Ernests Gets in the Ring
Speaking of Gulbis, he also made some noise, not too surprisingly, away from the court. In an interview published in the French sports magazine L’Equipe, he called the Big 4 a collective snore. (The interview was conducted in English and translated into French; I'm going by the subsequent translations back into English.)
“Tennis today totally lacks characters,” Gulbis said. “I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak, and Murray, but, for me, all four of them are boring players. Their interviews are boring.”
The Latvian says he wants tennis to be more like boxing. “When [boxers] face each other down at the weigh-in,” he said, “they bring what the fans want: war, blood, emotion.”
Gulbis thinks that the top tennis players have given the sport a veneer of phony camaraderie. “It’s Federer who started this fashion,” he says. “He has a superb image of the perfect Swiss gentleman. I respect Federer, but I don’t like it that young players try to imitate him....I don’t want to hear in an interview a guy who I will not name, but who I know well that he thinks all his opponents are a--holes, putting on an act.”
It should be pointed out right away that boxers' pre-match bluster is the definition of "putting on an act." Still, the question has been around in tennis for at least 30 years: Should this genteel game be fiercer, meaner, more confrontational, more like its 1970s bad boy days? As a fan and reporter, I want every player to be as honest as possible. I want to know what they really think; I want to know who I’m writing about and who I’m rooting for. In this sense, I like Gulbis’ honesty—the guy is a journalist’s dream. I wish more players gave as many incendiary, and hilarious, quotes as he does. I wish more guys would start an interview, as he started one with me in the players’ lounge in Toronto a few years ago, by saying, with a conspiratorial grin, “Let’s walk down here. I don’t want these guys [his fellow pros] to hear me talking s--- about them.” And I agree with Gulbis that tennis could use more players who are willing to talk a little smack.
But no sport, other than pro wrestling, can be all about its personalities. The players get paid to win, not give good quotes, and each of them must find his or her own balance between being a competitor and a public figure. With incendiary quotes comes attention, and that can lead to distraction. At a certain point, Pete Sampras, who was admittedly not a quote machine, decided that it didn’t do him any good to be in the papers for something that he had said. It just led to more hassles, more things to think about, and more questions to answer, none of which helped him win tennis matches. Gulbis conceded in his press conference today that something similar had happened to him after his loss to Rafael Nadal two weeks ago in Rome.
He was asked in Paris if he thought he “should have won” against Monfils today.
“I lost,” Gulbis said today. “I don’t know. What can I think? I already said I should have won against Nadal and I got some bad press. [Monfils] played good, what can I say?”
At Wimbledon in 2009, Gulbis found himself in even hotter water when he talked some trash about Andy Murray before their second-round match. He accused Murray of having faked an injury to break his rhythm at a previous tournament. Murray heard what Gulbis said, and went out of his way to scorch him in three quick sets.
Take the case of the man at the top of the Big 4, Novak Djokovic. When he arrived on tour, the Serb tended not to mince words, especially when it came to his own ambitions. At the 2008 U.S. Open, he criticized Andy Roddick in a post-match interview after beating him, and was booed for it. A few days later, Djokovic walked out for his semifinal against Federer with a sheepish look on his face, and was sent home in straight sets.
Since he’s become No. 1, Djokovic has been more politic in his statements. He still comes across as genuine, at least to me, but it’s not hard to predict what he’s going to say. Of course, he also hears the same questions day after day, and he does far more interviews than Gulbis does. I’d love to hear Djokovic tell us everything that’s going on in his head, but what good would that do him?
There’s also a sense, and maybe this did start with Federer, that the top guys should be ambassadors for the game, that they should put a classy face on the sport and work to help the tour. Djokovic has continued that tradition. Gulbis would obviously go in a different direction if he were No. 1, not that he's going to have to worry about that anytime soon.
We can make too much of a player’s background and upbringing when we analyze what they say and do, but it’s worth noting again that Gulbis comes from money. It's possible that, over the years, this has made him believe that he could say whatever he thought and do whatever he wanted, without having to worry about repercussions. It may have given him the freedom to have the personality he has. Tennis can use a Gulbis or two in its ranks, but not everyone can talk like him.