Ernests Gulbis: What is Talent Really Worth?

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Would you rather have all the natural talent in the world and not an ounce of work ethic or all the work ethic in the world and not an ounce of natural talent?

A true existential question of life. The final question in the tennis equivalent of ‘Would You Rather?’. While the greatest champions in tennis were the lucky individuals blessed with both, most aren’t so lucky. Some go on to forge a solid career with the limited tools they have, purely because the want it. Others, believing their talent can do all the talking, vastly underachieve – only the leave the tennis punditry discussing what ‘could’ve been.’

Ernests Gulbis has, up until this point, belonged to the latter group. Gulbis, who comes from an incredibly wealthy family, often appears to treat tennis as just something to do. He’s never wanted for anything; his father allegedly owns a private jet, and according to Gulbis himself, “a helicopter, a submarine and a spaceship.” In 2009, he spent a night in a Swedish jail for allegedly soliciting a prostitute, but was released in time to compete in that edition of the Swedish Open.

When Gulbis applies himself, much like a young child in school, the results have come. In just his second trip to Roland Garros, he reached the quarterfinals in 2008; however, he has not been past the second round of a major since. He peaked at a career-high of No. 21 in February of 2011, owns three career ATP titles and has wins over Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych in his career. As evidenced when he cares, Gulbis possesses a full compliment of skills.

Nonetheless, Gulbis has continued to let his mouth, rather than his racket, do most of the talking. After falling out of the top 100 in February, Gulbis took issue with some players ranked in front of him, players with less talent who put in the hard yards and work exponentially harder. “I was really getting pissed to see who’s in the top 100,’” Gulbis said. “There are some guys who I don’t know who they are. Some guys, I’m sorry, with respect—they can’t play tennis.”

Some call Gulbis a colorful character, while others abhor his seemingly brattish and entitled behavior. Get him in the right mood on court and he becomes a walking code violation.

In Monte Carlo on Wednesday, Gulbis was penalized with not one, but three code violations en route to a 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 defeat at the hands of Juan Monaco in the second round. He received his first warning for racket abuse early in the second set and was docked a point for ball abuse early in the third; after being broken in the second game of the final set, Gulbis smashed his racket against the umpire’s chair and was penalized a game in line with his third code violation. The game penalty put him down 3-0 in the final set and this loomed large; Gulbis rallied from 5-1 to 5-3 in the final set but couldn’t close the gap in the end.

Gulbis really didn’t need to cement his status as the most frustrating player in tennis, but he did so anyway. He often comments about his lack of discipline on and off court, and is on the record as saying that he doesn’t like practicing. Money isn’t a motivating factor for him either. “…It’s not a big issue for me. If you come from a poor family, you want to pull yourself up, you have a goal to earn money. I don’t have that goal.” So, what are his goals?

“This is the first year I really want to do this,” Gulbis said in February. “I’m starting to enjoy tennis much more. Before I didn’t like it, honestly…Now, I want to play maybe five more years and do the best I can. My goal is to really win something big.” Trouble is, words only go so far. The old cliché is ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Gulbis can’t blame his petulance and boorishness on the hormones of youth anymore. At 24 years of age, he’s running out of time to make good on his word. Having watched Gulbis over the past five years, it’s still hard to say if he even wants to.

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