It’s still a little too soon to start reading the tea leaves for future guidance into Ernests Gulbis’s career after his semifinal run at the Italian Open last week. One thing is for sure, the 21 year old Latvian who has been touted as the “next big thing” is finally, and I do mean finally, living up to that hype.
After several years of showing flashes of brilliance and flashes of awful, mixed in with a bad judgment call last year in Stockholm involving certain “ladies”, Gulbis, with his powerful strokes and his candid yet funny demeanor, reminds me of another past champion — Marat Safin.
I remember watching Gulbis take on Safin at last year’s L.A. Tennis Open and couldn’t help but notice the similarities in both players, playing and personality wise. In a previous post, I wrote the following, “This match was like the younger brother taking on the older brother…Both players tossed their racquets around and moaned their plights throughout the match. Gulbis has long been cited as a player to watch, but he’s slipped a bit in the rankings, now at 62. From what I saw, he doesn’t have a “shot” in his arsenal yet, and his mind games will need to be worked on if he wants a shot at the top tier.”
Safin won that match as part of his ’09 retirement tour and as result of his departure from the game, Safin’s former coach, Hernan Gumy, signed on with the Latvian late last year. Since then Gulbis, who shared a similar Safin trait of not being too keen on practicing, has now embraced hard work along with toning down his mind games, especially when he loses points. In the past, Gulbis would immediately smash a racquet or scream in “pain”. Now, as we saw in Rome, he seemed to brush off adversity almost with a shrug. Another Safin-like trait that Gulbis definitely shares off the court is his reputation as a ladies man. And though I don’t expect Gulbis to be lusted after the same way Safin was, it’s certainly not a bad rep to have, so long as Gulbis doesn’t get carried away with it.
The timing of both men’s ascent in the game is another parallel to note. Safin defeated Pete Sampras for the U.S. Open title back in 2000 and, although we didn’t realize it at the time, that moment was actually the beginning of the end of the Sampras reign on tour. And though I’m not suggesting that Gulbis’s recent defeat of Roger Federer in Rome is equal to Safin’s win, talk is just starting to creep in on who will be the next king of tennis once Federer finally retires. At 21, Gulbis certainly has enough time on his side to do that, as long as fulfills his potential.
Many fans and critics thought the talented and charismatic Safin left the game too early last year but, in the same breath, stated that Safin never really cared enough about his game to fulfill his true potential. Sure he was No.1 in the world and won two Grand Slam titles, but many felt Safin’s “whatever” attitude cost him a chance for greater glory. If Gulbis has discarded his own “whatever” attitude for good remains to be seen. If nothing else, the Latvian’s personality certainly mirrors Safin’s and the game will be better off with another charismatic player in the mix. After his tough loss to Rafael Nadal, Gulbis expressed optimism about his chances in the upcoming Grand Slams by saying, “I hope I’ll be in form for the French Open and Wimbledon and I hope I don’t have to play against the top players right away because it’s the first matches which are the toughest ones. “I think I have a good chance in these tournaments if I’m stable enough, if I don’t go out of my mind and if I don’t take a holiday when I shouldn’t be taking one.”
Gee, who does that sound a lot like?