Gulbis now a true pro, loving life

PARIS -- Ernests Gulbis could be the most interesting among the ATP World Tour's many players.

• He's the only athlete from the Republic of Latvia to ever play in a Grand Slam.

• His backhand, he insisted earlier in the tournament, might be the best in the game. Now that he's in the semifinals of this French Open, he hasn't, uh, backed off. "Why my opinion should have changed from day to day?" Gulbis said. "My backhand didn't change overnight."

• He was playing Challengers matches as recently as last year and his mother Milena urged him to quit when his ranking sailed outside the top 100, but he beat 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer in the fourth round for the win of his career.

"Now," Gulbis said, "she tells me if I win the tournament I shouldn't quit."

On Friday, Gulbis meets No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic, a good friend during their time in the juniors, in the first Grand Slam semifinal of his 27-year-old life.

The consensus is that the supremely talented athlete has squandered the gifts given him, that his affinity for partying blurred his focus. This, he now knows.

"I just thought everything is going to come too easy for me because everything in life was coming," Gulbis explained after beating Federer on Tuesday. "I wasn't really thinking about it and not putting enough effort into it. Tennis, everything was coming easy. I thought I'm just going to grind in life like this, easy without any effort, and be successful.

"And then ... and then ... s--- happened."

Oh, and it hit him hard. In October 2012, Gulbis' ranking was truly rank, at No. 159. He finished the year with a 17-18 record, his fourth losing season in six years as a top-level professional.

Three years ago Gulbis started working with Austrian coach Gunter Bresnik, who had a history of working with temperamental artists -- like Boris Becker. Gulbis changed his "full-on gluten" diet and started approaching tennis like the profession it is.

The guy who once missed five of eight days of Davis Cup practice, now makes it to the court nearly 100 percent of the time.

"You evolve," Gulbis said. "You start to understand, 'OK, first, make one step. Don't miss five days of practice. Just miss three days of practice and then two days and then one and then nothing.'

"So it's a process."

In the span of nearly two years, Gulbis has become something approaching a professional. He's ranked a career-high No. 17 and won two titles this year in France, in Marseille and Nice. It's difficult for him to act like he's been here, because he's never been to the Final Four of a major.

He's won nine straight matches, though, more than Djokovic or Rafael Nadal or any other man. In his straight-sets win over No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych in the quarters, Gulbis was very nearly flawless. His backhand has always been a thing of beauty, but even his sometimes fluky forehand was rock-solid.

A child of privilege -- Gulbis' father Ainars is in the investment business -- he's now making enough coin to be self-sufficient. He made more than $700,000 last year and is close to a million already this season.

"For me, I found throughout these years what is important for me to be truly happy," he said. "For me to be truly happy, my happiness comes only from doing well my job. Then I can really live my life to the maximum. I can enjoy the stuff much more."

Gulbis' progress through the draw has brought him into the main press room five times now. It's been an entertaining run.

He was 5 years old when his parents started him in tennis -- because they happened to have a friend who was a coach.

"Sometimes we don't choose our profession," he reflected, "the profession chooses us. I think I would be pretty good basketball player, pretty good football player, because I like ball. I have a good feeling for it. Just happened to be tennis.

"I need to prove to myself that I can be the best that I can be in tennis, and then I'm going to have a clear and easy mind when I'm 35 years old sitting on a beach with a ... "

And there, Gulbis made a motion as if he was drinking a glass of wine. And the room filled with reporters laughed.

Gulbis, as it turns out, is having the last laugh.