PARIS: The two worlds of Latvian wildman Ernests Gulbis and Serb joker Novak Djokovic collide at Roland Garros on Friday with a place in the French Open final at stake.
Gulbis has stormed into his first major semi-final like a hurricane with Roger Federer a high-profile casualty.
The outspoken 25-year-old has always had the talent just not the dedication, admitting that back in the bad old days — as recently as 2012 — he would often skip practice for five days.
But having described his late blossoming as riding “the last train”, Gulbis, the son of one of Latvia’s richest men, has realised that he could no longer go through life without being challenged.
“I just thought everything is gonna come too easy for me because everything in life was just coming. I wasn’t really thinking about it and not putting enough effort into it,” he said.
“I never had problems in school. Tennis, everything was coming easy. I thought I’m just gonna grind in life like this, easy without any effort, and be successful.
“And then…shit happened.”
That “shit” as he calls it included being detained by police in Sweden accused of soliciting a prostitute and losing his wallet while taking a midnight Miami swim with a girl he had only just befriended.
His mother once advised him to quit the sport as his ranking slumped and he was forced to beg for wildcards into second-tier Challenger events.
He credits his move to Vienna to work with coach Gunther Bresnik, who handled Boris Becker in his prime, in helping turn his life and career around.
Gone were the late nights and hangovers from his partying in Riga.
“It just came together. Gunther didn’t deal with those kind of problems which my other coaches were dealing with three, four years ago,” recalled Gulbis.
“You know, I missed a practice once with Gunther because I had a long night. I called him 7:00 in the morning, and I said, Gun, I cannot come to practice. He understood it. It was once.
“You start to understand. Okay, first, make one step. Don’t miss five days of practice. Just miss three days of practice and then two days and then one and then nothing. So it’s a process.”
Before their paths diverged, Gulbis and Djokovic briefly trained and bunked together in their early teens at Niki Pilic’s academy in Munich.
Even then Gulbis recognised that Djokovic was destined for the big time.
“He was really professional. I remember there was one Croatian guy who was all about the girls at that age. He was dressing up. He was looking good, putting on perfume, sunglasses, going to talk to the girls,” said Gulbis.
“I see Novak, he’s going to stretch. And Novak told me that, Yeah, you can have anybody. Can have all the girls in the world, you know. But to be really successful in tennis, you need to…… That’s a kid who is 15 years old. I didn’t forget.”
Djokovic, who went on to be world number one and capture six majors, also has not forgotten the tearaway Latvian kid who slept in the room next door to him.
“We spent a lot of hours playing cards, watching TV, so we were good friends,” said the Serb.
“He was always somebody that was very enthusiastic about everything in life, you know, and you could see he wanted to enjoy it with open arms..if I can say that politically correct.
“He had a game and he also had no fear. There were times when he liked to work. There were times when he didn’t. With me, it wasn’t such a hassle for working.”
Despite his newly-found dedication, Gulbis has not given up all his old vices, admitting he’d never convert to gluten-free dining, the eating choice of Djokovic.
“My diet is full-on gluten. I like a lot of ketchup, a lot of unhealthy stuff.”