The Education of Ernests Gulbis

Ernests Gulbis
By Matthew Zemek, January 23rd, 2009

Ernests Gulbis is only 20 years old. When one recalls the fact that Roger Federer won his first Grand Slam title just a month short of his 22nd birthday, it’s premature to say that Gulbis, a wondrously talented Latvian gunslinger, isn’t delivering on his potential.

The key for Gulbis, as the 2009 tennis season continues, is to begin to learn from setbacks such as his five-set loss to Igor Andreev in the second round of the Australian Open. Thursday’s 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4 defeat, in a match that took 3 hours and 52 minutes, needs to mark a turning point for a kid whose big-league weapons aren’t complemented by crunch-time courage.

The story of Ernests Gulbis’s tennis career began, in essence, at the 2007 U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York. Having just celebrated his 19th birthday, Gulbis proceeded to dismantle his first three opponents in straight sets, including longtime top 20 resident Tommy Robredo. Playing in his first hardcourt slam event, Gulbis unleashed a popping serve and massive groundstrokes that blew away more seasoned opponents. The memorable coming-out party suggested that Gulbis would make deep runs at slams before too long. In the 2008 French Open, a march to the quarterfinals-before a hard-fought loss to Novak Djokovic-only seemed to confirm this line of thought.

A few months later, a rising star came back to New York for another run at the U.S. Open. What happened at that tournament appears to have haunted Gulbis, enough to make him flinch on a gray and windy Thursday in Melbourne against Andreev.

In order to understand why Gulbis is no longer competing in this year’s Australian Open, one has to go back to the 2008 U.S. Open, and to a night when a promising tennis player experienced a terrifying encounter with big-match stage fright.

On August 29, 2008-the night before his 20th birthday-Gulbis took to the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium for a second-round matchup with American star Andy Roddick before a crowd of roughly 20,000 fans. For the young Latvian, the big stage presented by the world’s media capital (New York) and the world’s largest tennis stadium (Ashe) offered an incentive to ensure that the 2007 run to the fourth round of the U.S. Open was no fluke.

For nearly two full sets, Gulbis played the part. Acting like a man who wanted to take the big city by storm, Gulbis bludgeoned the ball in every way imaginable. He crafted a legitimately awesome display of shotmaking that left Roddick, a fixture in the top 10, powerless and overwhelmed. As long as Gulbis played his game, the match was on his racquet. As Gulbis owned a 6-3, 5-4 lead and served for a two-set stranglehold on the match, the tennis life of this prodigiously gifted player was progressing on schedule. A dispirited Roddick could only hope that Ernests Gulbis would feel the pressure of the moment as he toed the service line.

In heartbreaking fashion, that’s exactly what Gulbis did.

A few errors in that 5-4 service game gave life to Roddick and the massive American crowd that was looking for any reason to get involved in the match. Roddick broke to level the second set at 5-all, and from that point onward, Gulbis carried himself like the dead man walking he would soon become. Roddick would pull out the second set, 7-5, and take the match in four sets, 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 7-5.

Gulbis-so close to the most impressive Grand Slam win of his young career-suddenly had to deal with the loss of more than a tennis match. On that night in New York, the Latvian lost his tennis innocence; he had a signature win slip through his fingers for reasons beyond the opponent across the net. Like every other professional athlete-including the Federers and Nadals of the world-Gulbis had to stare down the fact that he cracked under pressure. When that realization gets into an athlete’s head, it has to be confronted with maturity and calmness. Yet, there’s hardly any guarantee that a 20-year-old can perform such a process.

Five months after that wrenching loss to Roddick, it’s clear that Gulbis was still carrying the weight of that heartbreak during his rollercoaster ride against Andreev.

After losing the first two sets, Gulbis won the third set and watched as Andreev received treatment from a trainer for an abdominal strain of some sort. The 25-year-old Russian was clearly bothered over the match’s final three sets, and when Gulbis gained a break lead at 4-3 in the fifth, it appeared likely that the Latvian would score a breakthough win of his own. The fightback from a two-set deficit would have given Gulbis the perfect mental tonic for his August agonies in New York. A career that had been wounded was just about to get healthy again.

Or so it seemed.

Precisely when he had gained an advantage against a clearly ailing opponent, Gulbis gave back his break by using bad drop shots, a sign of mental fatigue. Andreev-who fought admirably on Thursday-gained a new injection of adrenaline when he squared the fifth set at 4-all. The Russian veteran held for a 5-4 lead, forcing Gulbis to serve to stay in the match.

Serving at 4-5, Gulbis won the first three points to get to 40-love, but as soon as he gained a commanding lead in that game, the fragile tennis talent frittered it away. Gulbis tightened up and conceded the next five points to lose the match in stunning fashion. The ghost of Andy Roddick haunted a player who has so much to offer to men’s tennis.

The fallout from New York was considerable enough; this Australian nightmare will only compound the psychological suffering being experienced by Ernests Gulbis.

In time, this tennis career could still climb the heights of achievement. But for now, Gulbis is in the midst of a full-blown crisis. How the Latvian handles these heartbreaks will determine how great-or how mediocre-this frail tennis flower becomes.


No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.