It seemed odd when sixth seed Tomas Berdych’s opening match against Ernests Gulbis was placed on Centre Court; after all, Gulbis—once the shining light of the next generation—has lost in the first round in eight of the last nine Grand Slams. In the end, the All England Club can congratulate themselves for showcasing Gulbis’ impressive 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4) upset.
Gulbis’ fitness, commitment, and fighting qualities have all been called into question over the years, but one thing we’ve never doubted is his sheer talent. Now coached by Gunter Bresnik and having made some technical changes to serve and forehand, Gulbis put on a dazzling display of power tennis and improved defence to oust the former finalist. After serving at 80 percent throughout the first set and winning 93 percent of his first-serve points, Gulbis got himself out of trouble early in the tiebreak with a sensational cross-court backhand pass. With Berdych serving at 5-5, Gulbis opened up the court, then put a forehand winner down the line for a set point, which he duly took with his 21st winner.
An early break for Gulbis in the second set suggested that the first had been more than merely his seemingly statutory ‘good’ set before a predictable meltdown, but Berdych erased it for 2-2. Gulbis was returning consistently well and deep, however, and the Czech was forced to save another break point and survive three service games where he was taken to 30-30. Back in a tiebreak, Gulbis took the initiative quickly with a huge return to force an error for 3-1, then struck a smoking forehand down the line for three set points. Berdych was soon in the unenviable position of having to come back from two sets down.
As Gulbis continued to race through his service games, Berdych once again had to save break points on his serve at 3-4, then found himself two match points down at 4-5. Saving those, Berdych could only watch as Gulbis slapped a forehand return down the line for a third match point. This time, the Latvian hammered a backhand into the corner and thought he had won the match before Berdych’s Hawk-Eye challenge showed the ball to have been out.
If ever there was an ideal catalyst for a player to fall apart, that was it. Instead, Gulbis barely blinked, erasing Berdych’s early mini-break lead in the third tiebreak by casually swatting a cross-court backhand winner, then earning himself a fourth match point with an equally casual forehand down the line. This time Berdych could not escape, netting a forehand for an upset which blows Novak Djokovic’s quarter of the draw wide open.
Gulbis’ numbers speak volumes—30 aces, 73 percent first serves (winning 84 percent of those), 62 winners to 33 unforced errors—or they would, if he wasn’t quite capable of doing so himself. When the BBC’s reporter asked him how he had closed the match out, Gulbis quipped, ‘I’m well known for my mental strength, ask around.’ With his performance today, Gulbis has forced his way back into the conversation as something else than a byword for unrealized potential.