Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - A Gentler Marat
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A Gentler Marat 05/23/2010 - 1:59 PM

Eg You had a feeling, from the moment that the players’ names were announced and they walked onto a blindingly bright and hot Court Suzanne Lenglen, that this was going to be a tough afternoon for Ernests Gulbis. He may have been the most talked-about young player of the season, a guy with a win over Roger Federer, a close loss to Rafael Nadal, and a 22-9 record, a guy who seemed to be turning a career corner at age 21, but he was also playing a home favorite, Julien Benneteau, in front of a packed audience eager to make a difference. Benneteau, without a hair or a thread out of place, like a tennis player dreamed up in 1950s Hollywood, walked out to a startlingly strong ovation. He waved to the crowd suavely. Gulbis, in comparatively garish orange shoes and shirt, under a mop of curly hair, got a politely enthusiastic reaction. He brought his hand up over his head for a half-hearted second and then got it back down as quickly as he could. It felt like an uphill battle already.

And it was, right from the opening points, when a razor-sharp Benneteau won the first two games with a small flurry of winners. The battle, only sporadically joined by Gulbis, ended a set later, when, serving at 6-4, 2-1, 30-15, Benneteau snapped a towering kick wide into the ad court that sent Gulbis skidding out of control over the dry clay in the far corner. He came up gingerly holding his right hamstring (later he said he heard "two cracks"). It never felt right again, and Gulbis, after dropping the second set in a hurry, retired after being broken to start the third.

There’s only so much you can gather from a match where the guy you’re writing about hurts himself in the second and retires in the third. But we did get a good set and a half of Gulbis, and it was the first time I’d seen him up close since Wimbledon last year, when he fell to a humiliating low against Andy Murray in the second round. What is the state of Ernests in his turnaround phase? Let me build it snapshot by snapshot from today.

—Gulbis appears to be wiry bordering on skinny on TV, and while he’s not exactly thick, like most pros he’s taller and more physically imposing in person, as if he just grew two inches since last week.

—Also more imposing in person is his serve, both the flat and the kick. He couldn’t get it working for him today, but it’s a special shot and evidence of a special athleticism. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone toss the ball so far back over his head and still be able to hit a bomb flat serve down the T with it. He really does toss the ball to the same spot and hit anything from there, even a nasty kick into the ad court that never fails to surprise his opponents.

—Gulbis’ forehand is busier than anyone would teach it. He starts by bringing the racquet just below his right cheek, and then drops it back down and begins his swing from there. He gets a lot of racquet speed doing it this way (though he almost certainly could get that same speed with a more conventional stroke), but it can make it hard for him to get the racquet around fast enough to take a sitter at the top of its bounce. I thought that Benneteau might have success driving the ball hard into this stroke and forcing Gulbis to speed up, but the times when he tried it, Ernests had the answer. Like Roger Federer, Gulbis gets around the ball with freakish haste.

—On the third point, Benneteau catches up to a drop shot and flicks a forehand lob over Gulbis’ head for a winner. Gulbis looks back at his coach, Hernan Gumy, nods, and raises his eyebrows, as if to say, “Hmm, not bad.”

—Gulbis sails a couple of forehands over the baseline in the second game. It’s his footwork. It’s hard to tell whether it’s laziness or indecisiveness, but he doesn’t get his feet around the ball in time and ends up rushing the swing. Other times, pushed wide, he overruns the ball. After the match, Gulbis says he was “emotionally sleepy” at the start, but he doesn’t take advantage of a lot of hanging mid-court shots.

—After an ace to finish a game, Gulbis’ first reaction is to look straight down and walk to the sideline. Then it comes to him: “Oh yeah, the fist-pump, do the fist-pump.” He throws one in and looks at Gumy.

—The match turns with Gulbis up 3-2 in the first. He has a break point but drops a routine backhand into the net. The missed opportunity rattles him. On the next two points, Gulbis tries two tactically questionable down the line ground strokes. His misses both and is broken in the following game when he dumps another tactically questionable forehand drop shot into the net. Gulbis has become more resilient in recent months, but he can’t put this moment behind him. He even brings it up in his press conference. “Of course if I would get a break, at 3-2, the match would be different,” he says. “I would serve on 4-2, 5-2, it would be the same my way, a set and then maybe none of it would happen.” Ifs and maybes will get you every time.

—Gumy has a fatherly presence for his player. The son looks to him regularly, to get positive reinforcement after a good point and to help him decide when to call it quits with his injury, but mostly to let off a little irrational steam. In the middle of the first set, Gulbis drills two forehands into the lower part of the net and looks at his grip. When he gets to Gumy’s side of the court, he stares at him with exasperation and shows him how he’s using the wrong grip. Later in the match, Gulbis does the same thing with his serve, showing Gumy why he can’t hit it. Gumy doesn’t say anything either time. He lets Gulbis get it out of his system.

—Point finger at head, shrug shoulders, look up to sky: Where have you seen this post-unforced-error routine before? Remind you of Marat Safin, perhaps? Gulbis also shares with the Russian a similar high voice and a tendency toward darkly comic philosophizing. And, Safinesque again, Gulbis cracked a racquet today, which he said was no big deal for him. Asked what he would do if something was a big deal, he said, with a Marat-like conspiratorial smile, “Minimum three racquets smashed, throw them to the stands, hit somebody with a ball. I have to think about. I’ll get back to you.”

Like Safin, Gulbis, a competitor who doesn’t need the money, is a challenge to the ideal of the sportsman who plays for the love of the game. Safin played out of an albatross-like obligation to his talent. Gulbis plays, he says, for similar reasons, only to prove to himself that he can be as good as he is supposed to be. Each of them admits that he gets sick of the sport and hates it at times. But Gulbis’ smile, which he flashes often today in defeat, is easier, his manner lighter and less tortured than Safin's. Call him the Gentler Marat.

Gulbis’ attitude is refreshing for its honesty, and a little disappointing in its complacency. The sportsmen's ideal of hard work and love of competition may be a crock, a form of social control, a way to sell racquets and shoes, but, as unrealistic and unfair as it is, we do want to feel that our athletes are emotionally invested enough to be crushed by their defeats.

 —I began watching Gulbis, but finished watching Benneteau. It had been the 29-year-old who had controlled the rallies and created the openings with placement rather than power. He played within himself, but he was never dull about it. His finest moment came when he secured an insurance break in the second set. Gulbis came to the net on a solid forehand; rather than crack a two-handed pass back, Benneteau retreated, slid into a slice backhand, and eased it just over the net, the way they used to teach you. Gulbis couldn’t do much with the volley, and Benneteau was there with a pinpoint forehand pass up the line.

It was worthy of a Gulbis-style raised eyebrow. “Hmm, not bad, old man, not bad.”


Posted by Paolo 05/23/2010 at 02:20 PM

A Gentler Marat? Hey, Safin never spent a night in a Swedish jail for soliciting services from a prostitute.... (or he hasn't, yet.)

Posted by The Fan Child 05/23/2010 at 02:27 PM

Nice to have you on the scene, Steve. This is pretty crushing for those, who like me, thought that Ernests was on a special run. I guess he peaked in Rome. I hope he peaks again this year. It was a nice ride.

I thought he had made significant improvements to his mental game, or was he just shellacking everybody so badly that he didn't need fortitude?

Good for Benneteau - he's an old-school savant.

Posted by gabriela valentina 05/23/2010 at 03:14 PM

so happy for the French who so desperartely want one of their own to do well at THEIR FO!!! So understandable.

I bet Gulbis going down when everyone thought he was on a roll(myself included) made for a lot of slit throats bleeding into the suicide pools.

Posted by DeShawn 05/23/2010 at 03:27 PM

Let's just hope he builds up his confidence in time to get some sweet revenge on Andy at the US Open

Posted by Meh 05/23/2010 at 03:46 PM

Lame writing--you're not as interesting as you think you are writer.

Posted by fedfan88 05/23/2010 at 04:10 PM

NIce one Steve.

I must say, I am SHOCKED and very dissapointed in Gulbis(who I was just starting to get excited about). Its a pity that he's not mentally there when he needs to be. So much for my bracket, I had Gulbis losing in 5 sets to Fed in the QFs.

Posted by embug 05/23/2010 at 04:26 PM

So sad to see Mr. Gulbis leave. What a downer. Hope he gets that hamstring attended to and pays attention to his team. Geez ... what a let down for the guy. And, Steve, you are right. His serve is a thing of beauty to witness. Best thing I've seen from a new-comer. I hope he doesn't hate tennis enough to stay with it, if it means he's doing it for someone else. That'd be the road not worth traveling.

Posted by Corrie 05/23/2010 at 04:49 PM

Unlike Marat, Gulbis is a very late starter. He's 21 and done nothing so far to justify the hype. Marat could have perhaps achieved more but he won a Slam at 20.

Posted by ad-out 05/23/2010 at 04:51 PM

Thanks for this really nice piece. Ernests is my favorite player and I really hope his injury is minor and he will have a great grass season.

Posted by Andrew Miller 05/23/2010 at 04:54 PM

Bennetau always plays well at Roland Garros! I'm a little surprised Gulbis wasnt ready for it. Hope he does develop some fire, maybe like Verdasco, showing that talent and hard work can pay big dividends.

Posted by cami 05/23/2010 at 05:17 PM

steve, thank you for writing this. i hated ernests for losing today, for not being there, for not looking for the match. i promised i wouldn't watch him anymore and demote him from my favorites list. But after reading your piece, i felt better and understood him a bit better. thank you for being at roland garros.
also, "Safin played out of an albatross-like obligation to his talent". nobody said it better.

Posted by Keith 05/23/2010 at 06:01 PM

After being slapped around by a few more fellow pros (to whom all this IS a big deal), I hope that Gulbis finds out this tennis thingie is a bit bigger deal to him than it is at the moment.

Or maybe he tries playing oboe for a while, just to prove to himself that he can.

Great talent, jaded person. Marat was maybe pushed into it, but at least he tried as much as his nature allowed him. Gulbis just dabbles, while talking like a sleazy old man.

Posted by Gabriela Valentina 05/23/2010 at 06:15 PM

Give the guy a break, it is just one match, and he injured himself could anybody draw any conclusions from this?

Posted by Mr. and Mrs. D. 05/23/2010 at 06:30 PM

Had my eye on him since his run at the USO in '07....clean cut and babyfaced:

As a fan of Gumy, I hope Gulbis ends his season on a high note.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 05/23/2010 at 06:54 PM

I sincerely hope that Ernie's possible injury is healed and better by Wimbledon. I just thought that he might make a lot of noise there. Disappointing today.

Posted by Geellis 05/23/2010 at 07:04 PM

Hmmmm. Really too bad for Gulbis. I can think of no other athletes, in any sport, of a comparable background. Sure, Nadal comes from money, but his family is nowhere near the wealth of Gulbis' father (the 3rd wealthiest person in Latvia). Even conservatively, it seems his father is worth a couple hundred million. So, from where does one find the motivation to win at tennis if it's not the fame/fortune? Put differently, I believe than many of the modern players who have fallen far short of their potential (e.g., Safin, Nalbandian, Blake, etc.) did so because they made so much $$ on and off the court that winning consistently, or rather, living up to their talent, just wasn't a necessity. And that goes double for Gulbis. So, that he's achieved any success at all as an athlete is somewhat amazing. But I do wish him good luck. He's a great player and handsome kid and he could achieve so much in tennis if he gave it 110%.

Posted by rafadoc 05/23/2010 at 07:43 PM

"—Gulbis appears to be wiry bordering on skinny on TV, and while he’s not exactly thick, like most pros he’s taller and more physically imposing in person, as if he just grew two inches since last week."

So true Steve! I saw him at Indian Wells and was surprised at how much taller he looks in person.

Sad to see him go out so early at RG. I was really looking forward to some of his pressers. He is very "Marat-like" in that way. Guess I will wait to hear from another presser fave, Andy Roddick.

Great you are on the ground in Paris Steve. Looking forward to more!

Posted by Metro 05/23/2010 at 07:57 PM

Geellis - Alberto Tomba in alpine skiiing and Nelson Piquet in F1 racing came from wealthy (multi million) background. Both were fierce competitors.

Posted by THE TRUTH 05/23/2010 at 08:35 PM

this guy is not like marat he is a fag, bad attitude, annoying, and ugly

Posted by Tony 05/23/2010 at 08:44 PM

I liked Gulbis, and I liked his chances at this French Open. But I am beginning to dislike him. I think he is becoming another spoiled brat of a tennis player whose love for the game is half-hearted and whose work habits are at best mercurial. I wonder when he would become a really serious tennis player who has clearly set goals for himself. If this is not a serious option, then maybe he can just go back to Daddy and be emotionally asleep all his life. What a waste.

Posted by vernonbc 05/23/2010 at 09:16 PM

"Sure, Nadal comes from money, but his family is nowhere near the wealth of Gulbis' father "

I've seen similar comments about Nadal but it's my understanding that's not quite true. I have read that yes, his family was comfortable and had a certain standing in their town (e.g. his grandfather was the mayor for a time), but Rafa's father owned a door and glass store. It allowed the family a reasonable standard of living but it was more recently he then, with his brothers, made some real estate investments which worked out very well for them.

It's not really important as it's obvious Rafa's family instilled admirable values in Rafa as he was growing up but I think it misconstrues his background to say he 'came from money'. I think he came from a solid middle class milieu.

Posted by just horsen 05/23/2010 at 09:37 PM

nice piece steve. I hope Gulbis, or shall we call him Marat Jr. :) finds a way to be more consistent then Safin, and up to this point he, has been, I could get used to seeing this guy in the 2nd week of majors very easily. Especially since it seems to me as though we've been dealing with the same players for awhile, a fresh face would be cool.

Posted by Slice-n-Dice 05/23/2010 at 09:52 PM

And let us not foirget that Benneteau has a win over Federer, too. He can play witht reh big boys. But I;m sorry for Ernests, whom I have liked since I first saw him hit a forehand three or four years ago. I don;t think we've seen the last of him. And I also think that his aloofness, his insouciance, is not manufactured and not due to his money. I think he has a genuine perspective about life, the game, his chances at winning a big title, etc. Of course, realists rarely make the big breakthroughs, only idealists are up to the task. Still, go Ernests!

Posted by JB 05/23/2010 at 10:12 PM

nicely to have you on the ground Steve! Thought when the match started that ernie looked a bit flat. Compliment to how he's been playing that I thought he'd pull it together and battle in out. Really to bad about the injury, if that had happened it could have been a really entertaining match. Still, great win for benny, he seems to be one french player who really does seem to punch above his weight in front of the home crowd.

Posted by latagaw 05/23/2010 at 10:38 PM

Sad to see Gulbis go this early, but I guess he can afford it. I just hope a nothing-to-lose attitude will truly liberate him in the form of GS trophies...And yet, who are we really to pass judgment and get disappointed at his losses? Ernests may yet be tennis' most humanly practical realist.

Posted by susan 05/23/2010 at 11:10 PM

cool post, steve.

agree with s/d. the attitude is not manufactured.

and finally someone has said something about his refreshing honesty, which is not contrived or hypocritical.

Posted by pgvoz 05/23/2010 at 11:29 PM

Too bad for Ernests, but hopefully he'll grow out of the easy-injury stage. And, on the positive side, a great win for Julien, a nice guy who deserves to win.

By the way, and unrelated, could someone assume the responsibility of teaching the broadcasters how to pronounce CORRECTLY the names of the players. Example: John McEnroe who insists on saying MON FEEL when everyone else is saying MOAN FEAS for Gael Monfils. Benneteau is also advancing, so have the announcers learn how to pronounce EAU in french, as in Eau de Cologne. If nothing else, listen to the referees when they introduce or mention the players. This is SO ANNOYING!!! They're getting respectable bucks and should at least pronounce names right. They can say RAFA, but not RAFA EL... it becomes Rafayel (listen to Bill McAffee).........


Posted by JimF 05/23/2010 at 11:47 PM

Thanks for the good article.

hope Gulbis lives up to his potential (which is huge) and helps make the ATP entertaining.

Posted by Larry 05/24/2010 at 12:24 AM

Actually, Gulbis reminds me a little of McEnroe, in personality, or of certain other whimsical or quotable players. Actually Ivan Lendl was and remains quite a quote machine.

The kid is not done because he lost a match, on clay, to a decent French player. If this is the same Benneteau I saw playing doubles at IW about 8 years ago - and I honestly don't remember if it was he or another French player now retired - he's big and talented.

Gulbis' game is made for hard courts. It's made for fast hard courts. It's made for power, flat-balling tennis and relatively short rallies. I know he hits with top and can play on clay also, but his temperament and strokes are just made for Flushing Meadows. If he ever becomes a true professional athlete - and he has not yet - then Ernests' big chance to make his mark on the game would be in 2-4 US Open wins.

Posted by cami 05/24/2010 at 02:46 AM

I thought exactly the same about his style of play - better suited for hard courts, obviously. But what worries me is that he hasn't got the patience to hang in there when things don't go his way, no matter what surface. He seems to be unstable emotionally and for a while I put it down to youth, but then somebody pointed out that Marat won the US Open at 20 and then Rafa was even younger. I don't think it's the age. I just hope Gumy, or somebody, can help him with managing his emotions better.
As for him being realistic, somebody pointed out earlier that it's not the realists, but the idealists, that win big, and I think it's true. Realistically, Rafa should have never beaten Roger at Wimbledon and AO, but he did. As the Nike ad for the World Cup says: "You write the future"

Posted by jabeau 05/24/2010 at 06:35 AM

"Gulbis’ attitude is refreshing for its honesty, and a little disappointing in its complacency. The sportsmen's ideal of hard work and love of competition may be a crock, a form of social control, a way to sell racquets and shoes, but, as unrealistic and unfair as it is, we do want to feel that our athletes are emotionally invested enough to be crushed by their defeats."

You summed it up beautifully, Steve. Great article, as always.

Posted by sesame 05/24/2010 at 02:20 PM

It's not that he lost a match, and it's not that he's rich. It's that he's extremely talented at tennis and, judging by his interviews, commits to it less than halfheartedly and gives smart-ass explanations for that.

How many people are lucky to be extremely talented at something? Most people are without any talent and spend their life doing something for which they have no real aptitude nor interest. He does not realize how lucky he is to be so good at something. Very stupid attitude to be partying and womanizing at 21 like any untalented young guy would do.

He might as well find something else to do other than tennis, it's way too difficult. He would be happier and have more time to enjoy life.

Posted by Fred 05/24/2010 at 03:44 PM

pgvoz: Perhaps announcers are getting the pronunciation of Nadal's name from the official ATP website, which says: "Pronounced: ra-FAY-el nah-DAHL"

And by the way, it's Bill Macatee, not McAffee.

Posted by bemol 05/24/2010 at 10:52 PM

Gulbis made a choice last autumn hiring Gumy and from a hobby, he finally decided to approach tennis as his work.
Gumy said that he had never saw a tennis player in such a bad physical form.
He had then paletta problem...which is now corrected by a better muscular fitness.

So sad he injured himself at the beginning of the 2nd set, he should have retired then but decided to go on
with the match relying only on his strokes and not being able to produce big serve with a bad hamstring.
The final score looks bad for those who have not witness the match and his consequences.

He made huge progress in 6 months, many QF, SF, and a title...climbing from 99 to 27 in ranking.
We will see him back and are very lucky to witness such beautiful game when he is on court.
I miss him already and the tennis field as well.

Posted by Jess 05/26/2010 at 11:44 AM

He was joking during interviews most of the time... (including the latest 'no big deal' thing). The ranking and the result will show how he's committed to the sport.

Posted by Susanna728 05/26/2010 at 02:09 PM

A little late for the comment, Steve, but in case you're still checking on this thread - just wanted to say great column. I've always been captivated by EG and, the first time I heard an interview with him, I immediately thought of Marat. His voice (which I actually think is low, not high) and his droll sense of humor immediately conjured up Safin for me. I've seen Ernests close up at IW and, to me, he is big and athletic looking like Safin and, obviously, has the big shots and a big serve, probably bigger. I hope he gets his act and physical condition together. What an amazing talent. (Although I have to say I don't get the comments that sling mud at him for his attitude. It's his life - if he wants to play, he'll play and if not he won't. Relax folks.)

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