Ernests Gulbis sat down with Reem Abulleil at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to discuss his life grinding on the Challenger circuit, his plans to try and return to the top and lots more.
Ernests Gulbis rushes off the court following his second victory in the Dubai qualifying rounds.
He walks alone to the grass area where players warm up for their matches or cool down after them and starts stretching. There are other players around, accompanied by coaches, physios and fitness trainers preparing for practice sessions.
Gulbis, who was ranked No. 10 in the world three and a half years ago, is flying solo and taking care of his own business in an efficient manner.
The 29-year-old Latvian advanced through qualies and faces No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille in the main draw first round on Tuesday (17:00 local time).
Ranked a lowly 195 in the world, Gulbis is searching for a first tour-level main draw victory since last year’s US Open.
The former French Open semi-finalist is coming off a second round loss at the Bergamo Challenger last week. He found out he made the cut-off for qualifying in Dubai on Friday midday and quickly hopped on a plane from Milan, to Vienna, to the Emirates to make it in time for his first match on Saturday morning. Two wins later, he has made it into his second ATP main draw of the season.
Gulbis is someone who has gone back and forth between both sides of the tennis spectrum. From being a top-10 player and a Grand Slam semi-finalist, to being ranked 500-and-something and requesting wildcards for qualies at Challengers.
I ask him how it’s been for him grinding on the Challenger Tour and fighting through ATP qualifying rounds.
“It’s been already a long time like this. My career, you know how it was, it’s been up and down a lot. It’s been reaching quarters in a Slam then going back playing qualies in Challengers then coming back and being top-10 then going down… it’s been the story of my career,” Gulbis told Sport360 ahead of his opener against Pouille.
“At Challengers it’s sometimes tough to motivate yourself. You know why you’re there, you know why you’re doing this, it’s part of the grind, but still it’s not the same.”
Gulbis has won six ATP titles, and has earned more than $6 million from the sport since he turned pro in 2004.
You wonder how someone who has reached significant heights in the sport can find gratification when he’s on the flip side.
“I think it’s like everything in life, it’s the point of view from which you’re watching any given situation. For example if you’ve been playing Challenger qualies, it’s just gratifying being in an ATP 500 event. When everything is much better organised, you feel like a real tennis player, because in Challengers sometimes you don’t,” he explains.
“As much as the organisers are trying to make you feel good, they don’t have enough financial support, they don’t have the facilities, so the things that you’re used to, you don’t get them, and it somehow gets you down. But you have to really have a clear goal, real understanding of why you are there. Otherwise you can dig a hole for yourself when you’re back into this level.
“Right now it’s just gratifying for me to feel like a tennis player again, after a long period of time,” he adds with a chuckle.
“For me my goal right now is to finish on my own terms. I still need to reach something, something big for myself. I’m not sure what it’s going to be, if it’s going to be a big tournament or a big win but something inside of me needs to feel fulfilled.
“If I stop now I wouldn’t feel fulfilled and I’m not sure how it would feel looking back, when I’m 40, 50 years old, I don’t want to have this feeling. I don’t want to take the risk. I know I’m going to be able to manage it, because you manage everything in life but I prefer to quit on my own terms.”
While he does have specific objectives set for himself, Gulbis prefers to keep them private.
“I have my own inner goals but as soon as I tell them to somebody words tend to take some kind of form and as soon as there is some form then there is some kind of maybe unnecessary pressure that comes with it, maybe something else, so why do I need this form? I need this feeling, which is pretty precise for me, but it’s not in my interest to give it some kind of form for somebody else to understand,” says the Latvian.
It’s quite rare to see a player completely alone at an ATP 500 event. Gulbis doesn’t have a full-time coach but he has been back working with Gunter Bresnik (also the coach of Dominic Thiem) intermittently in Vienna. They reunited last year before Wimbledon, where Gulbis made a surprise run to the third round, taking out Juan Martin del Potro along the way before falling to Novak Djokovic.
He describes Wimbledon 2017 as a “strange” event for him because he was coming off a triple tear in his abdominal and went to the tournament with close to no practices under his belt. He was “relaxed” and made it farther than anyone expected him to.
“I think I was a little bit unlucky because if I was a little bit more ready I could have beaten Djokovic,” he says looking back. “I lost to him easy relatively but still I was a break up in the first set and things could turn because he wasn’t really 100 per cent that tournament and then you never know, it could be fourth round, quarter-final, it’s a completely different story, different confidence.”
He spent the offseason with Bresnik in Austria, and occasionally heads to a tournament with one of his academy’s coaches. But by now, Gulbis is used to travelling alone and says he doesn’t need a “babysitter”.
“When you play in a really high level, when you’re fighting for a semi-final or final, or when you’re at the top level of your game then those small nuances count, those small tactical things a coach can give you. Now I don’t really care about the tactics, I just want to put the ball in the court, I need to run, put the ball in the court and get some basic confidence,” he states.
“And for this, to be honest I don’t need nobody. I don’t need a babysitter with me, I’m not 20-years-old anymore, I don’t need company necessarily. I feel completely fine being alone. Some people don’t but I feel really good being alone. Of course I need my family and my wife but otherwise, tennis-wise it’s no problem.”
Gulbis got married last year and says his tennis life hasn’t changed much post-nuptials.
“My wife she supports me fully, she knows and I know that I don’t have so many years left. I’m 29. I hope that I can have another four or five good years. Time passes fast,” he says.
“She also understands that for me as a man it’s really necessary to finish this chapter of my life on my own terms and I can be, I don’t know if a better man or a better person, but I need this and she understands it.”
Booking his own courts, setting up practices, getting his racquets re-strung… Gulbis is happy to take care of all that. Asked if it can get draining, he quickly dismisses the notion.
“It shouldn’t be draining for anybody. It’s not draining for you to tie your shoelace,” he says.
“Okay I understand that it might be draining when you’re a top player and you’ve got a lot of things to do like press and media appearances, all these kind of things, then you need somebody to help you out and you just don’t have enough time. But 80 per cent of the players at every tournament, we have time.
“It’s nicer if you can afford it, again it’s more about your character. If you can spend time alone or if you need somebody to talk to you about your matches, about your practices, just to talk to get your mind off things – I don’t judge when somebody needs somebody. I understand because after a couple of weeks I also would like this somebody with me, I just don’t need somebody full-time for those reasons. I would need somebody full-time for upcoming reasons, when I’m playing really good, for those small nuances I mentioned before but not for organising basic stuff. That takes 10 minutes of your day.”
One thing Gulbis feels strongly about is the financial struggle many players ranked outside the top-100 have to deal with. His flight from Vienna to Dubai cost him €2,800, one way, because he had to book it last minute, since that is the nature of the sport. Had he lost in the qualifying first round, he would have collected just $2,195.
Gulbis comes from a very wealthy family, but what he describes applies to any tennis player in his position.
“There has to be some kind of safety. Players nowadays ranked 100 or 150 they are really good players, they don’t have this safety. I think in other sports, the top sports, there is a bigger amount of people feeling secure,” Gulbis added.
“The amount of people feeling safe and secure about their future in tennis is too little…
“I think it’s really necessary for players to at least break even. You don’t break even if you travel alone, if you travel with a coach, forget about it. If I pass the qualies and I win two matches, I beat a guy who is ranked in the top-100, and the other is 120. I beat good players, and by beating these good players I cannot even break even; something is not right.”
While Gulbis acknowledges that the Grand Slams have increased their prize money, which helps with a player’s overall annual income, he believes the majors should give a bigger slice of their revenues to the players.
Djokovic and others have been trying to fight for such a change and the Serb reportedly spoke at a recent players’ meeting at the Australian Open about a movement to urge Grand Slams to give them a bigger piece of the pie.
Gulbis doesn’t know much detail about that meeting but agrees in principle with the idea.
“How much money do the Grand Slams make? What would happen if all four Grand Slams would give 10 per cent of the money they earn to all the top-100 players. Every player would get a certain amount of money and you can help them become competitive, they can hire a fitness coach or whatever,” he suggests.
“We have money in our sport, it’s just being channelled, not to the wrong, everybody has to make money, also the Grand Slams have to make money, but if you just take 10 per cent…”
When I tell him that it appears Djokovic is pushing for that, Gulbis says: “It’s going to take forever. With these kind of measures you have to take some drastic moves and you have to be strong and you have to be united and in the tennis world it’s tough to be united.
“It’s not like with teams, because in teams you have the leaders of the team and you have your own organisation. Tennis is not a team sport and here we have the top players they all follow their own interests, somebody has a contract, somebody has some personal relationships.
“Even not from the top players, but for example how would French players boycott Roland Garros? That’s not realistic. I don’t like to speak about boycotting, this is a critical measure, but to get something done…”
Looking ahead to his opening match against the 15th-ranked Pouille, Gulbis sounds quite confident.
“He has some good results but he’s coming from indoors (Pouille lost the final in Marseille on Sunday) and this small jetlag, three hours, it’s still… to go from indoors into sunny outdoors, relatively fast, different balls. He’s going to struggle,” he says.
“He’s in a much better overall situation than me but I think I’m in a much better situation coming up to that match than him. I know how to play him and I’m not comfortable for most of the guys so I think he’s not happy to play me here.”