PARIS—Ernests Gulbis gets to match point with Tomas Berdych serving at 3-5. He fails to convert. The tall Czech fends him off and then gets two more to hold.
Serving for the match now, Gulbis gets the first point on a second-serve kicker that Berdych returns too low, then he makes a mistake at the baseline that evens the score.
The next serve comes right down the middle at 225 km/hr for an ace.
The next serve is clocked at 198 km/hr and lands on the sideline and Berdych cannot reach it either.
The next one comes in at 227 km/hr but it is long. A reasonable second serve leads into a short baseline rally than ends with Berdych netting an easy backhand.
You can look it up, but every man who beat Roger Federer this year lost his next match. Maybe there is a psychic price to pay for lèse-majesté. But apparently Ernests Gulbis does not know this.
Anyone with doubts about the young Latvian’s newfound seriousness of purpose had to admit there might be something to it after all, as the man from Riga followed up his five-set win over Roger Federer with a straight-set humiliation of Tomas Berdych.
Returning smashes coming from the net with whizzing passing shots, using variety and changes of pace to keep his strong and fast opponent off balance and unable to ever get into the match, equally adept with light slices and baseline power topspins, Gulbis seemed determined to get the match over as fast as possible. He can and does hit hard from both sides, uses that hyper first serve to ruthless effect. His second serve is precise or tricky, or both. He has soft hands when he needs them, deadeye judgment on getting his lobs high enough to escape Berdych’s reach and land just inside the baseline. When he is annoyed from getting caught by a winner or some disturbance as a late spectator finds his seat, he scowls, stares, and hits a killer serve of a devastating down the line return. He never lets up. In the second set, for example, he breaks Berdych’s service in the first game than holds his own with a fantastic ace down the middle.
Arrogant, defiant, he reminds some observers of Jimmy Connors, notwithstanding their vastly different backgrounds. With the Lenglen stadium packed the way Chatrier was and the fans just as one-sided, there is a quality too of being, like Connors, a champ the crowd loves to hate, the spoiler of the favorite’s chances. This does not exclude a genuine admiration, expressed in gasps and applause, for the breathtaking retrievals and the consistent ability to reverse the momentum even within a point. Regardless of how he fares against Novak Djokovic in the semis, Gulbis has made a mark at this French Open.
Djokovic, meanwhile, was holding off a Milos Raonic who, at 23, is playing a dangerous game, having added vastly improved movement and court sense to his huge service. The mighty Serb won in three sets, like Gulbis, but they were substantially tougher. The day before, Rafa Nadal had ended a nice run by one of Djokovic’s younger compatriots, Dusan Lajovic who had previously contributed to the American rout with his defeat of Jack Sock in the third round. The last American standing went down in the round of 16 of the ladies’ draw, as Sloan Stephens lost in straight sets to the rising Romanian star Simone Halep. The defending doubles champs, Bob and Mike Bryan, were stopped in the quarters by Marcel Granollers and Marc Lopez, members in good standing of the heavy Spanish battalions which, as usual, are here in force. David Ferrer and Nadal, old pals, will battle it out in their quarters tomorrow, but on the ladies’ side the Spaniards are out of it, as Canadian phenom Eugenie Bouchard won a three-set thriller against the pugnacious, tomboyish Carla Suarez-Navarro, a match that could have gone either way until the last point, and Maria Sharapova came back from an abysmal first set to stop a fabulous run by another young phenom from Venezuela and Spain (mother, father), Gabrine Muguruza, the kid who beat Serena Williams in two sets in the second round, the same round in which Serena’s older sister Venus was ousted.
So the show goes on at the marvelous and classy Roland-Garros stadium on the avenue Gordon-Bennett — named after a great American newspaperman, whose great paper, the Herald-Tribune, has been evicted by a sheet calling itself the International New York Times, after close to a century as a Paris institution. On the institution front, this is par, as one mainstay of civilization after another goes down to the forces of political correctness, financial globalization, or both, or others. Roland-Garros, named after a hero of the Great War, about which we surely will be hearing much about as the centenary of its start is approaching, Roland-Garros, at least, I was saying, lives on, timeless and changing (as I believe de Gaulle said of France).
We must discuss these changes, which some critics here say are, in fact, rather drastic, but that will have to await another day. In the meantime I will only note that for all the great tennis being played here, in this place that is totally sold out day after day, it is sad to find no one, absolutely no one, visiting the next-door poets’ garden, one of the nicest little parks in this garden-rich city, nor the legendary Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, also next door (the word serre means hothouse), which is the site of one the most renown collections of exotic botanical phenomena in the world.