Ernests Gulbis had done a lot of talking—about how dull the top players are, about opponents who were little princesses, about how the guys ranked ahead of him weren't as good as he was, about how he was going to be No. 1 someday. But before this tournament, he hadn’t done anything to back those words up in the matches and tournaments that mattered. Coming to Paris, Gulbis was 4-23 against Top 5 players, and he hadn’t made it past the third round at a Grand Slam since he reached the quarters here in 2008.
Now Gulbis is back in the quarters at Roland Garros, and he has another win over a very big name, Roger Federer. To say that the Lavian was “due” might be the understatement of the year—he’s been overdue for five years now. Gulbis, 25, claims he’s a new man, and he’s shown progress over the last two seasons. But this win was the confirmation.
“The plan was to play more to his backhand,” Gulbis said, “and then with my backhand down the line to go for down-the-line shots. That was the main plan.”
Simple to say, harder to do. Gulbis beat Federer with that backhand all match, and hit 53 winners on the day. But we always knew he could fire off rockets. What was different today was how complete Gulbis’s game was. He slid and defended. He won the long points. He used his drop shot well. He hit 13 aces. And after breaking Federer in the second game of the fifth set, he held out without a hitch.
As for Federer, he was up a set and 5-3 in the second, but let Gulbis back in. Federer also struggled to close out the fourth set after being well ahead. He showed a lot of aggressive, positive emotion in this match, yet he couldn’t maintain his confidence at closing time. It’s not a new issue; Federer has talked about his efforts to overcome big-point jitters since at least 2011. But unlike his bad back, this problem doesn’t look it’s going to go away. Credit Federer for having a short memory. By the time he had reached the interview room, he said he was already focused on the grass-court season. When did he make the switch, as he was shaking Gulbis’s hand at the net?