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.