Brilliance and Buffoonery

Sunday, May 05, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

One of the four has been compared to Luke Skywalker and recently “warmed up” for his match with Rafael Nadal with a meal consisting of an entire pizza and a platter of ham. Another of them only gave up smoking recently, but insisted that many players ranked above him at the time “Can’t play tennis.” The third got into a shoving match with tour veteran Mardy Fish at, of all things, an exhibition, and the fourth member of this quartet has a tattoo of Grumpy (of the Seven Dwarfs) on his hip.

And if these guys keep playing the way they have been this year, it could be a very interesting and undoubtedly amusing clay-court segment ending at Roland Garros.

The men mentioned above are, in order of appearance, Benoit Paire, Ernests Gulbis, Grigor Dimitrov, and Fabio Fognini. Each of them seems poised to make a breakthrough, although their peers and rivals might just put that down to the media once again crying, “Wolf!” For you could have whittled a lot of toothpicks out of raw limber waiting for Gulbis to fulfill his potential, and the “Baby Federer” nickname bestowed on Dimitrov hangs as much like an albatross as an endorsement.

Still. These are four of the most entertaining players on the planet, and they represent a renaissance of the class of player commonly referred to as the “head case.” Eccentric, charismatic knuckleheads have been well-represented in tennis over the years, some of them have even won Grand Slam events and/or hit No. 1 in the rakings (Ilie Nastase, anyone?).

But a funny thing happened in the wake of the era dominated by the likes of Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe. The game took a sharp conservative turn with the emergence of Pete Sampras and then Roger Federer in successive generations. Sampras suddenly made it cool to be cool-headed and professional once again. Federer and even Rafael Nadal advanced that tradition, to the extent that even Jimmy Connors’ endless carping about the rules and regulations taking the “personality” out of the game began to strike a chord in many observers.

Has tennis become too sedate? Too corporate? A little. . . boring? Not if these four attractive nut jobs have anything to say about it, so let’s take a quick look at their pasts and prospects, in order of age starting with the youngest — and perhaps most promising:

Grigor Dimitrov (age 21): 2012 year-end singles ranking: No. 48; currently, No. 29.
“Dimitrov hasn’t been just another player since 2008,” my colleague Steve Tignor wrote way back at the Australian Open of 2011. “That year he won junior Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back to back, turned pro, and was promptly pushed into the pole position among the contenders for Next Big Tennis Thing.”

The funny thing is that Dimitrov has had trouble getting his engine started, and has remained sitting in the pole position for much of the time since. Things might be different now, as he’s carved almost 20 nubs off his ranking this year, and has been a finalist (Brisbane), a semifinalist (Rotterdam) and a Masters 1000 quarterfinalist (Monte Carlo). That those tournaments are on three vastly different surfaces tells you something about Dimitrov’s versatility — an all-around game that he freely admits he modeled on that of his childhood idol, Federer.

But Dimitrov sometimes seems a little too comfortable with having been anointed the vaunted Next Big Thing, and often acts as if the thought were the reality. Also, he’s a hothead — as evidenced by his suspension in the fall of 2010 for shoving an official during a  Challenger event in Helsinki. About that, he said, “It’s something that happened, it will never happen again.” Then it almost happened again, at the Hopman Cup in 2012 (this time, the antagonist was Fish).

Has Dimitrov channeled that fiery temperament in a more positive, consistent way? His recent results suggest that’s the case, and his big game seems to have matured. Let’s remember that at one point in 2009 he dropped out of the Top 200; he now looks like a player who can remain in the Top 30 with very little effort or commitment.

Dimitrov has a taste for celebrity and the spotlight (he’s been romantically linked with Maria Sharapova), but until recently he hasn’t had a taste for the hard work that most Top 10 players embrace. As Ivan Lendl remarked a few months ago, after Dimitrov appeared to run out of steam in matches against his protégé Andy Murray as well as Novak Djokovic: "If you train for five-hour matches, it gives you a lot of confidence. . .That guy comes out so hot, but we know, and so does Novak, but he (Dimitrov) can’t sustain it. If he could he would be number one in the world.”

Benoit Paire (23) 2012 year-end singles ranking: No. 47, currently No. 32.
Paire’s former coach Jerome Prigent once said of him: “He’s the Jedi of Star Wars. For me he’s like Luke Skywalker when he started. I need to take him over to the good side of the Force. The only difference is that his role isn’t to save the world, but to make the most out of his potential. . .Which is huge.”

It turns out that Prigent couldn’t quite fulfill his mission; that task would require a regular Obi Wan Kenobi, or even a quick call to Yoda, for the whippet-lean 6-foot-5 Frenchman Paire is some piece of work. He’s got style out the wazoo: as one observer remarked, he’s the only guy in the history of tennis to use the drop shot as an offensive weapon (and he might be onto something there, especially on grass). But Paire is also a head case who’s reluctant to walk the straight and narrow:

“I don't want to change my personality,” Paire told the media in Monte Carlo. “I am the way I am.”

Paire’s latest shocker? At the Miami Masters 1000 he engaged in an ugly (or was it merely hilarious?) war of expletives with countryman Michael Llodra, who’s no angel himself. The incident left Paire sworn never to speak with Llodra again. So much for the storied solidarity among the French men.

But Paire insists, “I've been working very well with my coach (Lionel Zimbler) for the past three years and I think what we achieved is exceptional.  At the time nobody thought it would be possible. People were telling [him], ‘You will never be able to control him.’”

The jury is still out on that one, if not on Paire’s game. He’s pretty much got everything, including a big serve, grooved backhand, excellent mobility for a man of his size, and that value-added, artistic touch.

Ernests Gulbis (24) 2012 year-end singles ranking: No. 136, currently No. 47.
Is it possible to be an “elder statesman” among head cases? If so, this is your man, even though Fabio Fognini is chronologically a little older. It’s largely a young man’s game, this head case or “bad boy” business, and Gulbis was hanging in there beautifully as recently as this February, when he made those stunning remarks about the less overtly talented members of the Top 100 (a group he was not among at the time).

Now, on the heels of a 13-match winning streak, including an eight-match (through qualifying) march to the Delray Beach title, pundits everywhere are wondering if this talented ball striker is finally about to fulfill his potential. The last time the question was posed Gulbis had just hit No. 21 (February, 2011), after which he abruptly segued into “party mode” and more or less vanished into the mist of the disco smoke machine.

Gulbis fell so far in the rankings that at the end of last year his own mother Milena, an actress of some repute in Latvia (now you know where the Gublis drama gene comes from), suggested that he quit the game. Like most boys, he did the opposite of what his mother advised and hired a new coach (Gunther Bresnick, a former coach of Boris Becker). Bresnick helped Gulbis re-shape his game and shored up his powerful but often erratic forehand with some changes of technique. The payoff has been obvious.

Among the four head cases under discussion, Gulbis is the only one who’s won a main tour title (he has three),  and he may be the best bet to win one in the coming weeks and months.

Fabio Fognini (25) 2012 year-end singles ranking: No. 45, currently No. 25.
At a smallish 5-foot-10, the Italian Fognini is dwarfed by his fellow head cases. But when it comes to pitching a fit or playing the drama queen, he stands as tall — nay, taller — than any of them.
Fognini, whose swashbuckling good looks makes female fans go weak at the knees, went on a 30-minute spree of verbal abuse in the French Open locker room after his 2010 match with Gael Monfils was postponed due to darkness at a critical point late in the match (“At the cloak rooms he insulted everybody for 30 minutes,” Monfils dutifully reported, after Fognini returned the following day to clinch a dramatic 9-7 in-the- fifth win).

Earlier this year at Indian Wells, Fognini lost the first set to Novak Djokovic 0-6 — then threw such a wild celebration when he won his first game in the second set that he went on to take the set before he finally buckled. Expressive, eye-catching, emotional, Fognini can also play against the drama-queen type with drama-queen flair. While setting the record for being called for the most foot faults in a winning effort (12 in all, including two consecutive ones that cost him a point outright), Fognini merely turned and smiled at the line judge each time he called the goofs.

Fognini undeniably has star power — probably the most of any player in this group. But before, it was all he had. Now, he’s shown that he can play as well. While not explosive or especially powerful, Fognini has a dangerous forehand, he’s not afraid to go down the line with the backhand, and he’ll liberally use the drop shot — and any other off-speed temptation — any time, any place. He’s extremely clever, and has been likened to now retired Fabrice “the Magician” Santoro. All that, plus the tattoo of Grumpy on his hip. . . What more could a girlfriend (or a tennis fan intrigued by colorful characters) ask?

Since mid-February, Fognini lost to either No. 4 David Ferrer or No. 1 Novak Djokovic in every tournament he entered — until he fell to Pablo Carreno-Busta in the Portugal Open quarterfinals last week — and early this year he beat fellow head case Dimitrov 6-3, 6-1.

All in all, these four men promise to make the coming weeks more interesting — and unpredictable — than it's been in a while. Somewhere, Ilie Nastase is smiling.

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