Gulbis reaches first career Grand Slam semifinal - NBC Sports

Gulbis reaches first career Grand Slam semifinal
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June 3, 2014, 2:45 pm

Tomas Berdych carried the experience of four Grand Slam semifinals onto Court Suzanne Lenglen. Ernests Gulbis brought a pulverizing serve, punishing return and plenty of confidence to the party.

Perhaps that explains why Gulbis' celebration after his commanding 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 demolition of the sixth-seeded Czech was so subdued. While some players might be bouncing around the terre battue like it was a trampoline after reaching a first career Grand Slam semifinal, Gulbis marked his first final four appearance with a fist to his support box looking more like a poised fighter than unruly party crasher.

The sometimes volatile Latvian played fearless tennis to defuse Roger Federer in what he called "probably my biggest win" in the fourth round and was downright scary at times in obliterating one of the game's biggest hitters today. More impressive than Gulbis' clean 31-winner performance was the relaxed intensity with which he managed the match and his emotions.

Beaten up by the enemy within, Gulbis had failed to survive the second round in 20 of his last 21 Grand Slams since a run to the Roland Garros quarterfinals six years ago as his status dropped from Grand Slam dark horse to major head case. From the first ball, Gulbis played with the conviction of one fully believing the match was in his hands. He spent the rest of the day convincing Berdych of that fact.

Distill this match to a single key and it's this: Gulbis got off first almost every time beating Berdych to the ball and in every phase.  The 18th-seeded Latvian dominated with his first serve —  he won 81 percent of first-serve points and hit 10 aces against just one double fault. He broke first in every set — breaking Berdych's opening serve game in all three sets, converting five of eight break points in the match. He frequently took the first strike in crucial rallies to back up Berdych and force the big man to play from behind and never let the Czech close ground in the gap.

Gulbis crushed a deep return drawing a shanked reply to break for a 2-0 lead, but it wasn't all big bang tennis. Looping a clean lob winner, Gulbis broke again for 4-0 less than 15 minutes into the match. He erased a break point with an ace, before serving out the 34-minute opener with 11 winners compared to four for Berdych.

Only an hour had passed when Gulbis drew a running forehand error for break point. Cracks erupted into full-blown fissure when Berdych gagged netting a second serve giving Gulbis the break and a 4-1 second-set lead. Serving for a two-set lead with new balls, Gulbis sprayed his first double fault of the day before netting his most reliable shot—his two-handed backhand—and it was 30-all. If the old combustible crazy Ernie was going to show up under stress, this seemed the time. Gulbis didn't blink. Hitting a solid second serve, he held firm then banged a bold second serve ace down the middle, cruising to a two-set lead after just 71 minutes of play.

An off-balance Berdych netted a forehand down the line to face double-break point in the first game of the third set. He saved the first, but just as a cry from a baby in the crowd pierced the silence Gulbis cranked a backhand return crosscourt and a startled Berdych netted his reply, dropping his opening service game of a set for the third straight time.  While the old Gulbis could go off the grid at any moment, this version only cracked in the post-match interview.

Capping a commanding performance with two aces to close in one, hour 59 minutes Gulbis flashed a mischievous smile when he told Roland Garros interviewer Cedric Pioline afterward: "I did everything well. Tomas got upset I was hitting all the lines, I'm sorry that's part of the game."

Asked to look ahead to a semifinal vs. No. 2 Novak Djokovic in a rematch of their 2008 Roland Garros quarterfinal, Gulbis grinned and admitted a more pressing issue: "I need to celebrate."