Gulbis, ready for French Open semi, is learning how good he can truly be
PARIS -- The main interview room at the French Open isn't the biggest one on tour. That award goes to -- not shockingly -- the U.S. Open. But it's not a cozy affair either. The Australian Open gets that nod. Nor is it the most staid or theatrical. That's all you, Wimbledon.
The best way to describe the main interview room at Roland Garros is that it's functional. It's brightly lit. Journalists are never wont for a seat, but it never feels too big. The large glass window at the back of the room conceals the small group of translators and transcriptionists, who mark down every word of every exchange in multiple languages. [Memo to the other three majors: The multi-lingual translation at the French Open is top notch. Take note]. A videographer stands at the back of the room taping your every word, and a few hours later a clip of your press conference ends up on YouTube.
But not everyone gets a chance to sit behind that elevated dais and patiently answer questions from a roomful of writers. If the powers that be find you unworthy -- read: the press haven't expressed a massive interest -- you get stuck in the secondary rooms. The secondary interview rooms are tiny. The ceilings are low and they are dimly lit. There is no transcription and, heck, you're lucky if there's air conditioning. After upsetting Grigor Dimitrov in the first round, Ivo Karlovic was put in Interview Room Four. Karlovic had to fold himself into a small upholstered chair and the whole scene looked like something out of a Lewis Carroll book.
Ernests Gulbis found himself in Interview Room 3 last week. He had just come off winning the tournament in Nice, his second title of the season, and he beat Lukasz Kubot in the first round. Based on the ATP's Race to London rankings, he's the ninth-best player of 2014. A small handful of reporters and photographers were there to get his thoughts on ... well, everything really, and he obliged. The interview turned to broader questions about motivation and Gulbis brought up a quote from Marvin Hagler.
"It's hard to get up at 6 a.m. when you're wearing silk pajamas."
And there it was. That quote sums up exactly where Gulbis has been and where he is now. He was The Boy in the Silk Pajamas -- the talented rich kid who couldn't be bothered to roll out of bed in the morning.
"How can I push myself to practice when I had so many different opportunities?" he said. "I had my PlayStation. I had my TV. It was just a part of my character. I was never about the hard work at that age."
Making the French Open quarterfinals in 2008 as an 18-year-old didn't exactly help the cause. The success reinforced the naive notion that talent alone would be enough for success. He continued his scattershot approach to training (or not training, as it were) and didn't fear the consequences. This is a guy who used to skip out on practice because, at best, he was hungover.
"I missed a practice once with [current coach] Gunther [Bresnik] because I [had] a long night. I called him at seven in the morning, and I said, 'Gun, I cannot come to practice.' He understood it. It was once. The first time when Hernan Gumy came to Latvia to prepare for Davis Cup -- Eight days of preparation, [and] I missed five days of practice. It was in Latvia...," Gulbis said, with a glint in his eye and a shrug of the shoulders.
There are just too many distractions back home for Gulbis, who says he now enjoys practicing in Vienna with Bresnik and Dominic Thiem. He made the move intentionally to strip away his creature comforts so he could focus on tennis.
"For me it's really important for my happiness just to be successful on the tennis court," he said. "Forget about the money. Forget about fame. It's just about my inner comfort. That's it."
Talent can be a burden, Gulbis will tell you. That might sound like a humblebrag, but he really doesn't mean it that way. School came easy, friends came easy, and so did tennis.
"I thought I'm just gonna grind in life like this, easy without any effort, and be successful. And then... And then... S--- happened."
A year and a half ago he was slogging away on the Challenger circuit -- the ATP's minor leagues -- and losing. His ranking dropped outside the top 100. He won a combined 35 matches from 2011 through 2012 (he's already won 32 matches this year). He couldn't even get into the Australian Open. He could barely win matches and his mom told him to quit tennis and come on home. But he didn't. With so many other options he chose to rededicate himself to tennis. Why? Because tennis chose him.
"I was five years old when parents brought me to tennis," Gulbis said. "I was just an active kid. I liked every kind of sport. Tennis basically chose me because my father had a friend who was a tennis coach. [...] I'm pretty sure that I would be good with anything with a ball. I think I would be pretty good basketball player, pretty good football player because I like [the] ball. I have a good feeling for it. Just happened to be tennis.
"For a while I was a little bit pissed off about it because I wish I could play on a team, because in my understanding, it's much easier. In my understanding, tennis is one of the toughest sports. You cannot compare to nothing. You're all alone there. If you have a bad day, that's it. You're done. If you have bad day in football, you give a pass. You score a goal. You won.
"It's tough, but it has its bonuses. I think if you think the right thoughts and understand what you're doing, then it builds up your character much more than it would in any other sport. It's up and down. Now I'm really happy that it is tennis. I need to prove to myself that I can be the best that I can be in tennis, and then I'm going to have a clear and easy mind when I'm 35 years old sitting on a beach with a [drink]."
After winning his third round match to set up a fourth round encounter against Roger Federer, Gulbis was finally summoned to the main interview room. With a rumpled Adidas hoodie, shaggy hair and beard, he looked like an interloper given the room is home base for the polished likes of Federer, Djokovic, and Sharapova.
"First time in like seven years I have been in this room," he said, laughing, "as a participant, not a spectator."
Gulbis went on to beat Federer in five sets in the fourth round. He followed that up with a straight-set shellacking of No. 6 Tomas Berdych to make his first Slam semifinal. The Legend of Ernie began to grow and so did the number of reporters in the room asking him questions he had answered before. Fans stood on their tip-toes to peer over the tall hedge outside the room to see who was holding court. Reporters had to speak loudly into the microphone to drown out the fans' chants of "GUL-BIS! GUL-BIS! GUL-BIS!"
Gulbis doesn't do it for the chants. And he certainly doesn't do it for the money. He does it because it's his last chance. He simply wasn't ready to leave tennis behind without finding out good he could really be.
"Basically I'm jumping in the last train," Gulbis said. "I'm 25, so this was my last opportunity to be really successful, I think, and I think I have good seven, eight more years to play in the top level."