Ernests Gulbis has a penchant for non-conformity. A mercurial talent and the one player game to throw the most brutally honest and colourful quotes into the public sphere, he is the only Latvian man even to play at a Grand Slam. Everything the 25-year-old achieves on court is a first.
But becoming the sole Latvian to reach the last four at a major with a dominant 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 upset of Czech sixth seed Tomas Berdych is all the more impressive when you consider the Federer factor. The last eight players who beat the great Swiss at a major went on to lose their next match. No one told Gulbis there would be an emotional burden backing up from that win.
“It’s very special. Today was the best match of the tournament, I was doing everything right. Tomas got a bit upset that I was hitting all of the lines. I’m sorry, but that’s part of the game,” he said after the breakthrough.
Roland Garros 2014 marks just the third time in the Latvian’s career he has progressed beyond the third round at a Grand Slam in 27 appearances. He will carry a nine-match winning streak into his semi-final with the added knowledge he has won his past six matches against seeded opponents in majors. Second seed Novak Djokovic is his next obstacle.
On Tuesday, Berdych was bidding to match his best result at Roland Garros, a semi-final run from 2010. Gulbis, though, was undefeated in France this year, following titles in Marseille and Nice, and had won the pair’s only prior Grand Slam meeting – a straight-sets victory in the first round at Wimbledon in 2012.
The 18th-seeded Gulbis started impressively, bolting to 4-0 before the Czech was out of the starting blocks. Berdych – who completed a set of Grand Slam semi-final appearances in Melbourne this year – pegged back one of the breaks, but Gulbis saved a subsequent break point with an ace before taking the set when his opponent’s forehand found the net.
Knocking off a netcord shot with a backhand winner down the line, Gulbis broke immediately in the second and the Czech conceded the double break with a double fault for 4-1. Gulbis then sealed the set with an ace down the T after 37 minutes.
Unforced errors continued to hurt Berdych into the third. Three off the forehand wing and a badly out-of-position backhand wide cost him the early break for 1-0. Despite walking to the wrong end at the changeover, Gulbis managed to reel in his wandering mind to hold for 2-0.
Berdych saved match point with his third ace at 3-5, but it was a fleeting positive. A 10th ace out wide brought up two match points for the Latvian; his semi-final berth was complete after Berdych netted one final backhand in just under two hours.
Forget bucking the Federer factor. Djokovic has concrete plans of claiming his first Roland Garros crown. Gulbis is not about to conform.