INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Should Ernests Gulbis be a poster boy for the next big anti-smoking campaign? Cancer activists could do worse.
Three years ago, everyone’s favorite loquacious, lackadaisical Latvian said that what he hated most about the United States were all of our "stupid rules." For instance: Even though “people all over the world have been smoking for thousands of years,” you can’t light up wherever and whenever you want in America. Ernests thought this was ridiculous.
Last month, though, Gulbis announced that he had kicked the cigarette habit, and his drinking habit, as well as a couple of other habits we won’t get into here. Today, he won his 13th straight match by fighting through a three-setter in high afternoon heat against Andreas Seppi, a Top-20 opponent. After winning a title in Delray Beach and coming through the qualifying here, Gulbis is back in the round of 16 at a Masters event for the first time since 2010.
It shouldn’t be all that stunning that an athlete might profit from a healthier lifestyle, right? Apparently it hadn’t occurred to Gulbis.
“My body is good,” he said today. “I’m surprised how good it feels. Honestly, my body doesn’t even ask for a day off, because I would feel good playing—keep on, keep on playing.”
Whatever shape Gulbis’s body is in, it’s his mind that will make the difference. That’s what’s held him back in the past, and it's what will be the key to making this latest run of good play last. If his win today is any indication, he’s not succeeding because he’s transformed himself from the next Marat Safin into the second coming of Bjorn Borg. After going up 3-0 in the first set and then being broken, Gulbis kicked a ball. Then he jawed with chair umpire Fergus Murphy about time violations, and other subjects that came to mind. Finally, he attempted to drive his racquet through the asphalt on Court 2. Not surprisingly, he gave away the set 7-5.
Full-on meltdowns aside, Gulbis’s real problem can be summed up in a quieter moment that happened in the middle of the second set. He hit a first serve that bounced away from a ball girl and into the stands. As she ran to get it, Gulbis looked at Murphy, raised his arms, and barked, “Now what, another time violation?” Murphy didn’t look up, even as Gulbis stared at him and waited for a response. He hit his next backhand into the net and was broken. Gulbis had picked a fight on his own, and disrupted his own concentration for no reason.
It’s clear that Ernests' brain, which is generally set to “Self-Sabotage,” isn’t going to be tamed completely. It’s something that its owner will have to manage the best he can, even if that means letting off steam now and then. Late in the third set, after missing a backhand, Gulbis found himself standing near the net, so he took a moment to give the big Corona sign in front of him a swift, loud kick. A few fans booed, but others in the crowd seemed to understand Ernie’s plight.
“Leave him alone!” they yelled. “He needs to vent!”
They may have been right. Gulbis won that game, and soon after the match, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4. He won by hitting big second serves when he needed them. He won by getting out of his own way long enough to let his superior game take over. He won by grumbling, but not exploding. He won because he’s in the habit of winning. He also won with a very strange new forehand.
If his body and mind have changed this season, Gulbis’s technique on his best shot has been totally, and oddly, revamped. As the ball approaches, he sticks his left hand straight out in front of him, palm open, before he swings through. It looks stiff and unbalanced; it looks, frankly, like there’s no way it could work. But Gulbis says the opposite is the case.
“I just want to do it more natural,” says Gulbis, who began working with Austria’s Gunther Bresnik, former coach of Boris Becker, last year. “I want to play like I played when I was 15, 16, 17 years old, when I just came on tour. I played relaxed, aggressive tennis. I didn’t think much. I just went for it.”
Is it time to believe in Ernie again? Is 13 wins in a row enough to convince you? He'd understand if you were wary of committing. Asked if this felt like a “second chance” for him, Gulbis laughed and said, “It’s been really like a third chance now, fourth. I hope it’s my last one. I hope that this is the one where I make it.”
For the moment, you can’t argue with success, and Gulbis is certainly feeling confident. So confident that he even talked a little trash about his next match, against Rafael Nadal.
“I think the way I play right now,” Gulbis said, “I believe that I can win. Sooner or later I’m going to win something. I like to play against him because his ball and his heavy spin, it’s good for my timing...When I play him now I know how he plays. I honestly believe that if I play my best game I can beat him.”
Then Ernie began to warm to his subject, and some long-dormant cockiness rose back to the surface, the same cockiness about his game that he probably he had in those days when he was a free-swinging teenager.
“I’m telling you,” Gulbis said, “if I’m going to hit a winner it’s gonna be a winner. Doesn’t matter if it’s gonna be Nadal or whoever. I’m going to go for my shots. Maybe it’s going to take me two shots. But I'm going to be ready for it. One shot one corner, other shot other corner. I want to see him get it.”
Should Nadal be scared? Judging by the rest of Gulbis's interview today, there is a chance that he's bluffing. Later he was asked what he had been doing during today’s earthquake in Indian Wells.
“I didn’t feel it,” Gulbis said.
“You didn’t feel it?”
“No. You haven’t been I think to the real earthquake. This was nothing.”
Had Gulbis been to a real earthquake? Not exactly, it turned out—"I wasn't there," he said. But his dad had told him about a big one that he had been in while he was sitting in a sauna in Siberia. That seemed to be enough experience for Gulbis.
Will Ernie bring the "real earthquake" to Nadal on Wednesday? He says he’s going to hit the ball from one corner to the other, and he wants to see Rafa get it.
He doesn't have to worry about that. As his opponent would say, he's gonna see.