Ernests Gulbis began his second-round match at the Rolex Monte Carlo Masters last week by losing the first eight games to Juan Monaco. And he ended by getting a game penalty during the third set for smashing his racket. For Gulbis, this would normally qualify strictly as dog-bites-man type of news.
But this sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen anymore. The underachieving 24-year-old Latvian had straightened himself out, committed himself to the game, started making the sacrifices required to succeed (namely giving up "drinking, smoking, staying up late"). He had finally found a coach he was comfortable with, Austria's Gunther Bresnik, and was improving his fitness.
It was working. He had won 16 matches in row before running into Rafael Nadal at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells. This included a title run in Delray Beach in early March, as a qualifier no less. He was back in the top 100, along with some of those guys who "with respect, they can't play tennis." And now he, who can play tennis, was headed higher, where he belongs.
Then came the exit in Monaco against Monaco. Hence the consternation. Had it all fallen apart again? Had it just been another false turnaround?
Actually, in some ways it was right on cue. Gulbis' career has been a series of short bursts followed by long slides. Even his introduction to the tennis consciousness was made up of two extremes. He arrived the scene right on his 19th birthday by annihilating top-10 player Tommy Robredo to make the fourth round at the U.S. Open in 2007. Afterward, Robredo talked about his young opponent like he was an improved version of Roger Federer, even declaring concern for how his compatriot and former No. 1 Carlos Moya might fare against him in the next round.
Gulbis then proceeded to lose easily to Moya, declaring that his forehand had turned from his best stroke to his worst. (This forehand theme would re-emerge in later years.)
The following year, he made it to the quarterfinals of the French Open, losing to Novak Djokovic (the two attended the same tennis academy as youngsters) and started 2009 by getting a win over Djokovic. He agreed it was his best win, but not the best he had ever played. "I have had some beautiful losses," said Gulbis, producing another notable addition to his epigraphic career as well.
Then he got rid of his coach, declared that he was working harder than ever on his fitness -- and slowly but surely slid out of the top 100 with a string of first-round losses. Injuries played a role, but the low point was surely getting arrested during the Stockholm tournament for soliciting a prostitute. It was a misunderstanding, he claimed, but an interesting experience. "Everyone should spend a night in jail once," he said.
That was followed six months later by the most impressive tournament of his career so far. In the Rome Masters, he began with a win against Federer in the first round and finished by taking a set off Nadal in the semifinals -- no small feat of clay at any time in the past decade, but especially not during Nadal's "clay Slam" year in 2010.
By his own account, Gulbis then headed straight to the nightclubs in Latvia. He suffered a hamstring injury at the French Open and had trouble winning consecutive matches the rest of the year.
Is the pattern developing yet? In 2011, he won the title in Los Angeles and had a solid hard-court summer going into the U.S. Open, but again hardly won consecutive matches the rest of the year. In 2012, he defeated Tomas Berdych in the first round of Wimbledon and Tommy Haas in the first round of the U.S. Open but otherwise had trouble winning matches, let alone consecutive matches. His forehand had lost its sting, and he was trying to fix it by sticking out his left hand in a posture quickly labeled the "traffic cop" stance.
By February, he was losing in the first round of challengers. Then came the great turnaround that made him, outside Nadal's comeback perhaps the biggest post-Australian Open story of the year so far. Was it for real this time? That was the big question -- the big hope.
So what is it about Gulbis that attracts this kind of following? Well, no breed of player fascinates tennis watchers as much as the temperamental talents -- big games, big personalities, but so little room for error, both in their psyches and their shot-making. They can beat anyone, and they can lose to anyone. And it's the combination of excitement and faint danger that makes them so magnetic. It's the tennis equivalent of shades and a motorbike.
A temperamental talent who's just starting out is the most intriguing of all. The potential for achievement -- and under-achievement -- is huge and untapped.
So imagine when a Gulbis steps on the scene. A baby-faced newcomer with ricocheting groundstrokes, a big serve and audacious dropshots. On top of that, a racket-smashing, self-talking competitor who could deliver an even more audacious quote. He came out of the unusual and rather mysterious locale of Latvia. And, it turned out, he came from a famous family that was spectacularly rich besides.
His personality was also distinctive. Take movies, for example -- as befitting the grandson of a well-known Latvian film director, that "new Hollywood stuff" was not for him. He was most often compared to Marat Safin and became good friends with the Russian and former No. 1 while the two were both on tour.
And so, despite several years of expectation and disappoinment, the prospect of a Gulbis resurgence still gets attention. He has bold confidence in his game and is unafraid of the best. Going into the Nadal match at Indian Wells, the qualifier said, "I'm telling you, if I'm going to hit a winner it's gonna be a winner. Doesn't matter if it's gonna be Nadal or whoever.
"Maybe it's going to take me two shots. But I'm going to be ready for it. One shot one corner, one shot other corner. I want to see him get it."