Ernests Gulbis: 'I enjoy going out. You can't think only about tennis'
Ernests Gulbis has the talent and pedigree to be in the world top 10 but, as he tells Paul Newman, sometimes partying gets in the way
Tuesday 19 April 2011
When the best week of Ernests Gulbis's tennis career ended in a battling three-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals of last year's Rome Masters, the Latvian might have been expected to take time to reflect on a memorable sequence of results. He had reached his first Masters Series semi-final with three victories over higher-ranked players, including Roger Federer, then the world No 1.
There was only one problem. It was Saturday afternoon and it would not be long before the nightclubs opened back home in Riga. Gulbis headed for the airport. "We arrived in Riga at one o'clock in the morning and we went straight to a nightclub," Gulbis recalled. "I can't remember how late we stayed. I met some friends. Then afterwards I went back with them to my apartment."
Losing to Nadal is clearly a signal to relax. After taking the Spaniard to four sets at Wimbledon two years previously Gulbis admitted he "went back to Latvia and had the best week of my life. Obviously it didn't do my tennis much good, but I had fun".
If it is true that recognising your shortcomings is the first step to overcoming them, watch out for the 22-year-old. Gulbis knows he prefers partying to practising, which is probably why he is No 31 in the world rankings and not in the top 10, where he would surely be if he could match his talent with the necessary application.
"I enjoy playing points in practice and competing, but day-by-day drills, day-by-day baskets, gym – no," Gulbis said. "I like running a bit. I can put my music on and just think my own thoughts. It's like some kind of meditation for me. But I can't really push myself to practise at the same level for a really long time."
He admitted: "I'm a guy who goes up and down. I can't really maintain things. If I start to win it's good and I'm confident. But when I play badly, starting to win again is the biggest issue."
The past 15 months illustrate his point. In February 2010 Gulbis won his first title at Delray Beach. During the subsequent clay-court season he reached the quarter-finals in Barcelona and followed up his semi-final run in Rome by beating three more higher-ranked opponents in Madrid before Federer gained revenge. The subsequent 11 months have not been bad, but quarter-final appearances in Bangkok and Doha and a semi-final in Sydney are not the return you might expect from a young man who appeared to have made his breakthrough.
Nevertheless, it would be mean-spirited to criticise a player who brings some welcome colour to the men's tour. Whether he is smashing winning forehands or smashing his rackets – he is adept at both – it is hard to keep your eyes off Gulbis, whose background is as intriguing as his all-out attacking game.
Gulbis's grandfather on his father's side played basketball for the Soviet Union, while his mother's father was a leading film director. His mother is an actress. Gulbis himself appeared with her in a film directed by his grandfather. His father is a wealthy investment banker who at one time was said to lend his private jet to his son to travel to tournaments.
Their first son was named after Ernest Hemingway. "My parents both read books like crazy," he said. "My father has a library in his home. He collects books. My mother also. They enjoyed Ernest Hemingway so they thought – why not?"
As a teenager Gulbis attended the Niki Pilic academy in Munich (which his mother discovered on Google), where he befriended Novak Djokovic. As a Russian speaker he mixes mostly with Russian players and soon found a kindred spirit in Marat Safin, the former world No 1. Safin recommended his former coach, Hernan Gumy, who now works with the Latvian. Gulbis has stayed in touch since Safin's retirement and visited him in Moscow.
Had Safin taught him how to smash rackets? "No, I think I'm good by myself," Gulbis smiled, though he is trying to show more self-control. At one stage he was getting through up to 70 rackets a year.
Was it true that he had changed his attitude after visiting a racket factory in Austria and realising how much work went into producing the tools of his trade? "For a moment – and then I realised that it's not wrong at all because it's work for them and the rackets aren't expensive to make. It's more publicity for the manufacturers as well.
"All the cameras are on the racket when you smash it."
Gulbis insists that he is "just like any other normal person" away from the court. He is a big reader, particularly of Russian authors recommended by his father, and considered studying art at university. "I went to a couple of lectures, but I didn't have the time. The only time when I can go to college is in the off season in November but it's only two weeks." He spent a year learning to play a folk guitar but says it is impractical to take the instrument on tour with him.
He insists he is "not a party guy" and says that any comparison between himself and Vitas Gerulaitis, who had a reputation as the ultimate tennis playboy and was the son of Lithuanian immigrants to New York, would be misleading.
"It's a different era," Gulbis said. "The game wasn't so physical in his day. Today if you don't sleep at night and you drink a couple of beers you'll be dead in practice the next day. I remember Niki Pilic telling me stories about how players went out and had fun. There wasn't so much money involved then and there was a friendlier atmosphere on the tour. Now everything is more business-like. People are earning big money. They're here to work. They're not here to make friends.
"When I'm at home I enjoy going out with my friends. I wouldn't say that I don't enjoy having a couple of drinks with them, going to a nightclub, doing things that have nothing to do with tennis at all.
"You can't do it all the time, but from time to time I think it's good because you can't be paranoid all the time and think only about tennis. When I'm at tournaments I live a completely different lifestyle. I practise, I spend the evenings in my room reading or watching good movies, looking on the internet."
When it comes to training, however, Gulbis knows that staying in Latvia is a non-starter. "I've tried, but ask my coaches," he said. "They'll tell you that I don't sleep at night. I go to sleep at four or five in the morning because every night I have friends over. I have such little time together with my friends that when I'm back home I like to see them. I can be at home for a maximum of three or four days and then I need to go somewhere else to practise."
He appreciates the frustration he can give to Gumy, his coach. "He's trying to change me," Gulbis said with a smile. "He says he's never had a player like me before, but we're trying to find a middle way."
Gulbis admits there are times when he has considered giving up tennis. "I've been thinking a lot about it in the last couple of months," he said. "On one side I don't like it. I don't like the travelling. I don't like the attention, all the pressure. But on the other side I'm thinking, 'What else would I do?' I'm 22. Would I go to college, would I stay at home and do nothing, would I think about how to make some money, or would I live on my parents' money? But no, I've decided I would prefer to play tennis. I still enjoy competing."
He added: "I understand now that I need to work. I don't want to be someone who lives off somebody else's wealth. I want to stand on my own feet and be responsible for my own life."
What does he think he can achieve? "I think if I play my best tennis I can beat anybody. It's not being too confident. I'm just realistic. Many players don't like to play against me, maybe because of my game. I have a good serve, I play aggressive tennis and I don't give players a lot of rhythm. If I'm at the top of my game and in top shape – it's tough for them to get into the game."
A laugh spread across his face as he added: "If I am not in my best shape, then basically I lose to everybody."
The Romanian was one of the great characters from a golden age for tennis in the 1970s. His on-court antics used to rile some opponents, while his off-court romances meant he was a frequent subject for the gossip pages. Only last year Romanian newspapers reported that "Nasty" was having an affair with a former Playboy model. His third marriage ended in divorce last year.
"Broadway Vitas", the son of Lithuanian immigrants to New York, dated actresses and models, played in a rock band, partied till the small hours at the hip Studio 54 nightclub, befriended artists such as Andy Warhol and owned Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis. He also took cocaine, was treated for addiction and was named in a federal grand jury investigation into drug-dealing, although he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Reached No 1 in the world rankings and won the US Open and Australian Open but had just as big a reputation for his fiery temper on the court and his escapades off it. Turned up for his first tournament of the season in Perth two years ago sporting two black eyes after being caught up in a brawl. "I won the fight, I'm good, I'm OK," Safin said. "I got in trouble in Moscow but it's OK, I can survive."
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