Wimbledon 2013: Greedy Ernests Gulbis is quick to exploit Jo-Wilfried Tsonga's weakness

Slams should be five sets, blood, fight, all the way until someone is dead

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He was named after Ernest Hemingway, the writer of action who always said that a man's most pressing obligation was to produce grace under pressure. In this, the world's 39th-ranked tennis player, Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, has perhaps not always been quite what his doting and extremely wealthy father had in mind.

However, here he hounded the sixth-seeded and hugely talented Jo-Wilfried Tsonga out of the premises with the nerve and ruthlessness the Nobel prize-winning American novelist routinely attributed to his cast of fighters, matadors and big-game hunters.

At one level Tsonga was just another victim of the day when players were going down with the frequency of battlefield casualties.

On another, Tsonga was subject to Gulbis's early belief that he was physically vulnerable, to the idea that the Frenchman might not score the quick victory he so plainly desired as he blasted through the first set 6-3.

"I felt he had a weakness and I worked on it," said Gulbis, the man who a few weeks ago caused tumult when he claimed that tennis's elite four, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray, were all splendid fellows, all brilliant players, but they suffered a grievous shortfall in charisma.

That last claim has never been registered against the rich boy from Riga, who recently flew to his hometown immediately after being ejected from the Italian Open in Rome. The purpose was a long drink through the Baltic night. Today, though, he was all hard-edged purpose as Tsonga was forced into quitting after losing the second and third sets.

It was a match that was staged on the Centre Court because of the ability of both Tsonga and Gulbis to find touches of the purest brilliance when they are not involved in emotional introspection of the most draining kind. That was the thinking and there was plenty to justify it before Tsonga, after calling on the trainer for medical assistance, said he couldn't go on any longer.

Chalk up another victim of the Wimbledon carnage which last night was inviting various theories based on London's summer climate, the grass and the sheer fatigue of players forced on to the big-money treadmill.

Well, you could if you liked but the ever trenchant Gulbis had a few claims to make on his own behalf. Essentially, he had sniffed out a weakness, a fear, in the Tsonga who was given such a rough time by his own fans when he fell to David Ferrer in the recent French Open.

"The first two sets were a very high level of tennis," he said, "I liked the way I played. I think that he played also very well. We had a lot of long, physical rallies.

"I realised how important it was for me to hold on to my service in the second set when it was 3-2 to him. I needed to fight those break points because I believed if he went two sets ahead his problems would not be so big in his mind. Two sets ahead, and your mind changes.

"But when it's one set all, and you're losing the third set, of course you know there is a problem. Mentally you break down, you know. I saw in the way he moved. For sure he had a problem to move in the third set and I had a feeling that maybe he was going to retire.

"I just kept pushing and maybe that's why I was getting a little more nervous serving for the third set. They were tough points because still on one leg he has very good, talented hands. He can go for a couple of shots, make a couple of winners. On grass, it's tough to play someone who can do that."

In Gulbis there is a quality which reminds you of one of the favourite themes of Hemingway's friend F Scott Fitzgerald. It was about the fact that the very rich are different from the rest of the people. They have a certain aloofness, a belief that they can always live on their own terms and that the rest of the world can simply take them or leave them. Everyone agrees that, at 24, Gulbis is a critical case of under-achievement, given the level of his natural-born talent.

He has three titles on the tour but he will be breaking new ground here when he appears in the third round. It is, many believe, a case of appetite rather than a failure of nerve. Indeed, when he won the first of his two titles at Delray Beach in Florida, he astounded some weathered critics by stepping forward into the monster serve of the giant Croat Ivo Karlovic. The big man said that people didn't do that to him, but Gulbis took great delight in continuing to do so.

He was unmoved by the consternation over the locker-room injury toll. "Why do people have to have to see all these injuries before they realise something is wrong? Yes, there is too much tennis and you see the effect when players change surfaces."

He was, as you might have expected, exceedingly unimpressed by Martina Navratilova's argument that men should join women in playing just three sets in Grand Slam matches. It had no appeal for the man who had so successfully probed the weakness of Tsonga.

"I wouldn't like just three sets in a Grand Slam because it should be different for the top players. Grand Slam is Grand Slam. You don't need any easy way to win it. You have to be physically fit. If you can't make it, you can't make it. Sorry, stay at home and do something else. Grand Slams should be five sets, blood, fight, and five sets all the way until somebody is dead. It can be a little bit inhuman but it's the game and you should not change it."

A fight to the death, he was saying, a cold pursuit of every man's weakness. Ernest Hemingway couldn't have put it better.