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The tennis world has been waiting for the rise of Ernests Gulbis for many years now and when the talented Latvian shocked Roger Federer to make the French Open semi-finals last June, it felt like the breakthrough was both overdue and imminent.
Unfortunately, he has won just nine matches since.
The wait right now is no longer about Gulbis winning a grand slam, it is simply about him winning a match for the first time this season. We’re seven weeks into the new year and the 26-year-old remains winless in 2015.
Four opening round losses in the four events he has played this year have taken his losing streak to six. But while many may be keeping count, none of it matters to Gulbis, who comes to Dubai for the first time in four years, looking to kick-start his season.
“This is not a problem. I’m making everybody very calm, distracted by my bad results and then I’m going to shoot. One good result and I’m coming back. This is a distraction, it’s the calm before the storm,” a laughing Gulbis told Sport360° ahead of his first round match against Denis Istomin on Monday.
Gulbis, currently ranked No14 in the world, has not been back to the UAE since he made his debut here in 2011.
“In 2011 I still was ranked good enough to make the main draw here. And then unfortunately nobody gave me a wildcard. Nobody wanted me here,” he joked. “It wasn’t by choice, it was by circumstances.”
The circumstances have been quite tumultuous for Gulbis over the years. A maiden grand slam quarter-final at the French Open in 2008 helped him break into the world’s top-50 as a 19-year-old. He wouldn’t make it past the third round at a major for another six years.
In between, he rose to No21 in the rankings then lost the plot, fell to as low as 159 in 2012 and found himself getting denied a wildcard at a lowly Challenger event in Germany.
It sparked a fightback that saw him add more discipline to his life, quit drinking amongst other lifestyle choices and focus on tennis in ways he never had before.
The result was a top-10 debut after his last-four showing in Paris last year. But things haven’t gone according to plan since Roland Garros.
A shoulder injury plagued the second half of his 2014 season and although he didn’t stop playing, he wasn’t able to get the results he wanted.
“The shoulder didn’t affect me in Wimbledon. In Wimbledon I lost because I played bad. But then later on it affected me during the USA swing, including the US Open,” he said.
“And then afterwards, end of last year, it was just bad. I was trying to deal with playing tournaments and healing the shoulder but it didn’t work. So I had time in the offseason to heal it more or less. Now it’s almost 100 per cent so that’s a good thing.
“The rest [is down to] matches, you win some, you lose some. It’s a matter of one tournament to win one or two rounds, the confidence will be back. I don’t see a big problem with it.”
— Ernests Gulbis (@egulbisfans) February 23, 2015
Does he feel he can do something in Dubai this week, where he is seeded No5?
“Something, definitely. What it is? I don’t know yet. The confidence level is zero,” admits Gulbis between chuckles.
“Of course when you’ve been losing a couple of tournaments in a row, confidence isn’t great.
“I’ve been in much worse situations, I’m used to it. The thing is you just need to continue to put in the work that you do when you play well.
“The year is long. You don’t take one bad swing as a sign that the whole year is going to be bad. Physically I’m feeling very good now. Game-wise there are certain things I need to work on but it’s a matter of one or two wins.”
After his ranking plummeted, Gulbis had the urge to prove – to himself and to the world – what he is capable of.
Has he found it more difficult to have that drive since his French Open heroics?
“You find drive in everything. No it’s not more difficult because my goal hasn’t changed since I started playing tennis. My goal is still to become No1,” insists Gulbis.
“And that’s what is driving me. You have to understand that tennis is not going to be the main thing you do for the rest of your life, at least definitely not for me.
“That’s why I need to accumulate all my energy in the next five years to reach this goal. I want to make sure that I reach the highest that I can in this sphere in life and then to move on to maybe something completely different. Work on things, on myself, what I haven’t been able to do when I’m on tour.
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 23, 2015
“Because you don’t have much free time to do things you’re really interested in doing. And you can’t really travel the world and see and meet people you’re interested in meeting just because of your schedule.
“If I’m doing this, I want to do it the best I can. Or you don’t do it at all.”
He spent a portion of his youth training at the Niki Pilic Academy in Germany, at the same time Novak Djokovic was there, and Gulbis recalls the Serb was incredibly professional even as a child.
While Gulbis may lack nothing in terms of talent, it was discipline that was a question mark for him and it is an area he has worked the most on.
“I think you have to have a routine and discipline but I think that you have to break this routine and discipline from time to time, just not lose yourself. And that’s what I’m trying to do,” says Gulbis.
The crucial thing is that Gulbis believes in his abilities, and while winning matches has eluded him for a little while, he feels his success or failure is more in his hands now.
“Mostly yes, it’s more in my control. If I play the top guys who play the best game they are capable of then it’s a different story. But if you play guys not in the top-10, then I believe that if I play my best game then I’m capable of beating everybody, even in the top-10. But if I’m playing bad you can lose to anybody.”
Do you consider yourself a vain person?
Look at me. I look like a guy who hasn’t slept for two months, who came out of a forest. Do I look like a guy who cares about this? I honestly care only about what’s inside, not about what’s outside.
Does it bother you when you get photographed 100 times a day?
I don’t like it. I don’t like this modern world stuff that anybody can take a phone out and can make a photo of you. That’s an intrusion of my privacy and I don’t like it at all. I can also get aggressive is somebody does this, without my asking. Because I don’t like it. But if you’re on court, you have to understand that you’re on public display and there I don’t mind it.
What did you do in your offseason?
I dedicate myself 100 per cent to tennis, that’s the offseason working part. There is another part which is offseason resting part. That was interesting. But we skip that part (laughs).
You’ve lost a couple of times to young upstart Dominic Thiem recently, is it strange losing to a younger player you know so well and train closely with?
Exactly you put it right. I’m losing, not him winning. The last two matches we played, I lost them, not exactly he won them. I always try to find answers with me not in something else.
You’d think after picking up six titles in Dubai, Roger Federer would feel comfortable commencing his title defence at the Aviation Club today. After all, he is the most successful player in the tournament’s 23-year history.
But having not played a match since his third round Australian Open defeat to Andreas Seppi last month, Federer has not competed in 30 days and explained how taking a lengthy break is a double-edged sword.
“I know it’s going to be tough because I’ve had a long break,” Federer said in Dubai yesterday ahead of his first round match against former finalist Mikhail Youzhny today.
“One of the longer ones I’ve had in years but it was necessary because I did feel I was playing a lot of tennis, the last sort of six to eight months.
“I couldn’t take the necessary rest I wanted to at the end of the season because of Davis Cup. And I wanted to make sure I stay in rhythm, keep playing matches or practice, and I think it was the right thing to do.
“But then I needed that rest I was looking for, and now I’ve got it. So now the comeback might be a bit more difficult. But I thought the same once I had a two-week vacation after the US Open last year, after Davis Cup in the semis. And I came back and won Shanghai.
“There’s a bit more uncertainty maybe going into a tournament after a long break but at the same time you come back refreshed and it might take one or two matches to really get rolling. That’s where you need an okay draw. You just need to fight your way through your first few matches and then hope you play better.
“Here in Dubai, historically, it’s always been difficult to play very well from the get-go just because conditions are fast.”
Federer, 33, went to Melbourne feeling he could really do something special at the Australian Open and perhaps capture and elusive 18th grand slam title. But his shock loss to Seppi dashed those hopes.
“It was just a bad match for me. I was not good enough, the way I played,” he said of his defeat to the Italian. “The wind was a bigger problem for me than for him. I started to play carefully and then in the end I paid the price for that.
“That night I celebrated with champagne with my team, thanking Seppi as I had got nine days extra off. That’s how I see it. You get some additional time for practice as well to be hopeful of coming back stronger.”
Federer’s stellar 2014 season saw him rise to No2 in the world, thanks to a runner-up showing at Wimbledon and a total of five trophies.
By the end of the year, he had a chance to replace Novak Djokovic as world No1 but the Serb finished 2014 with a bang, winning Beijing, Paris and the ATP World Tour Finals to deny Federer a return to the top spot.
For this season, Federer feels the No1 ranking is far from his reach. He trails Djokovic by almost 4,000 points in the standings.
“I knew that I had to win the Australian Open to get a shot at being world No1 again,” explained the Swiss. “For the moment that is totally out of the question as I am too far away from Novak. He is playing very well at the moment, so it is back to normal. Just go on playing week after week and try to get the best possible results.”
Tomas Berdych's final push in search of greater rewards
Tomas Berdych feels like he is making one last attempt to boost his game and career as he hopes to transition from being a regular top-10 player to a serious contender at majors and a challenger to the ‘Big Four’.
Berdych, who after beating Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open quarter-finals last month, is just one of two players – alongside Jo-Wilfried Tsonga – to beat every member of the ‘Big Four’ at a grand slam, hired Andy Murray’s former hitting partner Dani Vallverdu as his coach at the end of last season, concluding his six-year partnership with Tomas Krupa.
Linking up with Vallverdu has already started to pay dividends as Berdych started his 2015 season by making the final in Doha, the semis in Melbourne and the final in Rotterdam.
“I feel really good. I would have felt much better if I had at least one title under my belt, but I think there are many new things that I am trying to put into my game and I can already feel that they are working well,” said Berdych.
At 29, Berdych has spent the last four and a half years consistently in the top 10. A year after teaming up with Krupa in 2009, he made his first and only grand slam final, finishing as runner-up at Wimbledon.
He feels his decision to change his coach was both bold yet necessary. “I got to a stage where my team could not be helpful in the way I wanted them to be. I needed a change if I want to get better,” said the world No8, who faces Jeremy Chardy on Tuesday.
“It’s nice to spend four, five years among the top 10 but the years are passing by and this could be my last opportunity to change something and try to go higher and aim for bigger results. That’s why I made this decision. Bringing Dani to my team, I believe he is the right person with all the experience that he has.”
The Czech also knows he must work on his fitness if he plans on causing any real damage.
“I think it is always going to start with the fitness. I am a tall guy, quite a heavy guy and when you want to compete with guys like Andy (Murray), Novak (Djokovic), Rafa (Nadal) and Roger (Federer), you are going to have to be extremely fit and prepared for that,” he said. “So that’s the reasons why I am saying you cannot just play at that level for a set or two when you are at the slams. You have to be ready to play at that level for five sets, no matter what’s going on.”