Marseille: Berdych d. Gulbis

It doesn’t take much to make people hopeful about Ernests Gulbis again, does it? Coming into Rotterdam last week, everyone’s favorite lackadaisical Latvian was ranked firmly in the triple digits and had just one victory on the year. Brandishing a strange new forehand, though, Gulbis emerged from qualifying to reach the round of 16 and gave eventual champ Juan Martin del Potro a decent run for his money there. Even better, Gulbis claimed that he was going to cut back on the drinking and smoking. Fans wondered, not for the first, second, or even the third time: Was the 24-year-old Ernie, who has beaten Roger Federer and challenged Rafael Nadal on clay, and who is still the owner of a world-class serve, ready to turn things around at last?

We got our next piece of evidence today, when the 118th-ranked Gulbis faced top seed Tomas Berdych in Marseille. While Gulbis lost 6-4, 6-7 (10), 6-4, and that strange forehand failed him many, many times, this wasn’t a match that should make anyone write him off again just yet. Gulbis had upset Berdych in the first round at Wimbledon last year, and the Czech admitted today that he doesn’t like to play him: ‘You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Berdych said. Gulbis has the ability to take the racquet of a player’s hand, and Berdych, a power player himself, isn’t used to that.

What happened in the first set of this match, though, was fairly predictable. Gulbis earned two break points at 2-2, went for big forehand returns, and missed both of them. The two players then held until Gulbis was serving at 4-5. At 30-30 in that game, Gulbis drilled a backhand into the net. Down set point, he drilled a forehand into the net. What had been a close set was suddenly over.

The real surprise in this match wasn’t from the Gulbis side of the net; it was the fact that Berdych couldn’t close out the second set, and never looked comfortable on the court. After trading breaks in the middle of the set, the two went to a tiebreaker. Berdych saved two set points, only to squander three match points, one with a shank on a makeable forehand volley. Worse, he dumped a tentative forehand into the net at 10-10, and lost the set on a Gulbis forehand winner on the next point. Berdych really doesn’t like to play Gulbis; the Czech looked as tight trying to close out No. 118 as he does when he’s trying to close out one of the Big 4.

But he wasn’t tight enough to lose it. Berdych broke at 2-2 in the third, when Gulbis double-faulted and missed a forehand badly at break point. From there, Berdych held out, but it still wasn’t easy. He lost two more match points at 5-4, before kicking a nasty second serve into Gulbis’s body for the win, on his sixth match point.

Berdych advances to play the winner of Julien Benneteau and Jerzy Janowicz, and could be a tough out after surviving this one. As for Gulbis, I can’t say I like the new forehand. It involves a huge swooping motion with his left arm; by the time he gets around to swinging, he’s often on his back foot, and can look something like a tilting scarecrow as he hits.

If there’s going to be a Gulbis resurrection, it won’t be his forehand technique that leads the way. It will be, as it is for every player, how he deals with the psychological ebbs and flows of a match. Today he hung in when he was behind, saving five match points. But he didn’t deal with success all that well. He squandered his own break points, and when he finally broke Berdych at 3-3 in the second, he immediately gave his serve back. Gulbis seemed bothered by having the lead, slamming a towel to the ground and jawing with his father in the stands.

That was nothing compared to what Gulbis did with his racquet in the third set. Down a break at 3-4, he threw it to the court, watched it bounce high in the air above him, then threw it down again and shattered it. The sound was loud enough to force chair umpire Cedric Mourier to cover his ears. When Gulbis saw him do that, the two shared a laugh, a laugh that continued even as Mourier gave him a warning for racquet abuse.

Hey, maybe it’s a sign of progress: At least Gulbis cares enough these days to crush his racquet. The smash and the laugh, after all, are part of what fans like about Ernie, and why they get their hopes up about him so easily.

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