Gulbis in new territory at Roland-Garros

 - Kate Battersby

Playing in qualifying for the first time, Ernests Gulbis advances to the second round.

Ernest Gulbis coup droit qualifications 2018Julien Crosnier / FFT

There are more ways than one for players to break new ground at Roland-Garros. Former world No.10 Ernests Gulbis, now 29, embarked his on his first experience of Grand Slam qualifying in 11 years as he overcame veteran Stephane Robert 7-5, 6-4.

A quarter-finalist here a decade ago, the Latvian went one better in 2014, besting Roger Federer on his way to the semi-finals. Now ranked 162nd, Gulbis on Tuesday fended off three set points in a tight opener before romping away to a 4-0 lead in the second, brandishing the remodelled forehand which now bears no trace of the ‘spreadeagle’ signature action of old.

But Robert – who turned 38 five days ago – thrilled his home crowd by surging back and had three chances for 5-5, all of which went by. Two points short of victory, an exasperated Gulbis received a time violation before closing out the win with his ninth ace of the match.

“I was starting to play well at the end of the first set and beginning of the second, but I’m not happy how I allowed him to get back into the match,” mused Gulbis, who next faces 31st seed Stefano Travaglia. “I have to get these matches finished – as opponents play better and better, you cannot allow these mistakes.

“I was nervous, or maybe excited. I want to be in the main draw. In qualies, once you’re on court, the tournament feels just the same, but before you get there it’s different – the transportation stops in a different place, you walk through a different area, you’re not allowed in certain places. But I’m glad qualies are in the same place as the tournament – not like Wimbledon, say, where it’s at a different club.

“Can I reach the main draw? Mmm… Last week gave me some confidence, making the semis in Bordeaux [at the Challenger event there, where he lost to the rising American Reilly Opelka], so maybe now I can show some better tennis in the majors again.”

Gulbis’ match was on the new Court 18, and it was followed there by another star name – Tommy Robredo, who much like Gulbis was experiencing his first taste of Roland-Garros qualifying, in the Spaniard’s case on his 15th visit to the Parisian clay.

The former world No.5, five times a Roland-Garros quarter-finalist, arrived here fresh from winning the Lisbon Challenger, his first silverware in five years – and it meant so much to him that he was in tears during the presentation.

But perhaps the physical or emotional impact of that match counted against him here in qualifying, where he came up against Simone Bolelli, against whom he held a 4-2 career record. With 25 previous outings at Roland-Garros between them, it was the Italian who emerged victorious 6-4, 6-4. Worse for Robredo, in both sets he saw a 3-0 advantage dissolve.

Meanwhile, the aforementioned Opelka – the tallest-ever player on the ATP Tour at 2.11m (6ft11in) – saw off Tallon Griekspoor 7-5, 6-3.

The 20-year-old's serve regularly breaches the 225kph (140mph) mark, although here it topped out at a mere 218kph, with just four aces by comparison with the 22 he delivered when winning the final of the Bordeaux Challenger on Sunday. That Bordeaux triumph bounced him 62 places up the rankings to No.144, and already this year he has scored his first top-10 win, over Jack Sock at Delray Beach.

The former world No.19 Marcel Granollers, three times a visitor to the fourth round here (not to mention doubles runner-up in 2014 with Marc Lopez), was dispatched by Stefano Napolitano 6-4, 6-1. Dustin Brown’s boast of a 2-0 winning record over Rafael Nadal is a tad deceptive unless you know that both those matches were on grass. A similar feat on clay is considerably less likely, and here Guido Andreozzi edged him 7-6(6) 6-4.

The home crowd had just three men to cheer on today, including the vanquished Robert. Pedja Krstin dispatched local Evan Furness 6-3 6-1, but the left-handed Corentin Denolly brought domestic cheer by overcoming John-Patrick Smith 6-3 4-6 6-4.