A Fan's View: Ernests Gulbis
Ernests Gulbis, 25, a five-time winner ranked No. 23, is one of the most talented players on the ATP Tour. He also has one of the most explosive personalities. How do his fans stay so devoted to a player whose inconsistency and penchant to self-destruct can be so infuriating? To find out I asked Pamela Wright, a Maryland-based Gulbis fan from North Carolina. (You may know her as @Ataraxis00 on Twitter.) She fell in love with tennis -- and offensive-minded players -- as a kid watching Monica Seles play.
SI.com: What makes you a Gulbis fan? The game? The personality? His "Baby Safin" reputation?
Wright: What drew me to Ernie was the power and shot-making ability on both wings, despite that funky forehand I lovingly call "Jazz Hands." I was a fan of his game before I realized how similar he is to Marat Safin, with his personality and volatile ways on court. I was a huge Safin fan. I guess I have a type.
SI.com: You didn't know they were friends? What was your reaction when you found out?
Wright: My initial reaction was to laugh, but after I thought about it a bit, it makes absolute perfect sense. After all, birds of a feather do flock together. They both oozed talent and potential, but had a way of self-sabotage that earned them the label of mercurial underachiever.
SI.com: What's your pitch for getting people on the Gulbis bandwagon?
Wright: There's no rational way to explain why anyone should be an Ernie fan. You have to experience him. His game translates to all surfaces. His Rome run in 2010 [when Gulbis upset No. 1 Roger Federer en route to the semifinals] was impressive. That was a performance to grab you and make you a fan. He can play flawless tennis one day and the next you wonder how he made it on tour at all. It's not an easy decision to remain an Ernie fan, but I think it's paying off.
SI.com: Have you seen him play live?
Wright: Unfortunately, no. It's on my bucket list. You're always in awe of how much harder they hit the ball in person than it appears on television. I can only imagine that's one of the things that would catch my attention. He seems to have such an easy power.
SI.com: What's it like being a fan of the player with the ugliest forehand technique in the game?
Wright: I have seen his forehand described as many things, but pretty has never been one. I would love to sit down with [Gulbis' coach] Gunther Bresnik and ask him to explain to me why Gulbis looks like he's about to take flight when he hits a forehand. There has to be a better way to get more spin on the ball. The only way I can cope with the hideous stroke is to call it "Jazz Hands" and hope it goes over the net and inside the lines. For what it's worth, the change, however unorthodox, has made his forehand more consistent. The explosive, flat forehand he had before 2012 was very much hit or miss. He was leaking errors all over the place and it cost him wins.
SI.com: It's easy to become invested in players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic because they're constantly gunning for the game's biggest prizes. But for a player like Gulbis, who is likely going to lose any week he plays, how do you manage the hope and expectation against the possibility of disappointment?
Wright: What kills us as fans is watching a player show his or her talent in a way that impresses us so much that you continue to watch in hopes of seeing a performance like that again. I've learned to not have any expectations at all from week to week. He can lose in the first round or make the final without dropping serve. Earlier this year, for instance, he defeated Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfriend Tsonga with ease in France to win the Marseille title. I'm almost tempted to have expectations again, but this fan knows better. There are no guarantees.
SI.com: Do you have any long-term expectations for him? Or is he just a guy you like to watch hit a tennis ball?
Wright: I love watching him play, but I do have expectations. I'm not so far removed from reality that I expect him to make a two-week run at a major, but I do expect him to win a Masters 1000 at some point in his career. Many strange things can happen in sports, and perhaps Ernie will win a major some day and shock us all. There's a little bit of delusion in every fan.
SI.com: What's your most memorable Gulbis moment?
Wright: There are so many moments of laser forehands and backhands, or inner turmoil that bubbles over on the court, but my favorite moment is actually a quote. It's not even a controversial quote, but it's endearing.
So, about talent, it’s all relative. Who cares about talent if there’s no hard work? What are you going to do with your underachievers? I don’t want to be one of them.
SI.com: He loves a good racket throw. Do you like those flashes of anger or do you wish he'd learn to contain himself?
Wright: I don't mind the racket abuse if it helps him refocus and win the next point or game. Ultimately, I'd love for him to be able to find that focus within himself without having to destroy multiple rackets or yell at umpires.
SI.com: Do you have a favorite racket-busting moment?
Wright: So many to choose from! A memorable one for me is when he was in a third set with Tomas Berdych in Marseille [in 2013] and he missed a routine shot. He bounced the racket high, but that wasn't good enough so he picked it up and smashed it so that it broke clean in half.
SI.com: How do you think his wealthy background has shaped him as a player?
Wright: I think the fact that he didn't necessarily "have" to play tennis to live a successful life shaped his early career. It also probably contributed to his partying, which he's always willing to tell us about. As he's gotten older and more mature, there's a clarity about his work ethic and what he wants to achieve. It's starting to show in his results.
SI.com: What do you make of his 2014 season so far?
Wright: I was impressed by his title run in Marseille. Although he's gotten more consistent, I think we will continue to see the odd and puzzling first-round losses. I'll happily take the odd losses if he improves on his performances at the majors. His second-round, straight-set loss to Sam Querrey at the Australian Open was quite disappointing.
SI.com: He got a lot of guff from other players and fans after his "the top players are boring" comment last year. Fair?
Wright: The criticism was definitely fair, but I understand why he said it. Their answers are canned and quite boring most of the time, but he doesn't have the same media obligations that the top guys on tour have. He hasn't earned the right to say such things yet.
SI.com: But do you like that he feels like he has the freedom to say whatever he wants? Or do you wish he'd just shut up sometimes? Wright: Oh, absolutely. Being a fan doesn't mean we have to be blind, right? His comments about Roberto Bautista-Agut after beating him in St. Petersburg last year were disappointing to hear as a fan. I love his engaging personality and the honest quotes, but you don't have to be disrespectful. Hopefully, he'll mature and abstain from such comments in the future. On the flip side, you almost have to have a delusional self-belief that you can make it into the top 10 or win a major. Talking is one thing, the results are another. He doesn't have the big wins yet, but half the battle is mentally believing you belong.