Monday, September 23, 2013
No one quite like Ernests Gulbis
By Peter Bodo
Finally, Ernests Gulbis has made news for something other than shooting off his big mouth. The talented, mercurial and actually quite likeable Latvian was last in the headlines when he declared that success has gone to Novak Djokovic's head -- that the top-ranked player has become just another phony celebrity.
On Sunday, though, he finally won a tournament again (St. Petersburg, Russia), at which time he went all Gulbis on us, declaring: “I’ve been very consistent, especially in finals. I’ve never lost in a final. I’m proud of that record.” Be warned, though: This isn’t quite like Rafael Nadal’s 8-0 record in French Open finals.
Wait, wasn’t Nadal the guy whose win over Gulbis back at Indian Wells so mystified the loser that he felt obliged to announce: “I thought I was the better player in the match”?
Let the record show that Gulbis is, indeed, undefeated in finals. He’s played four of them since he turned pro in 2004, all in the lowest, 250-grade ATP events. He earned two of those titles at the ATP 250 in Delray Beach. Fla., so it’s possible that Ernie won last week because he thought he was playing in St. Pete, Florida. The other title Gulbis won, he collected at Los Angeles, a tourney that has since gone belly up because of a lack of interest. That’s four career titles, six fewer than Nadal has won -- this year. And two of those were Grand Slam tournaments.
But let’s give Gulbis his due. The 6-foot-3, No. 36-ranked 25-year-old is outspoken, frank and fun-loving. In other words, he’s what pundits and insiders would describe as a “head case.” The ATP Tour these days is loaded with guys who carry their racket bags as if they were stuffed leather briefcases, and they’re as colorful as that image suggests. Not Ernie. No sooner did he finish posing with the St. Petersburg trophy than he began assessing his place in the game and making bold predictions. “Everybody knows I can play well for a tournament or a match and then I go downhill. I just need to bring this consistency to bigger tournaments, especially Grand Slams. Then I believe I am a top-20 player for sure, and not so far from top 10.”
There’s just no quit in this guy, at least not when it comes to self-regard. But there’s no doubt that he has the talent to back up his imaginings, even if the same could be said for, oh, a few dozen other ranked players. And though most find him nothing less than insufferable, others among us accept his wild claims as part and parcel of head-case syndrome. And you have to hand it to Ernie, it looks like he may end up the last head case standing when the year comes to a close.
Think back to this spring, and the hubbub created by those three other ultra-talented head cases, Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria), Benoit Paire (France) and the oldest member of this anti-big four, Fabio Fognini (Italy). All three of them signaled that they might (finally) be ready to do some major damage from the mid-point of the season onward, but they’ve gone quietly back into netherworld.
Fognini won exactly two matches since his hot run on clay this summer. That’s one fewer than Paire notched up over the same span. Dimitrov lost in the first round of the US Open and hasn’t been heard from since. You could say that by head-case standards, Gulbis is a model of consistency. Since Wimbledon, he’s had wins over Andy Murray, Feliciano Lopez and … Fognini.
So let’s enjoy Gulbis while we’ve got him, for if he judges himself accurately and then does what he must do to remedy his situation, the next thing you know some head case is going to say he’s changed -- that he’s become just another phony like that Djokovic guy.