When Ernests Gulbis won his first singles tournament at Delray Beach, FL, last week, I felt a sense of pride for him that was out of proportion with his achievement. You’d swear he was from the Caribbean or something. I could only be prouder if and when Dustin Brown of Jamaica finally makes his own breakthrough. There’s something about people from small countries achieving big things that makes my heart very happy.
Which is not to say that I am unable to appreciate the accomplishment of players who hail from larger countries. After all, it takes hard work to break through no matter where you’re from. But when you hail from tennis-rich countries like the United States, Argentina, or Australia (to name just three), the fact is that you often have access to opportunities that folks from say Latvia or Jamaica simply do not. I remember when Gustavo Kuerten first made his breakthrough at Roland Garros and he did not even have a sponsor. Then there was the following year when he finally got a sponsor only to have his shoe fall apart in the middle of a match. There are certain things that just don’t happen when you’re from a tennis-wealthy country.
But there are unique challenges to being from a tennis-dominant country. For a start, it’s probably hard not to end up feeling like a small fish in a big sea no matter how well you do. There is always the other guy who is just as good, and so much internal competition to contend with that even your largest accomplishments can end up seeming overshadowed.
Take for instance the American, John Isner. Yes Isner is talented, there is no doubt about that. And as one of many talented Americans, he has access to opportunities to develop his game that players from much smaller countries only dream about. For example, Isner got picked to be a hitting partner on the Davis Cup team long before he even qualified for selection to actually play. But I’m sure that there are some days when Isner must feel as if he is just one of many, a potentially big fish, yes, but his accomplishments are overshadowed by those of Andy Roddick. And Roddick in turn forever has to compete with the larger-than-life legacies of Sampras and Agassi. A big fish in a big sea can end up feeling mighty small.
But when you come from tiny republics like Latvia or Jamaica, the smallest successes can take on massive proportions. I remember when Goran Ivanesevic finally won Wimbledon. Has Croatia ever thrown such a huge party? Not even a win by Henman or Murray would ever come close.
Which is why to me Gulbis’ win at Delray Beach is a huge deal. And it’s not because Delray is such a stellar tournament. The winner of the singles event was only paid $75,700.; the runner-up got half that much. Not a bad pay day by any stretch, but certainly not the purse size one associates with a top tier event. At stake were 250 ranking points which Mardy Fish was unable to defend.
At larger stake was an opportunity to break through. Gulbis has finally won an ATP tournament. That is a huge deal. When he first made his run at the 2008 Roland Garros, he made his home country very proud. Right now Latvians must be ecstatic. Latvia is a tiny territory on the Baltic Sea with just over two million inhabitants. A member of the European Union, Latvia’s economy has been badly slammed by the global financial crisis. It is not a place one automatically associates with tennis. Until now.
But when you come from such a tiny place, it is often necessary to have your own resources. And so it is not an accident that Gulbis hails from a very wealthy family. How else could he afford to play tennis? It helps that his father is an investment businessman and his mother a well-known theater actress.
It also helps to be able to afford to train abroad. At age 12 Gulbis left home to train at the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy in Germany. At present two younger sisters currently attend the Saddlebrook Tennis Academy in Florida. It’s a tennis dynasty in the making.