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.
“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.”
Day two at Wimbledon was much crazier than day one.
Between the injury retirements and Bernard Tomic’s interesting revelations during his press conference, there was plenty to cover and hardly enough time to dissect it all properly.
He said he was bored, he admitted to gamesmanship, he confessed he didn’t have enough respect for the sport, added that he felt “super old”, then said winning trophies doesn’t satisfy him anymore. That’s Tomic’s post-defeat press conference on Tuesday in a nutshell.
The never-too-far-from-controversy Aussie beat Mischa Zverev five days ago in Eastbourne then lost tamely to the German at Wimbledon in the first round. Tomic looked despondent during the match and later listed the reasons mentioned above.
The thing with Tomic is, he gets you to appreciate his refreshing honesty, while simultaneously infuriating you, yet somehow succeeds in getting you to – for a moment – empathise with him. He’s a confusing character who instills confusing emotions in you.
He’s obviously demotivated, but amidst the madness that was his press conference, he touched upon the fact that he is only 24 but already feels ancient in the sport. His compatriot Thanasi Kokkinakis later attested to that, saying “I feel like Bernie has been playing Wimbledon since he was about 11”.
Tomic is not the first or last tennis player to be thrust onto the big stage from a young age. But not everyone is equipped to deal with that in the right way, and he clearly has struggled with it.
This is a guy who gained direct entry into the Australian Open junior tournament when he was just 14 years old and won the title there the following year at 15. He won a second junior Slam at 16 then burst onto the men’s circuit by reaching the 2011 Wimbledon quarter-finals as an 18-year-old.
Tomic had made his professional debut at 15, which means at 24, he’s been on tour for nine years. He described himself as “super talented” and he’s not wrong but that “super talent” has only got him to No17 in the world and earned him three ATP titles. Surely he could have done more by now.
It makes you wonder how his career has been managed from such a young age and whether the opportunities that come with playing for Australia, which gives you the chance to get wildcards for the Slams very early in your journey, are more harmful than beneficial for someone like Tomic.
The easy explanation is that Tomic’s heart is simply not in it. But if he hasn’t quit yet, while being this demotivated, then something must still be tying him to the sport.
He claims he wants to play for 10 more years in order to earn enough money so he would never have to work again after that. So we know that at least money can motivate him.
The problem is, if he’s feeling burnt out, that’s not an easy thing to fix.
Tomic has played 322 tour-level matches. If you compare him to another 24-year-old like Jack Sock for example, you’ll see that Tomic has played 93 more tour-level matches than the American.
There are grounds for Tomic to feel this way but it’s also alarming how it seems no one around him is addressing this (Aussie media have nicknamed him ‘Tomic the Tank Engine’). If you can’t get pumped up for a tournament like Wimbledon, when you’re a natural on grass, then there is definitely something wrong.
Time will tell if Tomic will be able to figure out what it really is and how he can fix it.
Moving to the far opposite side of the motivation spectrum, we enter Roger Federer’s press conference, where the 35-year-old Swiss was asked about how it felt when he was world No1 and whether it was a sweeter feeling occupying that spot, or chasing it.
“It feels better to be No1 than No5. I mean, I’m happy right now in the situation I find myself in. I’m healthy. I’m happy. I’m back at Wimbledon. I just won my first round,” said the 18-time Grand Slam champion.
“The times when I was world No1, it felt great. It’s sort of achieving the impossible, showing up when everybody feels you’re the favourite, everybody believes that you should win or have to win. I don’t know, I kind of enjoyed that part of playing.
“But then again, it’s secondary to the love for the game I have, how much I love winning. Rankings get shoved a little bit aside for me at this stage of my life.”
Elsewhere Grigor Dimitrov spoke about the day he spent with the Beckhams, giving Romeo Beckham a tennis lesson.
“Romeo, he’s a very talented kid. I think he hasn’t played tennis for that long, but he sure showed I think a lot of potential,” said the Bulgarian after his first round win on Tuesday.
“Yeah, I just wanted to do something nice for him. He came to quite a few of my matches I think on the days. Yeah, glad to spend also some time with Victoria and get to know the family from close.”
1 – of nine Australians who started Wimbledon is still standing – Arina Rodionova. The rest all lost in their first rounds
7 – match points Juan Martin del Potro needed to close out his match against Thanasi Kokkinakis
8 – first-round retirements by players at Wimbledon across both men’s and women’s singles draws.
13 – months since Ernests Gulbis had last won a tour-level main draw match
85 – Wimbledon match wins for Federer after his victory over Alexandr Dolgopolov via retirement on Tuesday.
Just done Rafa Nadal's shopping for him on the self service tills on the tesco express in Wimbledon village. Surreal. pic.twitter.com/8762fxkpOc— Nick Roberts (@followthatnick) July 4, 2017
Ons Jabeur described Svetlana Kuznetsova as “the best physically” on tour after the Tunisian Wimbledon debutante made a first round exit at the All England Club on Tuesday.
Jabeur, who is the first Arab woman since 2005 to feature in the Wimbledon main draw, lost 6-3, 6-2 to the seventh-seeded Kuznetsova in a 65-minute contest on Court No. 2.
The 22-year-old is renowned for her deft touch, clever drop shots and unorthodox game, but Kuznetsova had an answer for Jabeur’s every trick. After waiting all day for the three previous matches to be completed on that court, the pair put on an entertaining show just in time to beat the darkness.
“Honestly I wanted to play much better than today. The draw is not so good, it’s not easy to play No7 in the world but that’s tennis and I have to accept this. We played a little bit late so it was kind of tough,” Jabeur told Sport360.
“I was trying to be there, to be more stable on the court because I felt a little bit like not getting my feet down and stuff. I didn’t play as good as my qualifying matches but it’s a different player, different conditions.
“I tried my best, I tried to mix, to slice, to drop shot. She was really fast, I was not expecting this, either the reaction was good or she runs really fast. I think she’s the best physically in the circuit. Her reaction is really fast.”
Jabeur is on the brink of breaking the top-100 for the first time and is enjoying a year of breakthroughs, having reached the third round at Roland Garros a few weeks ago to become the first-ever Arab woman to make that stage at a Grand Slam.
Her game, theoretically, should be great for grass and although she hasn’t played much on the surface, she is looking forward to achieving strong results on it in the future.
“I’m happy to be here, to have played my first Wimbledon draw,” said Jabeur.
“Grass is a tricky surface but with my game, everyone tells me ‘oh grass, it’s your surface, you should play easy here, with your eyes closed’. I like to play on grass, maybe because I like football, putting on the grass shoes I feel like a football player, which is something I like so much.
“So moving on grass is something special for me, except it’s a bit slippery sometimes. I enjoy grass a lot and honestly I’m looking forward to playing next year and the year after and I hope I’m going to have very good results on grass.”
Jabeur slipped and fell early in the second set against Kuznetsova and admits her hip is a little sore. She’s hoping it’s not something serious and is looking to get her body ready for the US hard-court season.
Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam champion and three-time Wimbledon quarter-finalist (2003, 2005, 2007), was impressed by Jabeur’s talent.
“I felt like she had nothing to lose. I saw, she was playing so free. Her hand was going and she made some amazing shots,” said Kuznetsova, who was just the third top-10 player Jabeur had ever faced.
“But I felt like, and I know that I’m more consistent and I got to be there all the time, I held my serve, I didn’t do any double faults, I maintained a high percentage of the first serve. I was struggling on return, I wasn’t doing returns so well and second set I started just more calm and it worked for me better.”
Asked about Jabeur’s potential and whether she sees her as a future top-50 player, Kuznetsova said: “It’s a lot of work, if she’s willing to do it. But she’s got to improve more, definitely she has a chance. It depends on the draws and some other things. It’s a lot of work but if she’s willing to do it, then why not? I think she has talent, but it’s a lot of work.”