Paris run fuels Gulbis’ hunger for No1 spot

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Aiming high: By reaching the semi finals at Roland Garros, Ernests Gulbis surpassed his best Grand Slam showing to date.

The transformation of Ernests Gulbis from party boy to Grand Slam contender has been one of the most interesting stories developing these two weeks in Paris and the Latvian now declares he is officially “addicted to success”. 

Gulbis, who will make his top-10 debut when the new rankings come out on Monday, was unable to bring his A-game against Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals yesterday as he admits he is not used to playing against top players on the major stage.

But the 25-year-old Latvian believes he is on his way to the top and that this year’s Roland Garros was a great stepping stone.

“I’m not going to celebrate,” said Gulbis, adding that the maximum he would do is maybe enjoy a cigar with his coach. 

“It’s not enough. I need to reach more now. Now I’m addicted to success.

“Again, I felt so close to success, and I won’t say that I let it slip these two weeks, because it’s great to play a semi-final.  

“I need to make this extra step now. I’m extra motivated.”

Asked where he believes he is heading, Gulbis said: “All the way, to No1.”

Despite the disappointment of losing in four sets to Djokovic, Gulbis says he can still take some positives from the match.

“I’m not used to playing these kind of big matches. It’s just normal that I felt extra nervous and extra tense,” said Gulbis, who was playing the first Grand Slam semi-final of his career.

“I can take one positive out of the match – that I could still win a third set feeling that nervous and that tired, and I saw that he was 
feeling the same. So it’s not only me. 

Gulbis, who is the first Latvian man or woman to make the semi-finals of a major, was philosophical in describing his overall feelings about his two weeks in Paris.

“I enjoyed it. Can I say that it was only positive emotions? No,” said the No18 seed.  

“It was a lot of tension, a lot of nerves for me. As soon as I won a match, I felt really good for the next hour, but then I already started thinking about the next match and the tension didn’t let go. 

“My overall experience is that I understood it much more than I did the previous time I was in second week of a Grand Slam (in Roland Garros in 2008).  That time I reached a quarter-final and I had no idea what was happening.    

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Sport360° view: Halep on the rise to the very top

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Making waves: Simona Halep has had a superb 12 months on the WTA Tour.

Simona Halep’s rapid rise to the WTA’s top-five may be difficult to grasp for some.

One summer, the Romanian is barely in the top-60 and the next she is ranked No4 in the world – No3 come Monday – and became the highest seed left in the Roland Garros draw when we were just halfway into the third round. 

Last year, she went 6-0 in tour-level finals, to capture six titles –  only second to Serena Williams’ trophy tally.

But before she captured her first title in Nurnberg last June, she had a stellar run in Rome, where Halep – then ranked 64 – blasted her way into the semis as a qualifier. 

She won six matches in a row and took out the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Jelena Jankovic before she lost in straights to Williams.

The luck of the draw saw her get Spanish clay specialist Carla Suarez Navarro in the opening round at Roland Garros last year, and Halep lost in a close three sets but she says that run in Rome, particularly the win over Radwanska, gave her the belief she needed to move forward.

Her six titles were on three different surfaces – clay, grass and hard – and she beat people like Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki in New Haven, Ana Ivanovic in Sofia and Samantha Stosur in Moscow.

But the sceptics were not satisfied.

She was stopped in the Wimbledon second round by Li Na (in three sets) and Flavia Pennetta in the fourth round at the US Open and they were treating her like another Wozniacki, someone who won a lot in smaller events but didn’t do much in the bigger ones.

Halep reached her first major quarter-final in Australia earlier this season but fell flat against eventual runner-up Dominika Cibulkova – raising more doubts about her Grand Slam potential.

She silenced some critics by winning the Premier-level title in Doha in February, but coming into the French, many needed to see Halep go deep in the draw to validate her No4 seeding.

And that’s exactly what the 22-year-old has done. She stormed into the finals without dropping a set taking out all sorts of opponents en route. 

The beauty of Halep’s rise is that her style is not like other top players who have dominated the majors recently – the power-hitters like Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka or even Li Na.

Halep’s game is a much smarter and more physical version of Radwanska’s and she has the right team around her.

She’s managed by ex-Roland Garros champion Virginia Ruzici, is coached by Wim Fissette – who previously coached Kim Clijsters – and has the likes of Ilie Nastase and Ion Tiriac also supporting her. 

The variety in her game and her remarkable shot selection is a much-needed presence in the WTA and it’s great to see a former French Open junior champion like her make it to the finals of the ladies’ tournament six years later.

People have been obsessing over the breast reduction surgery she had five years ago but all they need to do to get to understand why Halep is No4 in the world is to watch her play a tennis match.

They’ll get to see every tennis shot known to man and leave with a much higher appreciation of the women’s game. 

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French Open diary: Gulbis and Djokovic prove sportsmanship is no flight of fancy

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Once again, sportsmanship was at the forefront on court yesterday as both Novak Djokovic and Ernests Gulbis gave each other points during their semi-final.

Djokovic, who trained as a youngster at the same academy as Gulbis in Munich, actually over-ruled the umpire, who had stepped out of his chair to check a mark for a Gulbis ace and called the ball out.

But the world No2 checked the mark himself and handed the point to his opponent, despite it being a set point for Djokovic and Gulbis’ shot was an ace to saved it.

“I made a joke after that about Niki (Pilic), our coach in Germany," said Gulbis. "He used to teach us (me and Djokovic) how you should see the marks. He used to draw the line around the ball.

“I made a joke about it, but I really appreciated it. It was a really nice gesture.”

Gulbis is often misunderstood by fans and pundits, but he insists he is a farier player than he is given credit for.

“I’m all about fair game,” added the 25-year-old. “I don’t like to get free points and I don’t like to win matches by walkover. Either way, I would do the same thing (and give my opponent the point).”

And indeed he did as later in the match Gulbis checked a mark and gave a point to Djokovic. “There was no question about it,” the Latvian explained.

Murray's fantasy football team doesn't sit well with Melzer

Andy Murray is a big fantasy football fan and he often brags about how well he’s doing during the football season.

So the Scot was asked to play football manager the other day and name his ideal football team of tennis players. Of course he put himself as centre forward, chose Rafael Nadal in midfield, and he put Michael Llodra as goalie, saying the Frenchman’s quick reflexes from all his years playing doubles would make him a trusted custodian.

A controversial choice was him putting Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in right back even though everyone sees the French beast as a striker. Tsonga had previously told me that if he were a footballer, he’d be Didier Drogba. But hey, if Murray sees him as a Dani Alves, we won’t argue.

There was backlash though as Austrian veteran Jurgen Melzer tweeted Murray after he saw the Brit’s choices, saying: “So @andy_murray I am not good enough to make your soccer team. And no @picomonaco ?? That hurts more than my UsOpen loss 09!!”

To which Murray responded by saying they would definitely make the bench.

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