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By Alix Ramsay
So, Federer beaten in five; Berdych trashed in three – only Djokovic to marmalise and a place in the final is his. Yes, it’s just another ordinary week in the everyday life of Ernie Gulbis, Latvia’s immensely talented but mad-as-a-box-of-frogs superstar.
Except that this is the French Open. And Ernie has never been this far in a grand slam before. His one and only decent run at a major championship was here in Paris back in 2008 when he reached the quarterfinals. That was when he ran into Djoko and was edged out in three sets. But they were tight sets, mind you – 7-5, 7-6, 7-5 – and he was a mere stripling at the time so he had stated his intent.
What happened in between then and now is a colourful mix of opportunities taken (he has won six titles so far) and opportunities missed; of outrageously good performances and complete meltdowns. With Ernie you never quite know what you are going to get. Well, until now.
The story of Ernie’s damascene moment, the moment when he realised he had talent to burn and ought to do something about it, has been written many times but, no matter, it is still worth the retelling. There he was, a fabulously talented player who had dabbled with professionalism and dabbled even more with hedonism. And then, one day, as the bloke who could – possibly – win a slam found himself scrabbling around to qualify in a nondescript tournament in nowhere in particular, he thought: “wait a minute”. What on earth was he doing? Why would a bloke from a well-off family, a guy who did not have to worry about a mortgage or a bank loan, put himself through this?
“About questions to myself, I did ask myself a couple of times, but once really seriously,” he recalled. “I exactly remember when I played challenger in Eckental I asked for a wildcard. I didn’t get the wildcard. I had to play qualifying there. I made the final there, so it was an OK week, but it was just end of the year and in the middle of nowhere, in winter it was really depressing and I thought honestly or I start to do something or this is for what I do it. So that was one big question.”
From that point on, Ernie worked and focused. He binned the birds, the booze and the ciggies and he worked. Yes, he will party like it’s Prince’s last global hit, but he will only allow himself time off when he thinks he deserves it.
By the time he is done with Roland Garros, he will deserve it. His demolition of Berdych was as swift as it was clinical. From the very start, Ernie was ready to rumble: 31 winners to 17 errors, 10 aces, 81 per cent of first serve points won – Ernie was on fire and the Birdman had no answer. Berdych’s support crew sat glumly – and they must have been mighty glum after being made to wear Tomas’s truly awful flowery shirt… the potential future Mrs Berdych declined to wear team colours. She, clearly, has standards – Tomas the Tank Engine was being thrashed 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.
Once it was all done, Ernie was as relaxed and as nonplussed as ever. The rest of the world may have thought that reaching his first grand slam semifinal was miraculous but he just thought it was the end result of a simple process: work hard and play well and see what happens.
“For me, I found throughout these years what is important for me to be truly happy,” he said, simply. “For me to be truly happy ‑ I said it many times – that my happiness comes only from doing well my job. Then I can really live my life to the maximum. I can enjoy the stuff much more. So for me it’s really important for my happiness just to be successful on the tennis court. Forget about the money. Forget about fame. It’s just about my inner comfort. That’s it. For me, that’s all that matters in the end of the day.”
But, at the end of the day, he still has to face Djokovic if he is to reach that first major final. Even so, Ernie is not fussed. He trails Djoko 4-1 in career meetings and his only win was back in 2009 when Djoko was sweating bullets before he defended his first grand slam title at the Australian Open. But Ernie doesn’t think like that – for him, Friday’s match is a new beginning. Djoko may have won a handful slams since their last meeting but he has never faced Ernie in his current form.
“I think just for me it’s 0‑0 with him in matches,” Ernie said. “The way I’m playing now, I never played like this. I never felt like this. It’s just 0‑0. What was in the past, I don’t even consider. I beat him once, also in a bad match. He was changing racquet and he was playing really bad. So it’s 0‑0 for me.”
Which brings us back to our starting point: two top 10 players minced in the space of three days, one more to go in order to reach the final. In Ernie’s world, that is just another regular day at the office.
Loved it, Alex!