A Gentler Marat

by: Steve Tignor | May 23, 2010

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Eg You had a feeling, from the moment that the players’ names were announced and they walked onto a blindingly bright and hot Court Suzanne Lenglen, that this was going to be a tough afternoon for Ernests Gulbis. He may have been the most talked-about young player of the season, a guy with a win over Roger Federer, a close loss to Rafael Nadal, and a 22-9 record, a guy who seemed to be turning a career corner at age 21, but he was also playing a home favorite, Julien Benneteau, in front of a packed audience eager to make a difference. Benneteau, without a hair or a thread out of place, like a tennis player dreamed up in 1950s Hollywood, walked out to a startlingly strong ovation. He waved to the crowd suavely. Gulbis, in comparatively garish orange shoes and shirt, under a mop of curly hair, got a politely enthusiastic reaction. He brought his hand up over his head for a half-hearted second and then got it back down as quickly as he could. It felt like an uphill battle already.

And it was, right from the opening points, when a razor-sharp Benneteau won the first two games with a small flurry of winners. The battle, only sporadically joined by Gulbis, ended a set later, when, serving at 6-4, 2-1, 30-15, Benneteau snapped a towering kick wide into the ad court that sent Gulbis skidding out of control over the dry clay in the far corner. He came up gingerly holding his right hamstring (later he said he heard "two cracks"). It never felt right again, and Gulbis, after dropping the second set in a hurry, retired after being broken to start the third.

There’s only so much you can gather from a match where the guy you’re writing about hurts himself in the second and retires in the third. But we did get a good set and a half of Gulbis, and it was the first time I’d seen him up close since Wimbledon last year, when he fell to a humiliating low against Andy Murray in the second round. What is the state of Ernests in his turnaround phase? Let me build it snapshot by snapshot from today.

—Gulbis appears to be wiry bordering on skinny on TV, and while he’s not exactly thick, like most pros he’s taller and more physically imposing in person, as if he just grew two inches since last week.

—Also more imposing in person is his serve, both the flat and the kick. He couldn’t get it working for him today, but it’s a special shot and evidence of a special athleticism. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone toss the ball so far back over his head and still be able to hit a bomb flat serve down the T with it. He really does toss the ball to the same spot and hit anything from there, even a nasty kick into the ad court that never fails to surprise his opponents.

—Gulbis’ forehand is busier than anyone would teach it. He starts by bringing the racquet just below his right cheek, and then drops it back down and begins his swing from there. He gets a lot of racquet speed doing it this way (though he almost certainly could get that same speed with a more conventional stroke), but it can make it hard for him to get the racquet around fast enough to take a sitter at the top of its bounce. I thought that Benneteau might have success driving the ball hard into this stroke and forcing Gulbis to speed up, but the times when he tried it, Ernests had the answer. Like Roger Federer, Gulbis gets around the ball with freakish haste.

—On the third point, Benneteau catches up to a drop shot and flicks a forehand lob over Gulbis’ head for a winner. Gulbis looks back at his coach, Hernan Gumy, nods, and raises his eyebrows, as if to say, “Hmm, not bad.”

—Gulbis sails a couple of forehands over the baseline in the second game. It’s his footwork. It’s hard to tell whether it’s laziness or indecisiveness, but he doesn’t get his feet around the ball in time and ends up rushing the swing. Other times, pushed wide, he overruns the ball. After the match, Gulbis says he was “emotionally sleepy” at the start, but he doesn’t take advantage of a lot of hanging mid-court shots.

—After an ace to finish a game, Gulbis’ first reaction is to look straight down and walk to the sideline. Then it comes to him: “Oh yeah, the fist-pump, do the fist-pump.” He throws one in and looks at Gumy.

—The match turns with Gulbis up 3-2 in the first. He has a break point but drops a routine backhand into the net. The missed opportunity rattles him. On the next two points, Gulbis tries two tactically questionable down the line ground strokes. His misses both and is broken in the following game when he dumps another tactically questionable forehand drop shot into the net. Gulbis has become more resilient in recent months, but he can’t put this moment behind him. He even brings it up in his press conference. “Of course if I would get a break, at 3-2, the match would be different,” he says. “I would serve on 4-2, 5-2, it would be the same my way, a set and then maybe none of it would happen.” Ifs and maybes will get you every time.

—Gumy has a fatherly presence for his player. The son looks to him regularly, to get positive reinforcement after a good point and to help him decide when to call it quits with his injury, but mostly to let off a little irrational steam. In the middle of the first set, Gulbis drills two forehands into the lower part of the net and looks at his grip. When he gets to Gumy’s side of the court, he stares at him with exasperation and shows him how he’s using the wrong grip. Later in the match, Gulbis does the same thing with his serve, showing Gumy why he can’t hit it. Gumy doesn’t say anything either time. He lets Gulbis get it out of his system.

—Point finger at head, shrug shoulders, look up to sky: Where have you seen this post-unforced-error routine before? Remind you of Marat Safin, perhaps? Gulbis also shares with the Russian a similar high voice and a tendency toward darkly comic philosophizing. And, Safinesque again, Gulbis cracked a racquet today, which he said was no big deal for him. Asked what he would do if something was a big deal, he said, with a Marat-like conspiratorial smile, “Minimum three racquets smashed, throw them to the stands, hit somebody with a ball. I have to think about. I’ll get back to you.”

Like Safin, Gulbis, a competitor who doesn’t need the money, is a challenge to the ideal of the sportsman who plays for the love of the game. Safin played out of an albatross-like obligation to his talent. Gulbis plays, he says, for similar reasons, only to prove to himself that he can be as good as he is supposed to be. Each of them admits that he gets sick of the sport and hates it at times. But Gulbis’ smile, which he flashes often today in defeat, is easier, his manner lighter and less tortured than Safin's. Call him the Gentler Marat.

Gulbis’ attitude is refreshing for its honesty, and a little disappointing in its complacency. The sportsmen's ideal of hard work and love of competition may be a crock, a form of social control, a way to sell racquets and shoes, but, as unrealistic and unfair as it is, we do want to feel that our athletes are emotionally invested enough to be crushed by their defeats.

 —I began watching Gulbis, but finished watching Benneteau. It had been the 29-year-old who had controlled the rallies and created the openings with placement rather than power. He played within himself, but he was never dull about it. His finest moment came when he secured an insurance break in the second set. Gulbis came to the net on a solid forehand; rather than crack a two-handed pass back, Benneteau retreated, slid into a slice backhand, and eased it just over the net, the way they used to teach you. Gulbis couldn’t do much with the volley, and Benneteau was there with a pinpoint forehand pass up the line.

It was worthy of a Gulbis-style raised eyebrow. “Hmm, not bad, old man, not bad.”

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