The best player to come out of his native Latvia, Ernests Gulbis has made a welcome return for both fans and tennis journalists alike in 2013. That is because fans enjoy watching the former top 30 player test even the elite of the sport while reporters can’t wait to jot down the often candid and funny quotes that come of his mouth.
When he reached the main draw of Rotterdam earlier this month, the now currently ranked No. 109 Gulbis was greeted with plenty of “welcome back Ernie!” wishes from those hoping this recent surge of improved results wasn’t a temporary one. Gulbis splashed onto the tennis scene at age 19 by reaching the quarters of Roland Garros. Big wins, including over the Swiss Federer, and a steady rise up the rankings had many predicting big things for Gulbis. But a lack of focus, a lack of discipline and a professed distaste for practicing all combined in him crashing out of being a possible top ten contender in the last two years.
But after skipping this year’s Australian Open, Gulbis appears to have turned the corner. Gulbis said that he has recently recommitted himself to the sport by giving up most of his vices that are too numerous to list here. After an opening round win at Delray Beach this week, Gulbis caused a stir when he told a local paper that he thought many of those ranked in the top 100 couldn’t play tennis at all.
“I don’t know how they got into the top 100,” Gulbis said. “It’s tough, but I think I’m much better than them and I just want to prove to myself by the rankings, also. It’s a motivation.” (Source: Sun Sentinal.com)
These types of cocky yet blunt comments about himself and others are nothing new. Gulbis said similar things about the tour back in Winston-Salem last summer while also declaring he would never play Challenger events to boost his still sagging ranking. Of course, Gulbis backtracked on that promise and did end up playing lower-tier tournaments, probably due to the realization that it was either that and remain quasi-relevant or get out of tennis all together.
Gulbis often earns comparisons to the great Russian player Marat Safin who had a similar propensity of making wisecracks and cracking racquets at the same time. But Gulbis, as of yet, hasn’t even touched the heights of greatness that Safin earned in his career. One thing Gulbis does have in common with Safin are the number of times people have said, “He could be so great, if only he would (insert favorite wish here).” Safin is viewed by many as an underachiever despite winning two Majors and Gulbis, now 24, is still on the verge of being considered a waste of immense natural talent that has only netted him two ATP 250 titles.
Why are so many drawn to Gulbis despite having a career timeline that the local writer in Florida who interviewed him accurately described as looking drunk? When focused, his innate skills on the court are obvious. But it is Gulbis and his penchant for speaking his mind that is likely the biggest draw for fans. At at a time when the majority of players basically say the same things over and over again regarding their careers as if they memorized the lines for months on end, Gulbis tells it like it is.
When he messes up, he admits to it. When he shines, he takes credit. His quotes about the lack of real talent inside the current top 100 ruffled a lot of proverbial feathers and may sound like sour grapes for someone outside that coveted tier himself. But Gulbis is publicly saying what many insiders privately confess when off the record, especially at a time when the “big four” continue to dominate every event they enter.
The once cherub-faced phenom is all grown up now. But if Gulbis and his self-professed maturity equates to repeat success on the court is too soon to tell. Ultimately, it is up to Gulbis to make good on his recent declaration that he is a new man and this year will be different. He will still have to grind his way through Challengers and hope to get some more good wins in the early rounds of big events if wants to get his ranking up. And he’ll have to guard himself against getting too excited about the hype that will build around him from a tennis media starving for someone fresh to write about.
But if Gulbis stays serious and keeps the joking around to his press conferences, then we could all be in for a real treat this season.