The Mouth That Soared

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PARIS—Over the years, Ernests Gulbis’ mouth has written a lot of checks that his game was unable to cash. Today, in the fourth round here at Roland Garros, the one he wrote most recently was stamped Paid in Full  as a result of the 25-year old Latvian’s stout-hearted win over No. 4 seed Roger Federer.

The match lasted three hours and 42 minutes and the final score was 6-7 (5), 7-6 (3), 6-2, 4-6, 6-3. After his last, penultimate win, the 18th-seeded Gulbis declared that, unlike most players, he wasn’t going to be going out there “scared” of Federer. He also said he had a definite game plan that he would not divulge.

He was indeed fearless today, and pulled the cover off a game plan that couldn’t have been simpler, more effective, or more vaguely familiar.

“The plan was to play more to his backhand and then with my backhand go for down-the-line shots,” he said. “Plan is always to serve well, too. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes serve is half of the win already.”

Of course, the best laid plans of Ernests Gulbis can go awry as easily—make that more easily—than those of any other mice or men. It took a lot more than a game plan to secure this win—it took patience, tolerance for frustration, physical stamina and emotional self-control as well, some or all of which have too frequently been absent from Gulbis’ war bag.

In fact, the game plan looked DOA in the second set, which Federer managed to lose after a break gave him a 5-3 lead. It was the darkest period of the match for Gulbis, and he reacted to it by smashing his racquet into something out of a John McEnroe cartoon. Furthermore, he tried to corrupt a child sitting courtside by presenting it to him.  Imagine, your very own smashed up Ernests Gulbis Wilson! How much will that be worth, someday?

But lo and behold, the proverbial sun broke through even if the real one would not on this chilly, gloomy afternoon. Gulbis broke back in that second set for 4-5 and held on to force a tiebreaker. He won that by pulling away at 3-all, the key shot an inside-out down-the-line backhand (remember the game plan?) that gave him a critical 5-3 lead.

Letting the set slip away left Federer discombobulated. He would brood, “I had my chances. I was leading 5-4. I was still in the tiebreak. I had some opportunities. And that's where I have regrets. But I think Gulbis, you know, did a good job of hanging around and clearly coming back in that second set was crucial for him.”

In truth, Federer never fully recovered from the way Gulbis pried the match open in the second set, admitting that the third set went by in a blur. And after Federer seemingly regained his equilibrium in the fourth set, he was obliged to deal with an unexpected injury timeout Gulbis took to have work done on a hamstring and lower back.

Federer partisans surely were livid when Gulbis, broken for 2-5, took an injury timeout that lasted about 10 minutes. The crowd rewarded Gulbis with a cascade of boos when he returned, and he added insult to injury by breaking Federer’s serve. But Federer still managed to win the set, and later he insisted, in an almost astonishing show of rationality that not only was the effect of the timeout inconsequential, it bothered Federer not at all that Gulbis took it. Given the choice between terrific liar and remarkably even-keeled guy, I’ll take the latter.

“I came through my career in the beginning where everybody used to take a toilet break at 5-4 when you're serving for the match,” Federer said, denying that he suspected Gulbis of gamesmanship. “Everybody had to run to the bathroom at that point when I was younger...then there was an injury timeout maybe just before that, or right after that, depending on how you used it.

“So now it's like a big deal when a guy goes to the bathroom like on the set breaks. Give me a break. When it's cold like this, you have to go to the toilet. Sometimes when you go deep in a match, you can have treatment because the rule allows you to.”

Gulbis, for his part, explained: “I'm honest, I'm not big on medical timeouts. I don't like to take it, but I take it when it's really necessary. It probably was my third medical timeout in life. I didn't want to take it in the fifth set, so I took it in the end of the fourth.”

When someone suggested that the break left Federer flat, Gulbis added: “I don't like to see it that way. I like to see I went for my shots and I made winners. If you see those two games, I was really aggressive on my return, and I just went for the shots.”

The most surprising development, though, was the artless way Federer lost the second game of the fifth set—the only break of the set, and the one that opened the gate to victory for Gulbis. Federer netted two routine shots in that one, and the volley winner that Gulbis stuck between them added up to 0-40. Federer survived a break point thanks to a Gulbis service return error, but the cringe-worthy forehand Federer drilled into the net off Gulbis’ next return yielded what would be the final break of the match.

It seemed to me an anti-climactic finish, and I thought that perhaps that lapse of concentration by Federer was just one of those things that happens to a veteran player when he’s got an enormous number of miles on the odometer. Federer didn’t like that theory very much.

“At the end of the fourth set it was just like a bit of a relief to get through it after everything that had happened in those sort of 20 minutes, so who knows?

“Maybe I lost focus for just a second. I put that down to maybe not playing the best service game, him taking advantage, and that's about it, you know—and not about all the other things that could be the case.”

Gulbis had the tact not to act like he’d just won the title when a Federer backhand error put the final punctuation mark on the match. A loose cannon in any press room, Gulbis was on good behavior after the win as well, and he called it the finest of his career. Perhaps that was partly because this time around, he backed up his own confident words with no less assured and convincing tennis. How did he feel about that, I wondered?

“I have to say what I think, you know? I cannot speak what I don't feel. I'm not—for me is the most easy thing in life, you know, just to speak the truth...So for me it's real easy to speak what's on my mind. Even take the consequences. I like it.”

Today, the consequence of speaking his mind was, partly, a win over Roger Federer and a place in the French Open quarterfinals opposite Tomas Berdych.

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