In a conversation with Ernests Gulbis at the French Open, the Latvian discussed his recent struggles, the true value of tennis, his recent engagement and what would make him retire from the sport.
When you sit down to talk to Ernests Gulbis there are a few things one must bear in mind: it’s going to be a long chat, it’s going to be philosophical, it might not be about tennis, and more than likely it’s going to be insightful.
“You ask very deep questions and I need to give you very deep and long answers on this. If I give something very short, it’s going to be very shallow,” the Latvian former top-10 player told me during a conversation we had two weeks ago at the French Open, after his opening round loss to eventual quarter-finalist Marin Cilic.
We had the time and his answers were definitely not shallow.
Following a wrist injury that sidelined Gulbis from July 2016 to February 2017, the 28-year-old’s ranking has plummeted to No494 in the world.
Exactly three years ago, Gulbis was ranked No10 thanks to a breakthrough semi-final appearance at the French Open, where he beat Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych before falling in four sets to Novak Djokovic. He had won nine consecutive matches in three weeks that included a title run in Nice prior to Roland Garros, and looked like he was finally living up to his potential.
This year, he has only managed to contest eight matches in total – mostly in qualifying rounds – and has won just two of them. Besides the wrist problem, which he has now recovered from, he also pulled a calf muscle last month, and pulled out of his second round at the Prostejov Challenger last week with an abdominal injury.
Luck has definitely not been on Gulbis’ side and as his ranking continues to freefall, and his body keeps failing him, many wonder how much longer he’ll be playing tennis. Some ask why he hasn’t stopped already.
“Tennis is a great part of our lives, it can be very frustrating, it can be very inspiring, it’s a beautiful thing. But for me it’s an instrument of self-understanding and I think that anything you do in your life should be some kind of instrument to better understand yourself,” says Gulbis.
“That’s the most important thing, to understand yourself through the things that you do.”
Gulbis can be temperamental on court, smashing racquets and having outbursts. He has a big personality, speaks his mind, and has ruffled many feathers in the past by some of the statements and quips he’s made in press.
But there are many sides to this highly-expressive Latvian. He can talk Russian literature or music or art for hours and when he he’s in an analytical mood, he can really tap into the true meaning behind his life’s journey and articulate it with ease.
“You have to understand that everybody has their own path and everybody has their own understanding in this path, how they understand themselves, how they understand the world around and how you deal with this,” he explains when asked how he keeps his tough times in the sport in perspective. “I’m going to try to live my path, to have fun out of it, and just to enjoy it as much as I can. There are times of course when it’s very frustrating but it’s also part of it and if you understand it on a deeper level, if you can analyse what comes out of it, then you can keep on doing this.
“As soon as I understand that I can’t gain anything from doing this thing I’m going to stop doing this. I’m not doing this for earning money or for earning popularity.
“I’m doing this because I know that this makes me right now a better man – going tennis and going through the struggles and that’s the most important thing. And as soon as I understand that okay that’s it, this instrument, tennis as an instrument will not help me anymore to become a better man I’m going to stop.”
But in what ways does he think tennis is making him a better man?
“You understand very much yourself from all the highs, all the lows, from all the self-analysis, from all the struggles, from winning, from losing, from people’s behaviour, for example how people treat you when you’re winning, how people treat you when you’re losing,” he responds.
“You start to understand how you’re treating people when you’re winning or you’re losing. You see these things, why something is changing. And as soon as you think about it, this process of thinking makes you in some way, I wouldn’t say better or worse, but you evolve into something.
“Not necessarily better or worse, it’s not for me to judge if I’m becoming better or worse, but just at the end of the day, just interesting, let’s leave it at that.”
This evolved version of Gulbis still believes in his chances of returning to his best in tennis. He’s barely in the top 500 and will need wildcards to appear at any tournament. He still has seven protected ranking entries though due to the fact that he missed six months of action due to the wrist injury, and he plans on using one at Wimbledon next month.
After parting ways with his long-time coach Gunter Bresnik, Gulbis briefly worked with renowned coach Larry Stefanki last year and started changing the technique with which he hits his forehand.
Gulbis explains that he used to hit his forehand “wrong” which resulted in his wrist injury, but that he has now fixed that problem and feels no pain when hitting it.
He no longer has that unorthodox stance he became famous for while hitting his forehand (where he looks like he’s standing on a surf board) but he says the shot is still a work in progress.
“What I’m hitting right now is more or less the same as when I played well when Gunter Bresnik used to coach me,” he says.
“The feeling is the same, how it looks is another story. The feeling is more or less the same and I think it’s still going to evolve into something different than it is right now. This is not a drastic change.
“The most important thing I’m concentrating on in my forehand shot is just to keep the arm relaxed, because as soon as I get tight, as soon as I try to push it too much, the technique just breaks down. As soon as the arm is relaxed – how it looks like is not even in second place.”
Right now, Gulbis doesn’t have a full-time coach but he’s been working briefly with Pjotr Nechaev, a childhood friend of his who has been coaching in Detroit.
Gulbis is in search of a coach with strong technical knowledge but is in no rush to hire someone.
“I’m not sure if I’m able to find somebody who is up to my standards in that so it’s difficult. I’m not pushing it too much. I know that it’s going to happen in the right moment,” he says.
“Of course I’m making some efforts and putting my view in certain directions in search for some coaches, I’m talking to somebody but I cannot overdo it, because if I put too much attention on one person maybe he’s not the guy. I think things will fall in place in time.
“As soon as my results get better people are going to be again much more interested in me, working with me, so the situation changes every week. People in tennis have the shortest memory, in sports in general. They forget what you did half a year ago, two months ago, you have to prove on and on but I believe that everything is going to come at the right time.”
Gulbis’ last of six titles won came three years ago and he’s been outside the top 100 since last August. As he attempts another comeback, is he not discouraged by how low his ranking is and how tough it’s going to be for him to get into tournaments?
“It’s not discouraging. It gives you some extra motivation to be honest when nobody wants to give you wildcards into qualies, forget about main draws. Of course tournaments have their own interest who they’re giving wildcards to and it’s understandable. I just hope that somebody will give me wildcards in qualies,” he says.
“It’s not that big of a tragedy. I’m the kind of player as soon as I get two wins I can win the tournament – I still believe it. It doesn’t matter what kind of tournament it is, I just need two, three wins in a row. I’m thinking of maybe going to play some qualies in Challengers because it doesn’t really matter. If I’m going to pass the qualies then I have a good chance of playing well in the Challengers.
“It is discouraging when you see where you are in the rankings, you don’t want to be there but it’s not a tragedy.”
Gulbis isn’t just going through transformations in his tennis life, he’s also experienced changes on the personal level as he recently got engaged to Tamara Kopaleyshvili. He may have had a bad boy reputation in the past but Gulbis now is all about commitment.
“I think that’s the most important thing for a man or for a woman is to find their true love or their true partner for the rest of their lives,” he says.
“I don’t think that something is out of place right now or something has to fall in place, I think that this (marriage) is besides anything. This is the most important decision you have to make in your life.
“Marriage is beyond anything, beyond tennis…
“I’m very happy and I’m very much at peace with myself and I have full harmony and I feel good. Of course I would feel in some way different – not happier or sadder – but different if I was winning more. It’s a different place but it’s life you know. You have ups and down.”