Ernests Gulbis has never been seen as a genuine Grand Slam contender so far. But that could be about to change if the mercurial Latvian produces more of the showstopping tennis which saw him reach the French Open semi-finals earlier this month, only the second time he’d been past the fourth round stage at any of the majors.
Gulbis has the ability and most importantly, the belief that he’s capable of beating any of the sport’s leading names on the biggest stages, which is why the top four seeds could have been forgiven for casting an anxious eye over Friday’s draw so see which quarter he ended up in.
Novak Djokovic drew the short straw and so there’s the intriguing prospect of the top seed facing Gulbis in the last eight sometime next week. The Latvian would potentially have to overcome 2010 finalist Tomas Berdych to get that far but after the tennis he produced at Roland Garros, he has every chance of doing some serious damage once again.
In the past Gulbis has created as many headlines for his party loving lifestyle as he has for his tennis but over the past eighteen months, he’s knuckled down to the kind of regime expected of a top 20 athlete, turning teatotal and adopting a more serious attitude to training.
“There was one moment, when I was playing a Challenger in Germany [Eckental], I was ranked 150 in the world: That was the moment,” Gulbis said, describing his transformation. “I asked for a wild card in the main draw, didn’t get it, I had to play qualifying, actually lost in qualifying, came in as a lucky loser, reached the final anyway [where he lost to Daniel Brands].”
“That was a tough week—the end of the year when I could see other guys playing Masters and I’m playing Challengers. That’s when I realised something was wrong and I have to change it. I just realised a couple of things in general in life, not just in tennis. It’s age and experience. Kids cannot hide their emotions, grown-ups can. Hopefully I’m moving from kid to grown-up.”
Gulbis has never exactly come across as short of belief in the past. This is a player who has outplayed the likes of Roger Federer and Andy Murray on his day, and claimed that he belonged in the top ten among the best in the world.
However he says that in the past he’s been prone to quietly questioning his talent and it’s only recently that he’s been able to overcome those periods of self-doubt.
“I’ll be really honest, and say yes I did. I doubted a lot. Just lately, I stopped questioning myself, and the results started to come—and Gunther, my coach, helped a lot in that. I’m a big doubter… well, it goes both ways. Sometimes I can be over-confident for no reason, and sometimes I can doubt myself for no reason. I’m playing good tennis and I doubt myself or I’m playing bad tennis and I’m over-confident. It’s basically my inner state of mind that causes it.”
“I’m trying to find a balance, comfort within my head, so that everything goes smoothly, not up and down so much. That’s been basically the key. A good state of mind, coming to every tournament the same. Not too happy, not too sad; not too excited, not too sleepy. A balance, because the year is long.”
Gulbis’ new approach was illustrated by his comments after losing to Djokovic in the French Open semi-finals. While the old Gulbis may have been satisfied with a run to the last four, he vowed he would continue to work even harder now he’d had a taste of reaching the latter stages of a big tournament.
“I'm not going to celebrate. It's not enough,” he smiled. “I need to reach more now. Now I'm addicted to success, really. Again, I felt the success so close, and I don't say that I let it slip, these two weeks, because it's great to play semifinal. I need to make this extra step now. I'm extra motivated to try and do it, all the way to No.1 in the world.”
Gulbis has also been keen to dispel the rumours about his entitled lifestyle. While he did indeed enjoy a luxurious upbringing thanks to his millionaire father, he’s been paying his own way for a long time now.
"I live pay cheque to pay cheque because I try to make my own expenses, I try to cover them on my own," he replied. "I was fortunate enough that my father could help me in the early stages of my career, but I find the much more fortunate guys are from big federations. From France, from England, from USA. They still have everything covered. They have all expenses paid."
"Take Milos (Raonic) for example, all his expenses are paid (by the Canadian federation). I have to still pay my coach, physio, travelling, everything from my own pocket. So count how much money I make by the end of the year, and count how much money these guys make when they don't have any expenses. So this is also like, 'who is more fortunate and who has more money' and this kind of stuff. If you're into counting money. I'm against counting other peoples' money. If you're into counting then count better."