Ernests Gulbis, en route to the 2014 Roland Garros semi-finals, memorably admitted
he was “jumping on the last train” of his career. Today, after reaching
the third round at The Championships, the Latvian is reconsidering his words.
“I was wrong. Maybe now is the
last chance train. Maybe it’s going to be another last chance in five years.
Gulbis, who once declared he’d like to be World No. 1, a dream held by many
professionals, but achieved by only 26
players since 1973 in the history of the Emirates ATP Rankings, has had
his fair share of injuries in recent years. Having overcome shoulder, right
wrist and calf problems over the past couple of seasons, the former World No.
10 has struggled for not only consistency, but also for consecutive weeks on
the road. Two years ago, he won 11 tour-level matches and in 2016 the Latvian
tasted victory just seven times. Coming to the All England Club, Wimbledon, this week, his
tally for the year was zero and he plays as the No. 589.
In beating Victor Estrella Burgos in the Wimbledon first round on Tuesday, Gulbis secured his first tour-level win since June 2016 by reaching the Roland Garros fourth round (l. to Goffin). But Thursday’s second-round win over No. 29 seed Juan Martin del Potro, who has undergone three wrist surgeries, was at a different level.
Gulbis maintained his poise and concentration over two hours and 54 minutes to oust the Argentine, a former Wimbledon semi-finalist and 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist at the All England Club, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6(3).
“I didn’t have my best day on court, and he played really well. He served so strong all the time. I couldn’t break his serve during three sets. I think he’s a very dangerous opponent to play on grass, and he did much better than me today,” del Potro said.
Gulbis dropped only 11 points on first serve and struck 25 aces, among 44 winners. Respectfully, as del Potro walked off, Gulbis bowed to the No. 3 Court crowd in celebration of reaching the third round.
“It’s very satisfying… I played well in my first-round match. This match I played really, really great tennis. I served well, I returned well. In my opinion, del Potro is one of the best players. For sure he has one of the best forehands. He’s really tough to beat,” Gulbis said. “I was happy that in the third set, even though I got a little tight and he played well when he broke me back in the third set, I still managed to win in the tie-break.”
The 28 year old is the lowest-ranked player in the third round of a Grand Slam championship since No. 1,093 and 1996 champion Richard Krajicek at 2002 Wimbledon. (German Nicolas Kiefer reached the 2007 Wimbledon third round as an unranked player.) But Gulbis said his play didn’t surprise him.
“I was very relaxed. [The win] didn’t really surprise me because I’m just in a relaxed state of mind right now… I’ve been hitting the ball well already for more than a month. I was hitting the ball well in Paris, but it was a tough first round,” Gulbis said of his opening loss to Marin Cilic at Roland Garros. “My shots are really clean right now. I feel very confident on both sides. As soon as I’m relaxed, I can produce this kind of tennis.”
Asked where this level of tennis has been of late, Gulbis had to laugh. “Practice court. I just didn’t participate in tournaments. I was practising a lot,” he said in between laughs.
Tough challenges keep coming for Gulbis. Next up on Saturday, he faces second seed and three-time former champion Novak Djokovic, who is returning to peak form at Wimbledon, in their first match since August 2015 at the Coupe Rogers quarter-finals. Their show court clash will be their first grass-court meeting.
“Let’s see. I don’t know. I came here without any expectations. I didn’t
know if I was going to win a set here honestly. Now I’ve won six sets in a row.
First round was really comfortable. This match I was playing really good,”
Earlier in the day, No. 15 seed Gael Monfils, who has confessed he has struggled to move on lush grass, advanced to the third round for the sixth time by knocking out local Kyle Edmund 7-6(1), 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and 12 minutes. He will next play fellow Frenchman Adrian Mannarino, who wore down Japan’s Yuichi Sugita 6-1, 5-7, 4-6, 7-6(2), 6-2 in three hours and 33 minutes.
“I guess I’m just playing a bit better. But maybe I have a better understanding about myself, how to move a little bit,” Monfils said. “I think I played good, solid… I think I was very fast with my service games, putting lot of pressure on him, hitting a pretty heavy ball.”