By Bill Simons
It’s best to fit in, right? Or is it better to be different?
Ernests Gulbis is different.
Tennis storytellers like to talk about people emerging from poverty. Andre Agassi‘s dad Mike had $13 when he arrived in Chicago from Teheran. Sharapova‘s Russian father Yuri had about $700 when he landed in Miami.
Gulbis was different. He emerged from wealth. His dad Ainars is a multi-millionaire, one of Latvia’s richest. With ease and confidence, Ernests refers to his father’s country house—how nice. At times, it’s seemed that he’s had more money and talent then he knew what to do with.
After winning a tournament in Nice, the ATP’s prime “Trustafarian” flew to Paris in a private jet. Once, when asked whether he had his own jet, he joked, “I have a helicopter, a submarine, and a spaceship.” He speaks with confidence, a certain ease. Do we detect a sense of entitlement? If so, it’s always mixed with a glint-in-his eye sense of humor: think Goran Ivanisevic and Marat Safin.
Nadal‘s coach said that if Rafa ever broke a racket he would quit, because there were millions in Africa who would dream of owning one. Gulbis broke 60 or 70 rackets in one year. Then he went to the racket factory and saw how much work went into making frames, so he cooled it.
Still, he jokes that his goal is to break a racket on each of the major courts of the world.
But now he seems to at last be breaking out—again.
He did once before, when he was just 19, reaching the Roland Garros quarterfinals. “I thought it was easy,” he told Eurosport. “’This is going to be a walk in the park.’”
But young Gulbis made bad decisions. For starters, he had a weakness: women. Long ago he claimed that he had just one problem—he liked girls. Famously, he was arrested in Stockholm for being with a prostitute, about which he said of his time in jail, “It was great fun, a very funny time.” Another time, he lost his wallet while taking a spontaneous ocean swim with a lady in Miami. Clearly, he was having fun off-court, but was adrift on-court.
The man-child who loved his shots of vodka (with milk, good for the stomach) didn’t take much of a shot at the big time. The hedonistic lad’s Dad was an investment businessman, but Ernests passed on investing in his own game. He made bad private decisions and didn’t practice hard.
Still, with his big serve, fabulous backhand, fleet movement and good size, Gulbis occasionally collected minor trophies, from LA to Delray Beach. Still, in 2012, when he nosedived and finished with a No. 139 ranking, there were whispers. Was Gulbis, along with Marcelo Rios and Safin, among the greatest underachievers in the game: youth squandered, such talent wasted?
Well, remember none other then Gulbis’ namesake, Ernest Hemingway, claimed “the first draft of anything is s—.”
Gulbis slowly turned things around. Even for a Trustafarian, age brings urgency. Was the last train leaving the station? So Ernests got religion (The First Church of Our Lady of Backhands Down the Line), a new coach and a new focus and shot up the rankings in 2013 to finish the year at No. 24.
This year, he won in Marseilles and Nice and went deep into tourneys in Rotterdam, Indian Wells, Barcelona and Madrid.
Here in Paris, he continued his streak of wins over seeded players, taking down the great Roger Federer and No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych to reach the first Grand Slam semifinal of his career, against Novak Djokovic.
But the match itself oddly mirrored his career. Gulbis started slow. Sure, he won the first six points and prevailed in a stunning 17-stroke rally, but he suffered a critical break in the fifth game, and Djokovic, ever the pro, efficiently turned his advantage into a 6-3 first-set victory.
“[The] difference in the match,” said Gulbis. “I’m not used to play these kind of big matches. It’s just normal I felt extra nervous and extra tense.” Gulbis may have been tense, but the match was flat and uninspired as, in surprising heat, Djokovic grabbed a workmanlike 6-3, 6-3 lead.
Afterward, Ernests noted, “It was not a good quality tennis at all. It was just grinding, and [we were] just trying to put the ball in … It was really slow pace. It was a struggle out there … Maybe throughout the match I hit five really clean shots.”
Still, to his credit, Gulbis soldiered on. Despite failing miserably earlier on five critical break point opportunities that could have changed the match, the Latvian finally punched one of his beautiful down-the-line backhands to break Novak.
Soon, he grabbed the third set, 6-3. A dreary match on a bright day suddenly surged—intrigue on clay. Could the Latvian, whose career started so slowly, come off his tepid start and get it in gear and challenge the No. 2 seed, who so wanted to win his first French Open to become only the ninth player to collect a career Grand Slam?
Indeed, Gulbis offered a glimmer of hope, promptly breaking Djokovic in the first game of the fourth set. The crowd roared and then hooted as it saw—go figure—that it was Djokovic who would destroy his racket in frustration.
The outburst must have helped, for the clearly ailing and fatigued Serb stepped up, just a tad, played with consistency, and called on his vast array of shots to turn the tide and score a 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 win, propelling him to a second Roland Garros final. Meanwhile Gulbis, who just days ago seemed to say that a women’s place was in the kitchen, was now placed on the sidelines, with 125 other men who had already fallen in Paris.
Still, he was upbeat, saying he enjoyed the match, and he would take nothing but positives from the experience. Today, we heard no dismissive comments about entire genders, nor tales of his prison adventures. There were no claims that he had a spaceship, and no talk about the glory of taking a shot of vodka.
Yes, Gulbis had a shot at the final. But at least he was now in the top ten. He told the press he’d picked up a new addiction—he was addicted to winning. He might lose in the first round of Wimbledon, but he predicted, now that he was in the top ten, that he would be No. 1 some day.
And what about all those vices that hampered him so badly? Today, the man is a bit of a saint, with just one exception. “I can take a cigar,” he confessed. “That’s the only vice which is left in me.”