With his career in somewhat of a standstill, Ernests Gulbis is reinventing himself

by: Kamakshi Tandon | September 22, 2016

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Ernests Gulbis might look like a very different player when he returns to the court. (Wikimedia Commons)

TORONTO—It's become one of the most distinctive sights on the tennis court: the famous Ernests Gulbis forehand. As his right arm raises sharply upwards, holding still, the left arm extends straight in front, fingers splayed, making the Latvian look like a bird about to take flight.

It's his signature. It's kinetic composition. It's a forehand that can stop traffic, which is exactly what it looks like it's doing. 

And if Gulbis has his way, it's something that fans won't be seeing again.

He is retiring the stroke, rebuilding it into a shot designed to be more conventional than conversational. After Wimbledon, he trained hard on the practice court—which itself would have once been fairly unusual—under the supervision of a new coach, the highly regarded Larry Stefanki.

"I've been working a lot on my forehand,” Gulbis told TENNIS.com in July at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. “Trying to change it a bit, the motion; get to where it was a couple of years ago. In general, I want to make my forehand as solid as my backhand."

It's a strategic decision for one of the tour's more intriguing personalities, the son of a Latvian billionaire and nationally famous actress who has become known for his offbeat interviews and unpredictable talent. Having had some injuries and a couple of underwhelming seasons, he wants to set himself up to capitalize on the recent trend of players reaching their peak at an older age. 

"I have to make this change if I want to be more competitive the next four, five years of my career," he said. "They could be the best years. I'm 28, my best stage."

Gulbis, ranked 103rd, is just 7-14 this season and hasn’t played since the Rogers Cup. He’s been hampered by a shoulder injury, and it's unclear if he'll return to the tour this season.

Ahead of his comeback, he’s focusing his attention on developing his new stroke, which could yield dividends. The Latvian's forehand has almost been as much of a roller coaster as his up-and-down career. Once, when he was a talented but wildly inconsistent youngster, it was a weapon. In 2008, Rafael Nadal described it as a "very good forehand, [unbelievably] powerful.”

That was the forehand that helped Gulbis famously defeat Roger Federer in Rome in 2010, and then, later in the tournament, take Nadal to three sets in the semifinals. By 2012, however, it had turned into a limp, attackable shot, and his performances were on a similar downward path. 

He would look at videos of his old forehand, wondering where it was. Working with Gunther Bresnik, his coach at the time, Gulbis reconstructed it into the flamboyant production for which he has become known. The reconfigured swing, with its social media following and a legion of nicknames, seemed to be working. His play improved, and he defeated Federer and Tomas Berdych at 2014 French Open to reach the Top 10.

Then came another slide, and now, another return to the forehand drawing board. He has reduced the backswing, and is bending the left arm to keep it more relaxed. The hand no longer protrudes in front.

"Right now I'm not happy with the way it feels, but I'm going to stick with this motion,” he said. “I'm going to keep working on it, and in a few months it's more solid.”

Gulbis has also changed his team. He’s no longer working with Bresnik, who he previously shared with Dominic Thiem. Thiem has since become a Top 10 player.

"I came back with my former coach, and then split with him again,” Gulbis said, suggesting that problems with the coaching setup prompted him to leave. “When things like this happen, you can't play your best. I had no choice, the way I was treated. His attitude, it was just not right."

Sticking to a consistent motion, however, is what has been the problem.

"[My] backhand,” he said, “if I don't walk on court for two months, it's going to be the same shot.”

As for his forehand? That’s a different story.

"If I don't play a couple of weeks, I can start hitting the ball a little bit differently," he said. "And if I don't have a good eye next to me to tell me that I'm doing something a little bit wrong, then the little bit wrong [becomes] something more and more, through days, weeks, months. In two or three months, it's just a different shot."

That's one of the main reasons he chose Stefanki.

"I think Larry has a great eye for this, one of the best ones," said Gulbis. "I spoke with him on the phone [during] Wimbledon, so I knew I'm going to go to his place to practice with him a couple of weeks. We didn't speak about any kind of commitment yet. We go step by step. I pushed him to come [to Canada] for a couple of days."

Though the prominent American coach did agree to accompany Gulbis to Toronto, he is unlikely to fully rejoin the tour. Having previously coached Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Tim Henman, the last ATP player he regularly worked with was Andy Roddick.  

"No, not too much," Gulbis said when asked if they would travel to a lot of tournaments together. "But I knew it. He already told me that he's not willing to travel. For sure, he's not going to travel full-time … Maybe he can travel from time to time, and we can do practice weeks. We didn't speak too much about it."

Gulbis doesn't particularly want to take on two coaches, the way a lot of top players have started doing, but he would consider such possibilities.
 
Most importantly, the regular presence he's looking for is his forehand.

 

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