In Ernests Gulbis’ mind, he is still a top-10 player even though the Latvian is ranked No589 in the world at the moment.
Some of his opponents still regard him in that way too, including Juan Martin del Potro, the man he faces in the Wimbledon second round on Thursday.
On Tuesday, Gulbis won his first tour-level main draw match in 13 months with a straight-sets dismissal of Victor Estrella Burgos.
He is in the Wimbledon main draw with a protected ranking after missing the second half of last season with a wrist problem. Since his return to the tour last February, he’s picked up several niggles including a calf injury during the clay season, and an abdominal tear during the grass, which means his preparation for Wimbledon was confined to just one Challenger Tour match win over world No93 Norbert Gombos in Prostejov.
The former world No10 is 2-3 head-to-head against Del Potro, but they haven’t faced off since 2014. The 29th-seeded Argentine is a step up in terms of level of play compared to Gulbis’ first-round opponent Estrella Burgos, and will pose a much greater threat – one the Latvian might not necessarily be prepared for at this point.
“I don’t think that I can be ready. The next round is going to be completely different because it’s against a big server. My opponent today he couldn’t do much damage with the serve and on the baseline also I was overpowering him,” Gulbis said after his opening round win.
“It’s not going to be the case in the next round. But I don’t know, somehow I don’t even feel that well playing from the baseline but I feel really well returning serve. And on grass courts it’s one of the keys, serving well and returning well.”
Gulbis had been practicing with Austrian doubles player, Philipp Oswald, who’s a tall guy with a good serve, in order to work on his returns.
In an ideal world, he would rather be better-prepared for a player like Del Potro but, “it doesn’t really matter, it is what it is, I’ll take it easy tomorrow, I’ll recover, because the body is also, it’s difficult. Even if it was a short match it’s still difficult,” says Gulbis.
Del Potro, who has had his fair share of injuries that kept him out of the game for large stretches of time, is continuing with his own comeback. He beat Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis in four sets in the opening round and is ready for another big battle.
“Everybody knows how good is Ernests on this surface. He has a good day, he can beat all the guys on tour,” said Del Potro. “I have to be focused doing my job, doing my serves and forehands. If he gives me a little chance to break the serve, trying to take it.”
Del Potro is still carrying a groin injury from the clay season but says there’s no risk of damaging it further, and that he’s managing the pain and keeping it under control.
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old Gulbis is aware that he has been injury-prone for several years now, and even though the Latvian is back competing, he’s picking up physical problems each time he plays. Are these issues all related?
“It is related, I hadn’t won a (main draw tour-level) match for 13 months, I didn’t play normal points in a continuous period for a year maybe. That’s difficult,” he explains.
“In my brain I’m still No10 in the world, I know I can do certain things but the body cannot do it yet. It will be able to do it maybe in two, three months, maybe in half a year, but I want it now. We’re all anxious, you know. Tennis players are anxious, that’s when the calf goes, the abdominal goes, so I really need to take it easy.
READ: Gulbis talks meaning of tennis, marriage and more
Del Potro jokes about always landing in Djokovic’s draw section
Janko Tipsarevic defends injured players who play Slams for the paycheck
“And actually today (in my first round) I tried to be as relaxed as possible, and take it as easy as possible. It was the first round of a Grand Slam, you cannot take it easy, but still I was relaxed, going for relaxed shots, and I was making it and sometimes it works in your favour.
“But still I’m not ready, I’ll be ready hopefully for the US Open I would say, that’s my goal. After this I’m going straight on clay, I’m going to play as many matches as possible, then go to hard courts, play every tournament, every week, just to get 30 matches before the US Open,
“Not 30,” he laughs, correcting himself. “That’s too much.”
Last month, Gulbis suffered a big drop in the rankings after exiting the French Open from the first round, failing to defend the fourth round points he had picked up the year before.
Outside the top-500 at the moment, he says he tries to avoid looking at the rankings, but it’s not always easy.
“I didn’t check my ranking because really it gets me a little bit depressed when I see this number, it’s a disaster,” is how he puts it while chuckling.
“But of course there are obvious reasons so I don’t get too much into it.
“Right now I know that already I’m going to check how many points I need to get back to top-100. It’s some kind of – I remember the feeling when it was 2013, 2014, you’re really looking forward, it’s like a game for you.
“This ranking thing it’s a game, it’s adrenaline, you start to enjoy it and as soon as you win matches, you see your ranking points come up, you’re moving, it gives you a lot of adrenaline. But I didn’t look right now.”
Way up in the charts, three different men have the opportunity to leave Wimbledon as the world No1 – current No1 Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Stan Wawrinka also had a shot had he not lost in the first round on Monday.
Is Gulbis keeping an eye on that battle at the top?
“I can’t say that I pay too much attention to this No1 thing, I would pay attention if I would have a chance,” he said laughing.
“Right now, let them fight it through, I’ll have my time, I really think so.
“I think I have another five, six years of a good, decent career. I’ll try to use my chances as much as I can and enjoy it and stay relaxed as much as I can and not put too much pressure on myself.”