Baltic players struggling for form ahead of Roland Garros

  • 2011-05-18
  • By Jared Grellet

CLAY TIME: The Baltics are well-represented in this season’s French Open, but despite their talent, this isn’t expected to be their year.

RIGA - When the French tennis Open begins at Roland Garros on Sunday, up to five Baltic players will be on display. But given their current form, it is difficult to see them still being there when the tournament concludes a fortnight later.
With their current world rankings and injuries permitting, Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis and Anastasija Sevastova; Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi; and Lithuania’s Richard Berankis will all earn direct qualification into the main men’s and women’s singles draw. Doubles specialist Liga Dekmeijere of Latvia is also expected to join them. However, with injuries and mental problems to overcome, the Baltic crop of 2011 has a tough task ahead of them if they are to make a serious bid at winning their respective trophies.

This year had been labeled as the year that Baltic tennis players would break through to the next level. For Gulbis and Kanepi, that next step was reaching the world’s top ten in the respective male and female rankings, while for Berankis and Sevastova, the next step was establishing themselves in the world’s top 30. But with the season now nearly five months old and the French Open signaling the second grand slam of the year, few of those predictions have come to fruition.
Back in 2008, Gulbis had his breakthrough performance at Roland Garros, charging into the quarter-finals as a raw 18-year old. From then on, however, Gulbis has struggled to live up to his potential as his erratic game, bad temper (Gulbis reportedly breaks up to 70 rackets a year) and carefree attitude to training has seen him time and again falling to less talented opponents.

Come 2010 and a change of coach, followed by a string of good results, including his maiden ATP victory in Delray Beach, it looked like Gulbis was finally beginning to mature as a player. This seemed to be further evidenced by a quarter-final appearance, followed by a semi-final berth in his first two tournaments of 2011.
However, since his fateful semifinal appearance in Sydney, in which he lost to Gilles Simon of France 7-6 (1), 6-0, amidst accusations from the local media that he gave up trying, Gulbis’ game has gone off the rails, having since won just three of 10 matches, seeing his world ranking over the past three weeks balloon from 33 to 85 – a far cry from his ranking of 21 as recently as February.

If a candid interview, delivered to Britain’s The Independent in April is anything to go by, it is a ranking that will continue to drop and the Latvian is about to suffer another early round exit at Roland Garros. In the article, Gulbis comes across as a spoiled brat with an indifferent attitude to tennis.

Born into a wealthy family with a natural talent for the game, Gulbis has never needed to train as hard as opponents to gain the same results. But now, when he should be establishing himself in the top echelon of players in the world, that unwillingness to train has instead seen him become one of the most erratic players on tour. The title of The Independent article sums up Gulbis’ attitude to tennis: “Ernests Gulbis: ‘I enjoy going out. You can’t think only about tennis.’” In the article, Gulbis says that, “I think if I play my best tennis I can beat anybody. It’s not being too confident. I’m just realistic,” while also adding that he hates the game and the travel involved, but if he were to quit he has nothing better to do with his time, saying he does not know if he is comfortable or not with living off his parent’s money. Those familiar with tennis will pick up the familiarities between Gulbis and Russian Marat Safin, who also happens to be close friends with Gulbis. Perhaps it is time Gulbis begins spending less time with Safin and more with good friend and former tennis schoolmate Novak Djokovic, who is rewriting the record books with his scintillating form.

Kanepi and Berankis do not share the natural talents of Gulbis but are willing to work much harder to reach their goals. It is therefore unfortunate that their seasons to date have been riddled by injury.
Having started the year ranked 22 in the women’s game, Kanepi quickly shot up the ranks, to 16, after a semi-final appearance at an indoor event in Paris in February, followed by a round of 16 appearance a week later in Dubai. It was in Dubai, however, that an old leg injury carried over from 2010 flared up again, severely affecting her game and pulling out of a tournament in Qatar a week later.

The Estonian then returned to the court in Indian Wells in March but, after falling in the second round, followed by a first round exit in Miami a week later, Kanepi was diagnosed with Achilles tendonitis putting her out of action for over a month. Returning for the clay court season in Europe in late April, Kanepi’s fitness was down as she fell quickly in the opening rounds in Madrid and Rome, forcing her to make a late entry to this week’s Brussels Open, to give herself more game time on clay. Despite the setbacks, Kanepi is remaining upbeat: “…I’m finding my shots again now and getting my confidence,” said the Estonian talking to from Brussels on Monday.

It has been a similar story for 20-year-old Berankis. After making it through to the round of 32 at the Australian Open, Berankis had signaled his arrival, attracting plenty of media attention along the way. He then followed it up with a quarter-final appearance in San Jose, but since then it has been a number of disappointing early round exits, seeing his ATP main draw record for the season sitting at eight wins and seven losses. After an opening round exit in Miami in March, the young Lithuanian was diagnosed with a groin/hip injury which has seen him out of the game since, but hopeful of making a return in Paris. “I am currently doing a lot of rehab in Amsterdam on my groin/hip and getting back on the court. I haven’t been able to compete since Miami, which has been frustrating, but I am starting to feel better each day and am hoping to play in Paris,” Berankis informed fans from his official Facebook site.

As for the final singles player, Sevastova, she is still playing her time before her big breakthrough. Following a round of 16 appearance in the Australian Open where she fell to number one seed Caroline Wozniacki, Sevastova has struggled to get past higher ranked opponents, who she continues to encounter early on in tournaments. Her other standout performance so far this year was in Monterrey, where she made her way through to the quarter-finals. Should she get a draw that suits her at Roland Garros, Sevastova is likely to be the longest lasting of the Baltic players.

Beginning on Monday, May 23, the French Open can be viewed daily on Eurosport 1 and 2 through to Sunday, June 12. The main draws will be released later this week.