'Old-school' Ernests Gulbis on books, opera, Einstein and disdain for selfies
When I caught up with Ernests Gulbis at the Italian Open last year, he was in the midst of a career resurgence after plunging to No. 136 and having his mom recommend that he retire. His renaissance has continued in 2014: The 25-year-old Latvian is 23-10 with one title (the Open 13 in Marseille, France) and two semifinal appearances, and last week he reached a career-high No. 17. He is ranked 19th ahead of the French Open, which begins on Sunday.
The outspoken Gulbis -- who has put his fans through the wringer with his erratic play and combustible temperament -- sat down for another interview in Rome last week, before his third-round loss to David Ferrer. He talked about his newfound consistency on the court and his eclectic tastes off it.
SI.com: Are you happy with your season so far?
Gulbis: It always could be better, but I'm happy the way it's going. Just look at the results -- I've been really consistent. I've had two bad results this year, in Australia [where he lost to Sam Querrey in straight sets in the second round] and Miami [where he lost his opening-round match to Julien Benneteau]. In Miami I was sick, and in Australia, all credit to Sam. He played really well. But solid, consistent tennis from a guy who can't win two matches in a row [not too long ago]? I'm proving now I'm starting to be consistent.
SI.com: One of the things being discussed a lot lately is how everyone is saying the tenor in the locker room has changed after Stan Wawrinka's Australian Open win and all the upsets over the Big Four this year. What do you make of that?
Gulbis: Who's everybody?
SI.com: Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro ...
Gulbis: Everybody from, say, the top 15 maybe. I don't think No. 85 in the world believes he can win. It's nice to believe, but you have to have some basis behind the words. Berdych can say it because he's beaten those guys. When it's just words, OK, I can say whatever I want to say.
SI.com: Do you believe?
Gulbis: If I didn't believe I could be No. 1 or top five, I would stop playing. Being top 20 doesn't interest me at all. My belief has been growing stronger and stronger because of all of my consistency and all of my game. It's not about anyone else. I couldn't care less if the top guys are playing bad or playing good. It doesn't affect me at all. It doesn't bring my mental state up or down one millimeter.
SI.com: The last time we talked here in Rome you were reading Haruki Murakami. What's Ernests Gulbis reading these days?
Gulbis: Lately I'm reading a lot of a modern Russian writer, Victor Pelevin. Some of his books have been translated in maybe 38 languages.
SI.com: But you read it in Russian, right?
Gulbis: I read it in Russian. In the original language. It's something special to read something in the original language. I bet if you read Murakami in Japanese, it's a completely different story. So, for me, Pelevin is one of the guys. I'm reading some Russian classics in between. I read an easy book from Dostoyevsky.
SI.com: Dostoyevsky had "easy" books?
Gulbis: The Gambler. Compared to what he usually writes it's easy. He wrote the book in a week's time because he was broke so he had to write something fast. And it was a success.
SI.com: Are you a book guy or an e-reader guy?
Gulbis: Actual physical books, definitely. On a trip like this I carry four or five books. I'm happy to do it. Never say never, but I won't be going to electronic books because it has a completely different energetical [sic] value for me. When the word is printed, it brings a different energy and different thought in it. I could never read long articles on the computer. I prefer to read it in the newspaper. I'm old school.
SI.com: Do you follow any sports other than tennis?
Gulbis: I used to follow the NBA, but I have no idea what's happening in the playoffs. I like basketball, though.
SI.com: What's a pop culture phenomenon you don't understand?
Gulbis: I do not understand most of the pop culture phenomena. There is not only one. I just don't understand how people can listen and watch and do what they are doing sometimes.
SI.com: Do you not understand it because something is universally liked?
Gulbis: Usually I try to run away from things that most other people like. That's one criterion I'm usually worried about. If too many people like it, I start to worry if it's really good. Because the really good stuff -- it takes a little bit of effort to watch or read. Music is a little different: Sometimes you can just listen to music that relaxes your mind and you cannot always listen to something deep, like classical music. You cannot listen to heavy stuff all the time. But pop culture in general is sometimes ... strange.
SI.com: All this talk about appreciating classic books and art. Do you think you're an old soul?
Gulbis: I'm for the best of both worlds. I'm also into new stuff. I like modern art. I like when artists surprise me. I like when a book surprises me. I like when music surprises me. For example, if we're talking about rap music, I really liked the new CD from Kanye West because it surprised me. That's what I would associate with being an artist. Bringing something new.
SI.com: Do you talk to anyone on tour about this? For example, if you go to a museum and you see something interesting, who could you have discussion with?
Gulbis: Again, I don't consider myself a really high-level guy. My knowledge is not deep enough to actually analyze art. I'm a good learner, I'm a good listener, so if someone has something to tell me about something, I would love to listen to it. I just can admire something. And if I admire something, I admire it on a feeling or an emotional level, which is usually not describable with words. So the conversation would be probably less than half a minute [laughs].
SI.com: What do you and good friend Dominic Thiem talk about?
Gulbis: He's a young guy [Thiem, 20, is an up-and-comer ranked No. 58]. There's a lot of stuff that he asks and he takes from me as advice. Nothing that much about tennis, because he's much more mature and better than I was at his age. I'm telling him my opinion on certain things and either he takes it or he's trying to oppose it, and if he's opposing it, I'm trying to convince him. I like the guy a lot. I'm trying to help.
SI.com: What's a piece of culture that's impressed you lately?
Gulbis: Lately it's been more music. I was really pissed off because I got sick in Vienna right before Madrid and I had two great tickets for the opera. One was for Nabucco and Placido Domingo coming to Vienna, and I missed it because I was in a doctor's appointment. But what I like lately is classical minimalist music. Like Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez, Irmin Schmidt. Schmidt wrote a lot of good music for movies. There's one really good soundtrack, from Wim Wenders' film Palermo Shooting. That kind of music culturally touched me. It's not easy to listen to it.
SI.com: You're very into music.
Gulbis: My collection of music is pretty big. It's around 4-5 terabytes. I keep it at home in a hard drive. We put all the CDs that we had in our houses -- the country house and the city house -- on one hard drive. All the music I downloaded and all the music my father downloaded is in one place.
SI.com: Best movie you've seen lately?
Gulbis: Lately? I'm going to go really mainstream, but I really liked The Wolf of Wall Street. That's one of the few movies I liked from Hollywood lately. I was laughing my ass off for three hours straight.
SI.com: Who would you want to get a selfie with?
Gulbis: Selfie? Let's name it the normal way: a photograph.
SI.com: Breaking news: Ernests Gulbis can't bring himself to say the word "selfie."
Gulbis: A photograph has no value to me if I don't know the person. Who I would like to know? There are a lot of people.
SI.com: Who would you want to spend 15 minutes with?
Gulbis: Fifteen minutes is not enough. I would like to have a couple of days. I would start with Albert Einstein.
SI.com: What do you want to talk to Einstein about? The theory of relativity? Hair tips?
Gulbis: I have no idea. The best time we have in life is always when you don't plan it. You cannot say, "OK, we're going to sit down and have a great philosophical conversation." It just happens. With smart or intelligent people, it happens more often. For that, you need time; you cannot have a time frame for it. You need to get to know a person. I don't think these kind of people have time to spend with a stupid athlete like myself [laughs].
SI.com: Do you really think you're a stupid athlete? Gulbis: Hopefully not! But I have to lower the expectations.