Four More: How Important is Ernests?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Welcome to Anti-Big 4 Week at TENNIS.com. For the next four days, Steve Tignor will look at what else, besides Rafa, Roger, Novak, and Andy, is worth following this fall, while Peter Bodo will identify the greatest threat to each of them. Today, Steve starts with a post on their biggest off-court antagonist.


“I do what I want to do.”

So says Ernests Gulbis to Roberto Bautista Agut in the video clip above. In this case, Gulbis was asserting his right to make his sneakers squeak as loudly as he pleases while his opponent is tossing the ball to serve. Later, Ernie expanded on this concept by calling Bautista Agut a “spoiled princess” with no talent. The sentiment might as well serve as Gulbis’s motto for life: This child of privilege and tennis player of great talent does and says what he wants, when he wants. More than that, he believes everyone else should follow his lead.

Right now, it seems safe to say that we’ll be seeing more of Ernests doing what he pleases this fall and in the immediate future. With his title in St. Petersburg over the weekend, Latvia’s most famous tennis product moves to No. 27 in the rankings; that’s up from No. 109 as recently as February. 

We’ve seen brief flashes of brilliance from Gulbis in the past, of course, but he's been more solid and sustained in 2013. Gulbis is 34-15 this year, with two tournament wins. He played well at the start of the season, and despite a disastrous U.S. Open, where he let a promising draw make him so nervous that he lost in the first round, Gulbis is still playing well as we reach the end of the year. Even his nerves at the Open can be interpreted as a good sign. At least he cared, and believed in himself, enough to get anxious. That hasn't always been the case.

Gulbis’s win elicited applause on Twitter from knowledgeable tennis people like Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’ coach, and veteran journalist Richard Evans. They both said that, because of his explosive style and engagingly volatile personality, Ernests is “good for the game.” Others have their doubts, including ardent fans of the Big 4. This summer Gulbis famously criticized the much-admired paragons as “boring.” Why are Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray so dull, according to him? Because, unlike Gulbis, they don’t say whatever they want to say. 

Is Ernests Gulbis good for tennis? Can he add some life to what may prove to be a sleepy fall, one in which Nadal has virtually locked up the No. 1 ranking and Murray won’t be seen again? I would say yes on both counts; I happen to like the guy. But I also don't think that Gulbis’s fans have it all right and his detractors have it all wrong. With him, there’s a con for every pro.

Gulbis, like Mourataglou says, plays exciting tennis at a time when safety and consistency rule, and he can challenge anyone on the right day. He’s also one of the few players who can draw a crowd with his personality alone—people will watch to see what he might do, and he appeals to fans of failure and rage as well as joy and success. Even when Gulbis is insulting his opponent or calling out another player, there’s something likable in the crooked grin he uses to do it. He has a brain, and a sense of humor.

On the other hand, Gulbis often talks a bigger game than he plays, and he can seem more interested in getting under other players' skins than in beating them—witness the squeaking sneakers above. His criticism of the Big 4 was honest and entertaining, yes, and not completely without merit; but it also came from privileged position. Unlike them, Gulbis doesn’t have to answer questions nearly as often, or have every word he utters parsed for meaning; he doesn’t have to represent the sport as a whole; and he doesn’t have to worry about keeping his image clean so he can get sponsorship deals.

Gulbis, as has been noted in many places, has a spiritual older brother in Marat Safin, and that extends beyond their notorious off-court pursuits. Safin, like Gulbis, was an ultra-talented player who saw through the propaganda of competition—he understood that tennis wasn’t the be-all and end-all, and that winning wouldn’t make him happy for long. He played on as an obligation to his God-given ability (and to make money, of course), but he seemed drawn to failure as much as success. Gulbis isn’t as talented, but he also brings a skeptical eye to the concept that winning equals happiness. I can imagine him winning Wimbledon and following it up with a sarcastic quip at his own expense to Sue Barker on Centre Court.

That is, I could imagine him doing that if I could imagine Gulbis winning Wimbledon at all, which I can’t. What's strange is, I'm not even sure I would root for him to do it, and I'm a fan of his; this might tell you something about the conflicting feelings that the guy inspires. But I do hope Ernests keeps progressing. His forehand, backhand, and drop shot are fun to watch, he's beyond quotable, and it will be interesting to see how far he can go with his Safin-esque ambivalence and penchant for self-sabotage. Gulbis is too negative for his honesty to be refreshing, exactly, but he is engaging. At a time when most of the top pros have made themselves agreeable, Gulbis is at least someone worth disagreeing on. We know he does whatever he wants to do. Is he ready to keep doing what he needs to do?

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