FRENCH OPEN: The Importance of Being Ernests And Other Reflections on Gulbis

Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images




By Michael Mewshaw and Bill Simons

“Come on,” noted one British journalist. “Ernests [Gulbis] was Nick Kyrgios before there was a Nick Kyrgios, except that he’s loaded.” Gulbis, the former French Open semifinalist, is the son of one of the richest businessmen in Latvia. He’s earned $8 million on the circuit. But, now that he’s slumping and is in the lower echelon, the No. 80 player in the world speaks of the insufferable unfairness of this sport – its sheer misery.

When you are “underneath, it’s unforgiving,” he told Australia’s “It’s such a different world when you’re playing well…[Then] everybody wants you in their tournaments…[and] puts you on the good courts…[and] tries to please you.”

Gulbis complained that two years ago he was in the semis, but now is relegated to the outback – Court 18, which is like being at a chic restaurant, but being assigned to a table by the kitchen. Gulbis moaned that the lesser players are “treated like s—t. I asked, ‘Is it a nice court for the match?’ So they said, ‘No, go on the court.’…[My] coaching staff doesn’t even have a spot to sit…I feel a little bit disrespected.”

Gulbis, whose dad has a palatial home and an expansive library, once joked that, “Yes, and I have a helicopter, a submarine and a spaceship.”

His complaints draw tears. He added that “[players] have to play in snow, like in Munich, you have to play in cold weather, hot weather, it doesn’t matter, nobody cares. It’s definitely not a democratic attitude at all…Are we living in a democracy where everybody is the same or how does it work? If somebody explains this then I will understand, then maybe when I reach top 10 again…People in my situation have to beg for practice courts…Then you see seeded players who are there for two hours alone with a coach. How can you compete? We have one hour with four people on court [and we have to play] against a guy who has prepared well, [and] everything is perfect.”

Gulbis candidly spoke how players expect to be pleased. “When you start young, everything goes your way,” he noted. “You don’t really notice that everyone is kissing your ass for no reason, just because you’re a good player. Then…you expect brown-nosing from people.”

The former world No. 10, who has won just six matches this year, now is into the French Open’s third round where he will face French fave Jo-Willie Tsonga.

The Latvian has been struggling with shoulder and wrist injuries for the last 18 months. But in 2014, with his big backswing in place, he sparked heady expectations when he beat Roger Federer before losing to Djokovic in the semis. His breakout run made him the sports’ ‘phenom du jour.’ Still, soon one got the impression that he had as much ‘tude as talent. Novak Djokovic, who as a teen was at a German tennis academy with Gulbis, contrasted his own nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic to Gulbis’ party-on approach. It’s hardly surprising that two years ago, when Djokovic won the Italian Open, the Serb donated his $455,000 earnings for Baltic flood relief, while Gulbis reportedly gambled away much (or maybe just a good part) of his $500,000 French Open winnings at Latvian blackjack tables.

Gulbis is clearly not a Novak fan. “I don’t like Djokovic that much,” he’s said. “We’ve known each other since I’m 12. He was a normal guy then, but he got all that success and…his eyes changed.”

Gulbis, who likes his private jets, has a penchant for life on the edge. When he was 21, there was that night in Stockholm when he was jailed for soliciting prostitutes. Thank God he had $350 to pay the fine which set him free.

“My only mistake,” he told IT, “is that I like girls. I don’t like guys, unfortunately. That’s my only sin…If I meet with a nice girl on the street and I invite them to come over to my room, and then the police come and put me in handcuffs…so I spend one night in jail. But it was a fun experience. No, really. I think everybody should spend one night in prison.”

Over the years Gulbis’ wealth has drawn comment. After he suffered one loss, the Tennis Channel was beside itself, announcing that “there will be no fundraisers for Gulbis.” Former pro Tommy Haas noted that in life, “You have to earn everything. You can’t buy ATP points…otherwise, Gulbis would be No. 1.” Gulbis himself quoted boxer Marvin Hagler, who said, “If you sleep in silk pajamas, it’s tough to wake up at 6 in the morning and go for a run.”

Ernests is sharp, quick and funny. When asked whether he would want to get rid of umpires, he responded, “Get rid of vampires?” Just how fast is Ernests? Well, as an on-court squabble was about to ignite, ump Pascal Maria told Ernests, “Wait, wait, wait. Let me finish and then you give me s—.”

All of this is not to say that Ernests can’t be philosophical. He suggested, “When a lion is chasing a lot of people, you don’t need to be faster than the lion, you just need to be faster than the last guy. Same here [in tennis.] You walk on court, you have one guy to beat.”

Still, often with Gulbis we see what perhaps is an inevitable sense of entitlement. “I’ve done all the wrong things possible that you can do in tennis,” he said. “But I’m very happy I made the mistakes I did. I have to respect every court, you know? I have to break at least one racket on every court of the world.” Later he all but bragged that he broke 60 or 70 rackets a year.

A macho Eastern European kind of guy, Gulbis has drawn criticism for his approach toward women. He claimed that he didn’t want his younger sisters to become tennis pros because “a woman needs to enjoy life a little bit more [and] needs to think about family.”

Then again, this is a man on his own singular path. “I do not understand most pop culture phenomena,” he told Sports Illustrated. “Usually I try to run away from things that most other people like…Pop culture in general is sometimes strange.”

To others, Ernests himself may well be a bit strange. Once, just before the US Open began, writer Courtney Nguyen tweeted, “It’s Kids Day today. Walked in as stadium announcer announced Gulbis would be practicing later this afternoon. THINK OF THE CHILDREN.”

But now, with his wins here in Paris, tennis fans are once again thinking about Gulbis and the debatable importance of being Ernests.