INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—If tennis were pro wrestling, what would we call a match between Ernests Gulbis and Grigor Dimitrov? The Parade of the Playboys? The Loony Latvian vs. Blackheart from Bulgaria? Baby Fed meets Mini Marat? Whatever name we want to give it, this was a clash of two talented players who have spent the last year beginning to shake off their underachiever tag and make good on their considerable potential. Dimitrov came to Indian Wells with a career-high ranking of No. 16, while Gulbis reached his own career high, No. 18, two weeks ago.
They also came here having seen their fair share of each other over the last month. Gulbis won their match in Marseille three weeks ago; Dimitrov returned the favor last weekend in Acapulco. Today, in a little under two hours, the budding rivalry reversed course once again, as Gulbis came back to get the better of Dimitrov, 2-6, 6-1, 7-5. If the first two sets were mostly foregone conclusions, the third shifted into a higher gear, as both players battened down the service hatches and put on the type of shot-making display that fans here had hoped to see.
From the start, the match had pitted the rail-thin Dimitrov’s speed and defense and flicky, one-handed creativity against the stockier Gulbis’ two-handed battering-ram style. Dimitrov got the better of the duel early, matching his opponent's big serves with 130-M.P.H. bombs of his own, and running circles around him during rallies. Along the way, Dimitrov won one of the points of the tournament, hitting a pass from behind his back and following it with a running forehand shovel pass down the line for a winner.
The change came in the third game of the second set. At break point, Gulbis worked the ball to Dimitrov’s backhand over and over, before finally going quickly to his forehand side and catching him out of position. Gulbis had the break, and he had a winning formula. Dimitrov’s backhand was the place to go, and by sending the ball there Gulbis was able to gradually impose himself. His crunching, straightforward power game ultimately proved to be too much for Dimitrov’s mix of spins and speeds.
But the third set was fun while it lasted. Gulbis erased a break point in the first game with a 134-M.P.H. serve. At 2-2, he blew an opportunity to break when he drilled an easy forehand into the net. Gulbis punctuated the flub with one of his famous rapid-fire racquet smashes. The broken stick ended up a few feet from a line judge; at some point Gulbis is going to hit someone with one of his flying frames.
Today, though, the tension release seemed to help. Serving at 3-4, Gulbis went down 0-30, but came back to hold with three superb winners, including a low forehand volley which wrong-footed Dimitrov. Gulbis, who has never been referred to as the second coming of Stefan Edberg, was 14 of 17 at the net today.
The match was finally decided at 5-5, on Dimitrov’s serve. Dimitrov had been tiring through the latter stages of the third; his 130-M.P.H. serves from the first set were now coming in at 120. On break point, he decided, mistakenly as it turned out, just to kick his first serve to Gulbis’ backhand. Gulbis immediately took control of the point and sent two balls to Dimitrov’s backhand side. The first of the Bulgarian's backhands nearly landed in the net; so on the next one Dimitrov ranged farther to his left to avoid having to hit another one. He hit an inside-out forehand instead, but the court to his right was left wide open. Gulbis saw the opening, went for it, and threaded his backhand for a down-the-line winner to break.
Gulbis said afterward that, at 25, he feels like an old man trying to keep the 22-year-old kids like Dimitrov from passing him by. While Dimitrov has come a long way, Gulbis exposed a few of his lingering weaknesses. The Bulgarian’s backhand was one, and his physicality was another. Dimitrov is lean; will he be able to trade lasers with bigger power players, and can he last with them physically? He succeeded last week in Acapulco, but he looked a little weary after just two hours of play today.
In the end, this match didn’t need a billing. It was a crowd-pleaser for all the reasons a tennis match can be a crowd-pleaser: shot-making, contrasts in style and personality, a close final set. Gulbis claimed it was his favorite of their three recent matches, “because I won.” He’ll try to win again on Wednesday against Roberto Bautista Agut. Those two also have a history—Gulbis called the Spaniard a “spoiled princess” last fall for complaining about the squeaks Gulbis was making with his sneakers. We’ll have to think of something to call their match.