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Moving from the WTA to the ATP and from defense to offense, we respond to a pre-Roland Garros request for a profile on the “little Safin,” Ernests Gulbis.  After a hideous 2009 campaign, this longtime underachiever finally began chipping into the vast iceberg of his talent during the spring of 2010, when he scored a possibly career-redefining victory over Federer en route to the Rome semifinals.  The scion of an affluent Latvian family, Gulbis was named after American author Ernest Hemingway, who entitled one of his minor novels To Have and Have Not.  We find the phrase especially apt to characterize this highly individual player, nearly as famous for quips and quirks as for power and precision.  Below are outlined five key traits that Ernests has, in addition to five that he has not.

What he has:

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1)       serve (+second serve):  Like most of the ATP’s elite servers, Gulbis has buttressed his rhythmic motion upon a reliable ball toss that allows him to target all four corners of the service box with equal ease.  Simple and fluid, his delivery incorporates none of the slight pauses with which erratic servers struggle.  Moreover, the Latvian’s second serve constitutes a far more formidable weapon than a standard second ball, for he strikes it aggressively without fear of double faults; an indifferent serving percentage thus doesn’t inevitably spell defeat as it does for many of his rivals.  Although Gulbis does concede the occasional double, he rarely commits these errors in clusters or at crucial moments.  His serve instead provides the ideal foundation for his almost exclusively offensive style, drawing a puny midcourt reply that he can confidently assault.

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2)      forehand:  One of the most explosive groundstroke in the ATP, this shot electrifies audiences while pulverizing opponents who are frozen by its majestic pace.  Among the remarkable features of the Latvian’s high-risk style is the effortlessness that he displays when swatting prodigious winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court.  The forehand represents the most stunning example of his shotmaking talents, for Gulbis can create stunning crosscourt angles while also pinpointing his opponent’s backhand corner with down-the-line blows.  When especially confident, he doesn’t miss this shot for games at a time, despite the risks associated with its low net clearance and audacious placement. 

3)      groundstroke symmetry:  Much to the chagrin of forehand-favoring veterans such as Roddick or Verdasco, this trait has become the hallmark of those players who have recently blossomed in the ATP (Berdych, Soderling, Del Potro, Cilic).  Although Gulbis’ backhand doesn’t equal his forehand in sheer weight or shotmaking capacity, his two-handed stroke isn’t an Achilles heel that his opponents can regularly target.  When he possesses the time to set his feet and lean into this shot (see below), the backhand crackles through the court with authority, complicating the tactical decisions of his adversaries.  During the Latvian’s 2009 slump, to be sure, the two-hander misfired too frequently, but his 2010 campaign has witnessed steady improvements in his control over the shot and more patience in its deployment. 

4)      drop shot:  A well-crafted complement to his percussive groundstrokes, this often unnoticed weapon in the Latvian’s arsenal reveals his ability to interweave deft finesse with bone-crushing power.  When Gulbis thrusts his opponents several feet behind the baseline, even moderately respectable execution would suffice to win a point.  Yet this bold shotmaker feathers his drop shots with breathtaking precision, drawing praise from such a demanding connoisseur of tennis technique as John McEnroe.  (As one might expect, he missed the next attempt dismally after McEnroe had effusively lauded it.)  Whereas Murray, Djokovic, and other renowned players often deploy the dropper only when nervous or desperate, its appearance in a Gulbis match indicates the Latvian’s confidence.  These exquisitely measured  shots will comprise a major key to his success on all surfaces, furthermore, for they prove especially effective on clay and grass.

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5)      rising to the occasion:  After defeating Djokovic in the 2009 Brisbane event, a rare triumph in that arid year, Gulbis commented that his greatest wins had accompanied  a series of “beautiful losses.”  This witty comment contains considerable truth, for he has twice won sets from Nadal (once during the Spaniard’s 2008 championship run at Wimbledon) and nearly held a two-set lead against Roddick at the US Open.  Early in 2010, he dragged Federer deep into a third set in Doha before scoring the Rome upset that may finally have signaled his breakthrough.  Often uninspired against ATP journeymen, Gulbis clearly relishes the experience of dueling with marquee opponents on the sport’s grandest stages—a characteristic that bodes extremely well for his future success at majors.  If the Latvian can avoid a lethargic early-round exit, his momentum will only accelerate into the second week.

What he has not:

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1)      return:  Not unlike his fellow shotmaker Jo-WIlfried Tsonga, Gulbis often will drift through game after game without connecting with more than a handful of cleanly struck returns.  Despite his superb shotmaking talents, swift reflexes and crisp eye-hand coordination do not constitute two of his strengths.  Occasionally annihilating a benign second serve, he nevertheless fails to convert too many of his second-ball opportunities.  Long struggling to discern the balance that divides aggression from recklessness throughout his game, the Latvian’s return of serve represents the arena in which this balance remains most fragile.  This stroke plays a crucial role on grass and therefore may undermine his chances at Wimbledon until he harnesses it.

2)      variety / versatility:  With the exception of his elegant drop shot, Gulbis essentially relies upon crushing as many balls as possible.  While these flat, penetrating groundstrokes wreak havoc, his game might become even more lethal if he could integrate a few variations such as a more topspin-heavy forehand or a sturdier set of conventional volleys to complement his drop shot.  At the moment, his opponents know exactly what to expect from him, which simplifies strategy for top-drawer competitors like Nadal or Murray.  The raw, unvarnished power that Gulbis currently displays will suffocate most garden-variety foes, but one senses that he might need a bit more texture and complexity in order to consistently conquer the ATP elite.

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3)      movement / footwork:  Not uncommon in players buttressed upon power, the Latvian’s indifferent movement hampers him against to an effective counterpuncher who can situate the ball in awkward positions.  When thrust onto defense, he struggles to transition points back into offense, as Murray illustrated during his two straight-sets Slam wins over Gulbis last year.  Awkward at reversing direction, he can be wrong-footed with relative ease and is notably vulnerable to sharply angled cross-court shots as well as with low, biting slices. Exacerbating this flaw is his occasionally lazy footwork, which forces him to rely upon his arm to generate pace more than is advisable, or even healthy.  If opponents can consistently take time away from Gulbis, they will expose his average technique more often than his outstanding ball-striking.

4)      shot selection:  Intelligent and articulate off the court, the Latvian can be a shade or two less than intelligent on the court.  Supremely confident in his abilities, he often pulls the trigger too soon in rallies and donates needless unforced errors to his opponent’s cause.  When a trifle less than his best, he sometimes refuses to recognize and respond to the situation, instead blindly hitting himself out of the match in an effort to hit his way into it.  After initiating a partnership with Safin’s former guru Hernan Gumy, however, Gulbis has somewhat curbed this youthful impetuosity, which springs in part from his tactical limitations.  When stretched off the court or pinned behind the baseline, his best option perhaps does constitute an all-or-nothing, extremely low-percentage gambit over the high part of the net.  Thus, the Latvian’s questionable shot selection on defense might evaporate if he addresses the previous two points, although his dubious shot selection on offense still requires attention.

5)      focus / motivation:  Repeatedly compared with the charmingly wayward Safin, Gulbis acquainted himself with a Stockholm jail during the ATP tournament there in 2009.  (“I’m never going back to that country,” said the Latvian.)  Throughout most of last year, his dismal results mirrored an apparent slump in his enthusiasm for the game, which sometimes seemed more of a diversion than a profession to him until his recent surge.  The effortlessness that characterizes his game can slide into slovenliness when his mind drifts from a sport that demands intense concentration.  Mentally fortifying him after bitter losses, the Latvian’s insouciance also separates him from relentless competitors such as Nadal, who will accept nothing less than victory.  Yet Gulbis’ more effortful, workmanlike triumphs in recent months may have demonstrated a recognition that the importance of being earnest trumps the importance of being Ernests.

***

Although one must peer into the future with a blurry lens on this occasion, it’s easy to imagine the charismatic Latvian claiming multiple Masters Series crowns, especially on fast surfaces.  Perhaps better suited for a best-of-three format than a best-of-five challenge, he may not prove able to rein in his mighty weapons for an entire fortnight at a major, but he’ll find himself in contention for those prestigious crowns if his relationship with Gumy continues to flourish.  Even if Gulbis doesn’t claim a Slam or embed himself within the top 10 (as he should considering his potential), he’ll often ambush players in both of those categories while providing exhilarating entertainment for spectators who share his affinity for drama and risk.  The question remains tantalizingly open, though, as to whether he can transform what he has not into what he has.

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