfair. For much of last year, Gulbis was troubled by a patella problem in his knee.

“The muscles in my thighs were not strong enough to support the knee so there was pain,” he explained. “So I had to spend a lot of time in the gym. But after too much time in the gym you cannot feel the ball when you get back on court. So it took a while.”

But now he is on a roll. A semi-finalist in Memphis and now a titlist here. He will play Indian Wells and hope for a wild card in Miami. IMG, who runs the tournament that Butch Buchholz has now relinquished control of, would be crazy not to offer him one.

Gulbis is not only talented but exciting, too. “I have to stay aggressive,” he says. “If I start to think too much and wait for the other guy to make mistakes, that is wrong for me.”

He was told that he only dropped serve three times in the whole tournament while not losing a set. “I’m not impressed with stats,” he replied evenly. “I’m impressed with winning the tournament.”

So were we all. Ernests Gulbis – no longer an underachiever.

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