PARIS—Ernests Gulbis snaps at the bellboy, argues with the referee, smashes his racquet and bends it out of shape, takes a suspicious time out in the fourth set, breaks his opponent’s service early in the fifth, hangs in, finds himself serving for the match at 5-3.
When you are at this level of a sport, if you are true, the contest you are in is the most important of your life. But life has hierarchies in memory as in all other things, and there is not a sportsman who does not know that this game, this match, this race, was the one to remember. An NCAA final, an Olympic downhill, a no-hitter against the rival high school, you keep forever.
Is it the same at the level of tennis at which Gulbis was playing yesterday? He was playing in the round of 16, aiming for his second quarterfinal at the French Open, the only Grand Slam tournament where he has got this far, and he was up against a man who has had a slot at almost all the quarters, and the semis and finals, in all of these tournaments of tournaments for ten years running. To win a match against this man, Roger Federer, on the center court of the storied Roland-Garros stadium, is the stuff of which dreams are made.
Gulbis, who is 6-3 and weighs about 180 and wears a pout and a frown that do not become his 26 years, in some ways reminds me of the great Greek internationally ranked tennis man of some years ago, Taki Theodoracopulos. Taki, as he signs off in his columns for the London Spectator, is a world-class athlete. He played on his country’s Davis Cup team and also is ranked in martial arts and maybe some other sports. But the reason Gulbis makes me think of him is that they both had wealthy fathers and wild youths. Taki saved himself, as far as I can tell, through writing. Ernests is trying, from the evidence of this year’s tennis season, through high-level sports. He has had a good first half of the current season, culminating a couple weeks ago with a win at Nice, an important run-up to the French Open played on clay, on which he does well.
At any rate, as the late afternoon moved into the early evening of a gray and chilly Parisian day, Gulbis was not dreaming. He was awake and focused. His customary bad-boy antics were noticeable because they were few. (These days, the institutionalization of the Tour oblige, you can get hefty fines for smashing a racquet or saying rude things to the ump.) His heaves and sighs and raised arms and rolled eyes and mutterings after botched points were kept, for him, at a quiet level. He was working, working as hard as he ever has in his sporting life.
It paid off. Federer has played, so far this year, noticeably better than during the 2013 season, which by his standards was nothing to brag about. A convincing victory in an early tournament, serious contention in all the others, including the Australian Open, quieted the critics who worried he might be leaving a trail of failure next to the awe in which he is regarded. This was pishposh, as Mr. Tyrrell might say. Federer was no longer No. 1, okay: but if you are not beating everybody, but you are still beating everybody else, why should you retire?
Federer loves tennis and it shows in the gorgeous way he moves and strikes, qualities that his fans appreciate no less than his outstanding record of matches and tournaments won. As it happens, the French Open, or the Championnats Internationaux de France, as the tournament a few blocks from the Porte d’Auteuil on the west side of Paris is formally known, has been, paradoxically, his home court after Basel, Switzerland (where he grew up and still lives), but not the site of his greatest feats. He won only one trophy here, in 2009, compared to 16 in the other majors (Flushing Meadows, Wimbledon, Melbourne), but it is only lately that Rafael Nadal has reached the rapport with the local fan base that Federer acquired almost from the beginning. The French appreciate a winner, and Nadal has won more often at Roland-Garros than anyone else who has played here, but they love style and form and grace under pressure.
He showed all these qualities against Gulbis, and it has to be said the young man from Riga showed grace too, staying focused with a packed house shouting Rod-jer, Rod-jer! and roaring against him to the very end of the match. Good sports, the fans also cheered when Ernests made fine points. He played a shrewd game, no doubt. He said he had a plan for Federer, and there is no reason to disbelieve him. He attacked with a powerful serve, over 200 km/hr, pounded on the master’s weaker side, his graceful one-handed backhand, and, especially, mixed up his game to prevent the Swiss genius from dictating pace and movement. He was able to send passing shots against Federer’s fearsome approaches to the net. He sliced and lobbed with ruthless tactical effectiveness. He moved well, maintained the pressure with strong groundstrokes to the baseline.
There was, to be sure, that time out, which he claimed was due to a back problem, late in the fourth set. Federer went on to win that set, but it was noticeable that the momentum he had developed to even the match was no longer there, and he allowed a break early in the fifth set that he never regained. He said afterwards fair’s fair, the rules allow it, but he noted that Gulbis did not appear to be hurt. He is a class act, however, and insisted he missed some chances, gave Gulbis credit for winning the second set after he had taken the first, which showed discipline and, he implied, may have been decisive.
Gulbis himself was polite in victory. It may be that he will find himself against Novak Djokovic in the semis in a few days and meet Nadal in the final. He does seem, at last, to have found a new sense of purpose. He has adopted the training regimen needed to win these long matches and long tournaments that, in his Prince Hal days, he boasted he could do without.
Federer always has maintained a strict and rigorous regimen. He was for once wearing a T-shirt rather than the modified polo shirts he usually favors, and the muscles and the broad shoulders and the perfect posture and the lean but muscular power of the man — he is six-one at about 165 — were strikingly outlined. There is no reason he should not thrive for several more years. He is about to turn 33, and if he wishes to, I am sure he can stay within the sport’s top ten at least until 40. The real point, of course, is elsewhere. Thoughtful, with a growing family (two sets of twins), Federer is not a man whose life is defined in only one set of accomplishments. He can stay on the Tour or he can leave it; either way he will do well. That is real success.
Federer is one of those rare athletes who defines a period in his sport. We speak of the Federer era or the Big Four era, in which he has the place of honor. This era is drawing to a close, as challengers and successors appear, some only as flashes, others with more endurance. This is, in itself, an index of the contribution Federer and his great rivals have been making to their sport: they made a successor generation work for what it is beginning to get. As it happens, they are still the men to beat, probably will be for at least another few years.
In his durability and in the very obvious largeness of his personality, Federer is a reproach to the cult of youth. Youth is a great time and people are right to urge their children to make the most of it; but we subvert the natural order of things when we oppose it to the years that follow. Sports is a good example of how this happens, and how we have increasingly lost respect for the qualities that come with age. The pushing of young athletes to go for the big time before they are mentally and emotionally ready is a cause of much misery.
We notice in our society, in many areas, that there are, in fact, not enough old people. The fact is that in war, for example, old people are needed. There are cases of successful young generals. I am no military historian, but I would wager that there are more cases of successful old generals. You need memory, knowledge of your land and your people and their history, to devise a strategy that will win not one battle but a war. You need your own battlefield experience too, of course, and generals by definition have that. And the same holds for public affairs. Does anyone believe that the youthful presidents we have had lately (and their young advisors) have led the country wisely and effectively, compared to Reagan and the first Bush?
Ernests Gulbis played a fine match; it was not what they call a match for the ages, but it was very good, not least because he himself showed qualities of discipline and shrewdness that come with growing up.