by James Buddell|
Ernests Gulbis is working hard to step from dangerous floater to consistent performer in order to achieve his goal of becoming a future World No. 1.
You have to be on the ball when you speak to Ernests Gulbis. An articulate speaker, the Latvian can be very direct in answer to a question he doesn't like but he can be equally charming and witty, with a dry sense of humour, if you gain his seal of approval. Either way he is faultlessly polite, respectful and doesn't take himself too seriously.
By virtue of winning his first ATP World Tour title at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships in February and beating Roger Federer at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, some topics — such as his privileged upbringing, what he hopes to achieve and whether he has to prove himself to anyone — have killed off his desire to give regular one-on-one interviews. For the record, his father, who often travels with his son to tournaments, doesn’t own a submarine or a spaceship.
"More or less everything is planned now two or three months ahead of time."
"I don't like fame or recognition," says Gulbis, who admits he hasn’t read anything about himself online for nearly three years. "Anything personal you want to know about me can be read on ATPWorldTour.com. I really would like no one to know me, especially in my country because when I go out, you cannot have 100 per cent fun as everyone is looking at you with a microscope."
He also endures the misfortune of not liking "flying, travelling or spending too many hours on the court practising" with good grace, so to sidestep a number of occupational hazards he has developed a systematic approach to life as a professional sportsman with the help of Hernan Gumy, a former coach to Marat Safin, since September 2009.
"Last year I didn't know how to practise well, prepare for tournaments or get a good schedule," says Gulbis, in the player's lounge of the LA Tennis Open. “More or less everything is planned now two or three months ahead of time. I now know what I am doing day-to-day. Before I was practising one week good, then four days I didn't do anything. I would then go to a tournament and play badly. I am now consistent in a system.
"Nothing I do is like the joy of winning a tennis match," he confirms. "I'm only happy when I'm on court." Gulbis, who is too intelligent to be a tennis freak, simply stays in his room, "reading, sleeping and playing PlayStation" during tournaments.
Gumy has put Gulbis in the right state of mind. No longer do 60-plus racquets a year find their way into a rubbish bin. Over the past 12 months Gulbis has streamlined his lifestyle and is learning to temper the exuberance and immaturity of youth in order to master the intricacies of the sport which, in the words of former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob, require players "to simultaneously maintain both heightened intensity and detached calm."
"I fight myself on court and try to keep my brain stable."
"It isn't only his [Gumy's] influence, but mine," insists Gulbis, who once believed talent alone would see him improve his ranking. "He has put me in the right state of mind; he showed me how to work consistently. I don't like it when people tell me, 'Listen you have to do this, this, this. You don't have to do that,' like some kind of teacher.
"He has had a different approach, a friendly approach. I like his attitude towards me. Slowly, slowly, I am changing. I am not ideal or perfect. I am making mistakes, but I am learning. I fight myself on court and try to keep my brain stable. When I am in Latvia, I still sometimes don’t come to practice. But it is a learning process."
Gulbis turned professional in 2004 and has posed a threat to the sport's elite ever since he beat Tim Henman on his Grand Slam championship debut at Roland Garros in May 2007. Yet he has not won back-to-back matches at a Grand Slam championship since June 2008 at Roland Garros, when, aged 18, he produced the best tennis of his life to reach the quarter-finals, where he lost to his childhood training partner Novak Djokovic.
His supporters, who share an affinity for drama and risk, have marvelled in notable wins when he appeared to play the sport like it was a magnified game of table tennis, combining a rhythmic service motion with a forehand that can generate electricity and artful drop shots. But his fans have also shared in his frustration when his concentration deserted him.
This season his trigger-happy days are becoming few and far between. He appears to have regained his teenage poise, reaching six ATP World Tour quarter-finals (or better) and rising from No. 90 to No. 26 in the South African Airways 2010 ATP Rankings, largely due to better shot selection, a stronger physique and consistency on return of serve.
"I have acted all my life on a tennis court, so when I retire I will stop acting."
"Winning Delray Beach earlier this year wasn't a relief," says Gulbis, who was coached by Nikola Pilic for six years in Munich during his teenage years. "I knew it was going to come sooner or later. I have always played tennis for my family because I enjoy it. So pressure-wise, there is zero pressure. I do it for my joy and my family."
Confident and assured, Gulbis confesses, "I have set myself a goal to be World No. 1." For fans in Latvia, it is quite an admission. Latvia's government once provided its tennis federation with an annual budget of £5,000 and have since developed five world-ranked players.
Just as his mood lifts, he states, "I think a sportsman mentality is to set new goals and expectations for himself... if you don’t push yourself to new goals, your life is over."
One thing is for certain: When Gulbis does decide to retire from tennis he knows that he doesn't want to act, as family members already have a pedigree in films and on television.
"I have acted all my life on a tennis court, so when I retire I will stop acting," he says. "I hope to find something after tennis which is exciting as tennis, not competition-wise, but to keep setting myself new goals as you always have to persist with life."
A free spirit, who "couldn’t sit in one place for more than five minutes" when he was younger, the Riga native has a multi-faceted personality and all-court game that, like Safin, could touch the peak of the sport. His destiny remains tantalisingly open. It will be interesting to watch his evolution over the next decade.
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