Full credit to Ernests Gulbis who did just about everything right but win today in a loss to Rafael Nadal 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 at the Rome Semifinals.
Gulbis, who was playing his first career ATP Tennis Masters semifinal, had some serious odds against him just to win games let alone sets against the streaking Nadal. But despite a shaky, error-filled first set, Gulbis stuck to the gameplan of pounding serves, pounding forehands and keeping Nadal off balance and out of his comfort zone (the baseline) with drop shots.
It’s a gameplan that’s well known against Nadal but few have ever executed as well or as smartly as the 21-year-old Gulbis did today. It was beautiful to watch and really, it’s hard to fault Gulbis for any part of his performance. He did exactly what you have to do for a guy like him to beat Nadal on clay.
Gulbis served nearly 80% first serves (and he’s just spinning it in either!) for the match and he took chances when he could blasting 50 winners. But with the winners came the errors and Gulbis maybe just made one too many in the end allowing Nadal to sneak away with his toughest clay win of the season.
“It was a really tough match. I think I played worse than I played in the last few days,” said Nadal who broke Gulbis twice, in the opening game of the match and in the final game. “Gulbis – his serve was unbelievable. I had a break in the first game of the match and then I got another one in the last game but all the time he was serving at 200, 210, 215 – very difficult to return. In the end I won the match but it was difficult in the third set and he was playing well from the baseline. I was happy that I won in the first set because that gave me much more confidence to win the third set.”
Nadal’s been upset at his play all week, however today I agree that he didn’t play his best. Sure, Gulbis deserves some of the credit but I’ve never seen Nadal miss so many simple shots, especially off his sturdy backhand.
If fact, with Nadal’s miscues and the way Gulbis was playing and the numbers he was putting up, it’s a wonder how Nadal managed to win! But in the final game with Gulbis serving 4-5 to stay in the match Nadal tidied up his game at the right moment and broke Ernests at love.
That said, if Rafa continues to make errors his opponent tomorrow, countryman David Ferrer, is liable to take advantage. Ferrer overcame a 5-1 first set deficit to another Spanish lefty, Fernando Verdasco, to pull out a 7-5, 6-3 win.
Said Ferrer, “I’m happy because I’m playing very good this season and I think this match was a bit strange. The first set was a bit difficult but it was the same for him and he gave me some opportunities that I played and so, in the second set, I played more relaxed and it was easier.”
Added Verdasco, “Until 5-1 things were going okay for me and also he wasn’t playing his best and made some mistakes. Later, perhaps he saw that I was tired, not from 5-1 but since I got up this morning. He started to play better and became more solid on the court, and what happened, happened.”
Verdasco was understandably gassed from all the tennis he’s played including a 3-hour, 18-minute slugfest yesterday against Novak Djokovic.
Nadal and Ferrer have played 13 times and Rafa’s won 10 of them including six straight. If he plays like he should he’ll make it 11 and tie Andre Agassi for the most Tennis Masters titles with 17. If he starts spraying balls and donating backhands to the net, Ferrer will have a chance to pounce. Otherwise Rafa should come away with a comfortable win.
“We know each other and we have played each other many times,” said Nadal, looking ahead to the final. “He was playing well today and he had a very good victory and I’m happy for him because he deserves to be in the final after Barcelona and Monte Carlo. I will play my best tennis and this type of match you can only win if you play your best and this is what I’m going to try and do tomorrow. If not, it’s going to be impossible to win.”
As for Gulbis, quite a memorable week. The kid was trying to become the first player to ever beat Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the same clay event, and he very nearly pulled it off. The question now becomes will Gulbis build on his week or will he fall away? I hope he continues to improve and toughens up mentally because he’s fun to watch. His game as we’ve known for quite some time is absolutely massive, it’s just a matter of getting it right between the ears.
So I’m not ready to put him as a guy who’s going to win big titles or contend for Slams just yet, but come Paris he’s going to be one dangerous guy to deal with for someone in the Top 10 four weekends from now. Can’t wait.
CENTER COURT start 1:30 pm
J Isner (USA) / S Querrey (USA) vs  B Bryan (USA) / M Bryan (USA)
Not Before 4:00 PM
 R Nadal (ESP) vs  D Ferrer (ESP)
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