Gulbis And Djokovic Fulfil Their Tasks
The way things had been going for Ernests Gulbis over the last couple of years, I thought I would never get a chance to write about him. To say that the man suffered a sophomore slump last year would be euphemism at its most saccharine. Gulbis, who turned 21 last August, failed to put together back-to-back wins until almost the end of the season, repeatedly flaming out in the first or second round of every tournament he played. Even when he did manage to make a decent run at a tournament in the late fall indoor swing, he managed to lose to a player called Horacio Zeballos (ever heard that name?). Suddenly, early career comparisons to Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic and even Marat Safin (!) were starting to look foolish in the extreme, let alone embarrassingly premature. The kid just couldn’t do anything right – even the prostitute controversy in the tournament at Stockholm last year (the sordid details of which can be read here) had Gulbis’s name at the center. Ok, maybe this story makes the Safin comparison a little less ridiculous, but when people had first started talking up the prospects of the baby-faced 19-year-old Latvian who completely outclassed Tommy Robredo in the second round of the US Open in 2007, they were not talking about his roving eye. That monster serve, that explosive forehand, that forceful backhand, that nimble footwork, those deft volleys and dropshots – he almost looked like a perfect player. And when a ‘perfect player’ fails to climb higher than No. 38 in the rankings after more than 3 years on the tour, doesn’t reach a single ATP final in all that time and goes without reaching a semifinal for 65 straight tournaments, I think you can understand if tennis watchers started to feel a little frustrated.
But now, Delray Beach has happened. Admittedly, the 250 level tournament in the small Florida town doesn’t have the deepest field imaginable (Tommy Haas was the top seed for the tournament), but for a man who some people had been advising to go back to the Challenger circuit to regain his confidence, any ATP-level tournament must feel like a Grand Slam. And this time, Gulbis was up for the task, winning his first 4 matches in straight sets, and then taking apart the feared serve of Ivo Karlovic in the final. He defeated Karlovic 6-2, 6-3 after having broken serve as many as 4 times. To get some perspective on that, consider these facts: Ivo Karlovic had his serve broken just once in his first 4 matches of the tournament, and the 6’9” Ace Machine regularly tops the annual ace and serving charts, having even come close to Goran Ivanisevic’s record yearly ace tally a couple of years ago. Gulbis’s return of serve was jaw-droppingly magnificent in the final – it’s not often that you see Karlovic getting despondent and desperate while serving, hanging on for dear life in nearly every service game, and even putting on an elaborate, arms-in-the-air celebration after finally managing to get a serve past the scythe-like racquet of Gulbis. The match just confirmed what tennis geeks have known for ages – when Gulbis’s game is on fire, he can be close to unplayable. The big question now, of course, is whether he can translate this kind of play to the bigger tournaments. He still has a tendency to suffer meltdowns bang in the middle of a match for no apparent reason, and his shot selection can still sometimes come close to the level of, I can find no way to sugarcoat this, stupidity. All that said, however, Gulbis clearly has all the tools – if his new coach Hernan Gumy (who, incidentally, was also the coach of Safin at one point; talk about coincidence) can somehow manage to convince him that it wouldn’t be quite such a bad idea to make full use of those tools, then I can still see a bright future for the kid. 21, after all, is not THAT advanced an age, even in tennis terms.
While Gulbis was busy making some history for himself by winning his first ever tournament, Novak Djokovic was engaged in an altogether different task – trying to successfully defend a title for the first time in his career. The World No.2 had never won a tournament as the defending champion before last week, and while that may not be quite as bad as never having won a tournament, it can be a pretty galling statistic for a top 5 player. So Djokovic immersed himself into the job in Dubai, throwing in every effort to stay afloat in a tournament that was apparently used as a practice session by some players (I’m looking at you, Andy Murray). He managed to scrape through three-setters in the 2nd round and the quarterfinals against Victor Troicki and Ivan Ljubicic respectively, and was decidedly lucky against Marcos Baghdatis in the semi-finals, conceding break points all over the place which, thankfully for him, Baghdatis seemed only too eager to fritter away.
So in a tournament that was missing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Roddick due to injuries, Djokovic literally proved to be the last man standing, getting to the final after a week of hard work and toil, where he faced Russia’s Mikhail Youzhny. I know tennis experts don’t usually consider Djokovic to be the most mentally strong player around, but there’s something to be said about the man’s untiring efforts to rediscover the form and the magical touch that helped him clinch his maiden Grand Slam title at the Australian Open back in 2008, a feat that instantly turned the Big Two club in men’s tennis of Federer-Nadal into the Big Three (now, of course, it is called the Big Five). Djokovic’s forehand has pretty much been AWOL since around a year, and his serve is nowhere as precise or penetrating as it was a couple of years ago. But the man keeps plugging away, and look where it has got him – he is, on paper, at least, the second best player on the planet today. The final had to be played over 2 days, thanks to a freak downpour in the desert that caused the match to be carried over from Saturday to Sunday with Djokovic leading 7-5, 2-0. Youzhny eked out the second set when they resumed play, but Djokovic would not be denied in the third, capping off the tournament with yet another hard-fought win, and permanently removing the ‘never-defended-a-title’ tag from his resume. Next goal for Djokovic? Remove that ‘one-slam-wonder’ tag from his career bio.