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Ernests Goes to the Open

We know Ernests Gulbis has one of the best first serves in tennis. We know he’s a bit of a smart-ass. What we don’t know is if he can live up to his top-15 ranking and be a real contender at the 2014 U.S. Open.

Ernests Gulbis can’t help himself. The 25-year-old Latvian, ranked no. 12 in the world and seeded 11 here at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, is cruising through his first-round match. He’s not playing particularly well, but his cannon of a serve is clicking. He’s up a set and a break, and his opponent, Joao Sousa, a pouty Portuguese clay-court specialist, is becoming unhinged, screaming puta and other obscenities that the umpire lets go unpunished.

Gulbis steps to the baseline with a 3-2 lead. He gently bounces the ball on his fingertips before tossing it high into the air, and his left arm continues to shoot upward, following the flight of the ball in an exaggerated salute as he bends his knees. He explodes off the court to meet the ball, and it’s one of the sport’s great shots — a first serve that often exceeds 130 mph. Sousa has no chance. Ace.

But Sousa doesn’t see it that way. He marches toward the chair umpire. The serve was long, he says. They’re not playing on one of the marquee stadium courts, so there’s no camera technology for challenges, and the umpire says he saw the ball in. “I’m one thousand percent sure the ball was out,” Sousa argues. “One thousand percent.”

He continues to mutter his case but is already returning to the baseline to start the next point when Gulbis smiles and addresses the umpire. I’m sitting about 10 rows from the court, and I think I catch Gulbis’s remark but can’t be positive. But Gulbis wants to make sure Sousa catches it, too, so he takes a few steps toward the net, still smiling, and repeats himself: “You know you can only be a hundred percent sure, right? A thousand percent is not possible.”

It’s professional tennis’s first math lesson, delivered with a sense of mischief that wouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed Gulbis’s career. His tennis speaks for itself. Fresh off a French Open semifinal run in which he beat Roger Federer and tested Novak Djokovic over four close sets, Gulbis can beat anyone when he’s at his best.

But it’s his personality that really distinguishes him. The Big Four1 each have long-term wives or girlfriends, and they keep their private lives far from the tabloids. Not Gulbis. A few years ago, he spent a night in Swedish jail under suspicion of soliciting prostitutes. It was a misunderstanding, but at least it provided Gulbis a platform for his memorable explanation of the episode:

It was great, it was great fun, but I’m never going to go to Sweden again in my life. If you go out and meet some girls, and immediately you’re put in jail, that’s not normal. When I meet a girl, I don’t ask her what her profession is, I don’t ask if she’s a hairdresser or something else. I just meet her. And she meets me. She maybe doesn’t ask what I’m doing. Anyway, if she does ask, I usually lie; I say that I do nothing or I’m a musician or something. Suddenly, the police come and take me to jail, so I spend the night in jail for nothing, really nothing. So I’m upset with the Swedish government. It was very funny. I think every person should go to jail once, as it’s interesting. It’s really interesting, as they are very strict. I was in jail for one night, about six hours. I slept a bit. Then the prosecutor came and he asked me what happened, and then he said, “Sorry, we didn’t know that it was this.” And he let me go after I paid a fine. I paid the minimum fine for violating the law in Sweden. It’s the same fine I would get for, say, smashing up a telephone booth. I paid 250 or 300 euros to get out of jail, as I had a match to play in just a few days, and I couldn’t stay there anymore.

After his recent French Open run, there were reports that Gulbis, whose father is a very wealthy Latvian investment banker, blew his winnings at a casino. Again, this turned out to be an exaggeration,2 but Gulbis’s adventures made for juicier reading than the birth announcement of Federer’s second set of twins. And with Gulbis, there’s none of the false humility of a star like Rafa Nadal, who says before every match that he’ll have to play his best to have a chance of winning. After losing to Nadal last year, Gulbis called himself the better player that day. Prideful? Maybe. But Gulbis is more withering when assessing his own game. A week after facing Sousa, Gulbis squandered five set points in the opening set of his first-round match against Ivan Dodig at the Cincinnati Open. Finally, Dodig double-faulted to give away the set, and Gulbis sat down for the changeover. That double fault “was the only chance for me to win the set,” he told the umpire. “Honestly, it was my only chance.”

As the U.S. Open begins this week, it would be a stretch to label Gulbis a favorite. He’s never advanced past the fourth round of the tournament. But five of Gulbis’s six ATP titles have come on hard courts, and the usual suspects appear more vulnerable than ever. Nadal pulled out with a wrist injury, as did 2009 winner Juan Martin del Potro. Andy Murray has dropped to no. 9 in the rankings while struggling to regain his previous form after back surgery. Djokovic and reigning Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka lost early in recent events in Toronto and Cincinnati. Only “old man” Federer, who turned 33 earlier this month, has had a successful summer. Along with Canada’s Milos Raonic and Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, Gulbis looks like a legitimate contender.

And long before I met him, I had begun to suspect that the neat media construct of Gulbis — talented, but also spoiled and cocky — was far off the mark. Though many articles portray him as the spiritual heir to retired Russian player Marat Safin, a cheerful hedonist who is generally believed to have underachieved by winning only two Grand Slams, Gulbis maintains a relatively low public profile. I’ve never seen a girlfriend in his box — Safin paraded models from one tournament to the next — and I’ve never read reports about whom he might be dating. Unlike every other player in the top 20, Gulbis doesn’t have a Twitter account.

In the past, when asked about how he spends his free time, Gulbis has often mentioned the book he’s reading — not Harry Potter, but Haruki Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance or Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler. Seek out past interviews on YouTube and you’ll find perhaps the most playful, honest, and brazenly cheeky interlocutor among all pro athletes. To take just one instance: After defeating Murray in last year’s Rogers Cup, Gulbis was asked by Sky Sports broadcaster Marcus Buckland about an earlier offhand remark he made in which he had called the Big Four boring interviewees. “I think you always need to say what’s on your mind — not what people are waiting for you to say,” he told Buckland. “Everybody is entitled to have his own opinion about any kind of thing. Of course, first you have to always think before you speak. That’s not a problem for more or less intelligent people. If you’re dumb, you don’t care what you say.” Then a roguish smile developed into a chuckle. “But I hope, I’ll prove [to] you that I’m not [as] dumb as I look.”

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

I arrived in Toronto on a Sunday in early August for the final day of the Rogers Cup qualifying tournament, when lower-ranked players fight for a few spots in the main draw. The top players were already there, pairing off for drills and practice sets under the watch of their coaches. Before Toronto, Gulbis and his Austrian coach, Gunter Bresnik, had spent a week in the Hamptons at the invitation of Bresnik’s friend, real estate developer Howard Talmud. Talmud had resurfaced his home court to U.S. Open specifications. Since Wimbledon, where he lost in the second round to Sergiy Stakhovsky (who had stunned Federer the previous year), Gulbis hadn’t played a competitive match. “That’s why Toronto and Cincinnati are important,” Bresnik said. “Of course, the big tournament is the U.S. Open, but if you don’t get your confidence before then the Open is tough.”

On that Sunday, Gulbis practiced with Frank Dancevic, a Canadian ranked no. 128 in the world. Before they stepped onto the court, I introduced myself and told Gulbis that the last time I had seen him play in person was the first round of the 2012 U.S. Open, when he beat Tommy Haas in a thrilling five-set match. Gulbis extended his hand and flashed his familiar wide, impish smile.

The players warmed up from the baseline, looping easy balls down the center of the court. A good high school player would have been comfortable in these rallies, but after 10 minutes the pace picked up. The impact of ball against strings became increasingly violent, producing a distinctive, sonorous, back-and-forth thump.

They started a set, playing hard but also trying out risky shots they are unlikely to use in real matches. Gulbis took the set in a tiebreaker, and even though the score was close, it’s clear he’s the far better player. Along with a potent serve, Gulbis may hit the hardest two-handed backhand on the tour. If his game has a weakness, it’s his forehand, thanks largely to his unorthodox technique. Whereas most players have their non-racket arm to the side, following their natural shoulder turn, Gulbis juts his arm straight in front of his body like a surfer or a yogi in Warrior 2 position. (For illustration, here’s Federer preparing to hit a forehand; here’s Gulbis.) At the actual point of contact and in the follow-through, Gulbis’s form is fine, but the elaborate preamble means his timing has to be perfect, and it’s no wonder that Dancevic serves mostly to that wing. Standing 6-foot-3, Gulbis has the power game of a similarly statured Tomas Berdych or Robin Soderling, but he’s a better athlete and also possesses great touch. I can’t recall seeing Berdych ever try a drop shot, but in the Nice Open final earlier this year, Gulbis hit four consecutive drop shot winners.

“If Ernests plays well, it’s unbelievably entertaining,” said Bresnik, who has coached Boris Becker, among other top professionals. “But he doesn’t do it to entertain the spectators, it’s something that comes from inside him. He surprises me all the time.”

Gulbis had little trouble closing out Sousa in the first round in Toronto. Sousa is 6-foot-1 and lean — in between practice sessions, he sauntered around the facility with his shirt off, a subliminal tsk-tsk to the fans purchasing hot dogs and poutine — and his game is relatively powerless. His best shot is an inside-out forehand slap, but it’s dangerous only if he’s well inside the court, attacking a short ball. And it didn’t really matter what Sousa tried on his own serve, because Gulbis had the break. Serving at 4-3 in the second set, Gulbis hit three aces. Serving for the match at 5-4, he closed it out with two more aces and a service winner.

A few hours later, after he got a massage and took a nap, I met Gulbis at Tundra, a restaurant in the lobby of the downtown Toronto Hilton. (I couldn’t help but notice, when he had taken down my phone number a few hours earlier, that this scion of a reported multimillionaire had a smartphone with a cracked screen.) We sat at a table in the empty far dining room and he ordered an extra-spicy virgin Bloody Mary. In recent interviews and press conferences, Gulbis has delivered a series of quote-worthy gems: In Rotterdam, he praised the legalization of marijuana; at Wimbledon, he misheard a question about “umpires” and, believing he was being asked about “vampires,” launched into a riff on the hangers-on and public relations flacks surrounding the sport.

So he took me by surprise when he explained early in our discussion that he hates press conferences. “I hit the ball good, I won, sorry for the other guy, blah, blah, blah, the same bullshit,” he said. It’s odd, he added, that tennis players and other athletes are forced to give daily interviews. “How often do you see other professionals, lawyers or musicians, give an interview? Let’s say you’re a guitar fan. Well, Jimmy Page may give a long interview every five years, but there’s not really much new for him to say. But we’re asked to do it every day. ‘Today was a special day, I felt incredibly different than the day before’ — it doesn’t happen like that. It’s basically the same. I can give two sentences if I win, two other sentences if I lose, and you can use it all year long.”

Before the interview, Bresnik had told me that Gulbis prefers to talk about subjects other than tennis. “Some people like to talk about tennis technique,” Gulbis said. “But I’m not the guy to answer these questions. I don’t know much about tennis techniques. I pick up a racket and I play.”

When he’s not traveling, Gulbis trains at Bresnik’s academy near Vienna, and the two attend operas. Gulbis’s father, an art collector, often accompanies him on tour, and they’ll visit museums when tennis takes him to Rome or Madrid. A few years ago, he signed up to take university art history classes, but he reluctantly gave up his studies when his tennis schedule made it impossible to attend school consistently.

Other players are fond of video games. Murray’s girlfriend reportedly once dumped him for spending too much time playing Call of Duty. Gulbis likes to read, mostly in Russian — anything from classics by Tolstoy to postmodernists such as Victor Pelevin. (Gulbis is named after Ernest Hemingway.) I asked what he’s reading at the moment and he said an “easy book, a quick read by Boris Akunin.”3

Gulbis was born in Riga, Latvia’s capital, on August 30, 1988, about three years before the country won its independence from the Soviet Union. His affinity for Russian culture comes from his mother’s side. Gulbis’s maternal grandmother is Russian, and his mother, Milena, is an actress. His father, Ainars, the businessman, “is the sports person,” Gulbis told me, and his paternal grandfather, Alvils, was a starter for the Soviet national basketball team in the 1950s.

Gulbis’s parents split up when he was a child. “I don’t even remember it, I was so young,” he said. “They maintained a good relationship, fortunately for me. My father helped out financially, but I lived with my mother.” His mother took him to theater classes, and he’d watch her perform. Once, Gulbis even appeared onscreen as her adorable son in a film directed by his maternal grandfather.

“But I was too active,” he told me. His grandmother introduced him to tennis, and then, at the age of 5, he began hitting with a family friend who coached. “I liked it straight away,” he said. “Somehow deep inside, I don’t know why, when I started to play tennis I knew that I was going to be better than all these guys around Latvia. I hadn’t even won a match yet, but I had the confidence.”

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Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At 9, Gulbis began playing tournaments and soon realized he’d have to venture beyond Latvia to improve. “A friend of my father had a place where I could stay in Munich, so my mother went online and searched for tennis academies in the area,” Gulbis said. She discovered an academy run by a Croatian ex-pro named Niki Pilic.4 There, he met an older Serbian teenager, Novak Djokovic, who spoke of his memories of Gulbis before their semifinal encounter at this year’s French Open.

“He was very talented,” Djokovic said. “I remember he came out in the practices swinging fully through the ball.

“There were times when he liked to work,” Djokovic added. “There were times when he didn’t like to work so much so that Niki had to make him work. With me it wasn’t such a hassle [to work].”

Gulbis wasn’t the best player at the academy, but he had undeniable promise. “I actually resented him a bit at the time,” said Pjotrs Necajevs, another Latvian who trained with Pilic and who now coaches the University of Detroit Mercy women’s team. “I was a few years older than Ernests and never lost to him, but he was ranked higher than me on the academy ladder.” (Necajevs, now close friends with Gulbis, drove from Detroit to cheer him in Toronto.)

Even as Gulbis’s potential for a professional career became clear, his parents didn’t push him. “I was training a few weeks in Munich, and then I’d go back for a few weeks in Latvia,” he told me. “My mother wanted me to finish school and have good grades — she was strict about it. At home, I’d either go to class or have private teachers and probably ended up studying more than a lot of my classmates, because when you’re in school you have your friends around you and you get distracted.”

In the past, Gulbis has deflected questions about his family’s wealth with sarcasm. When asked about making use of his father’s private jet, he once responded, “Yes, and I have a helicopter, a submarine, and spaceship.” But he freely admits his tennis development was made possible by his affluence, though it bothers him when “people, without knowing me, say I’m spoiled.”

A young Latvian prospect has none of the advantages of players from larger countries with developed tennis infrastructures. “Five or six years ago, the Latvian government gave the national tennis federation 3,000 lats for the year, about $6,000,” Gulbis told me. Meanwhile, the United States Tennis Association’s annual budget for player development is about $17 million.

Moreover, countries that host tournaments can dispense wild cards to homegrown players whose rankings wouldn’t normally justify entry. This year, for instance, the U.S. Open has offered wild cards to 17-year-old Jared Donaldson and 18-year-old Junior Wimbledon champion Noah Rubin, despite their low professional rankings. Since turning professional in 2004, Gulbis has received only one wild card, in 2006, to the St. Petersburg Open. He was ranked 204th at the time, but he made it to the semifinals.

“Look at all the wild cards the United States, France, England, and Australia can give out, and the facilities they have for training, and the money for coaches and expenses,” Gulbis said. “I’m not saying they’re spoiled, but don’t call me spoiled. The fact is if it wasn’t for my family, if they weren’t able to pay my expenses, there wouldn’t be a top player from Latvia.”

In October 2007, with a win at the Mons Challenger in Belgium, 19-year-old Gulbis broke into the top 50, and his ranking continued to improve after a run to the French Open quarterfinals in 2008. By the end of 2010, he was ranked 24th in the world. But his career took a dive over the next two years and he plummeted to no. 159. In 2011 and 2012, he didn’t make it past the second round of a major or the third round of a Masters-level tournament.

“I did stupid things regarding my career,” Gulbis said in Toronto. Too much booze and too many missed practices. Djokovic once said of Gulbis that he was “very enthusiastic about everything in life — you could see he wanted to enjoy it with open arms.” Necajevs said he took the younger Gulbis to his first nightclub, and Gulbis recalled sneaking off to Oktoberfest and downing beers when he was 17. None of Gulbis’s exploits — perhaps the Swedish prostitution imbroglio is the exception — would raise an eyebrow on an American college campus or during the free-spirited days of McEnroe, Borg, and Gerulaitis. But modern tennis is intensely physical and the best players tend to be ascetics.

“The problem two years ago was that I didn’t really understand why I was playing tennis,” Gulbis said. “I didn’t enjoy it.”

In April 2012, Bresnik got a call from Gulbis’s manager. “Ernests was in very bad shape,” Bresnik told me. “He couldn’t win a match. His manager asked me if he can park Ernests with me for a week just to calm him down.

“I remember Ernests walked in late in the afternoon with his physiotherapist,” Bresnik said. “He said, ‘Here I am — do with me what you want to do.’ Very provocative, like he always is. I said, ‘Can I change some things or do you just want to be treated nicely?’ And he said, ‘Do whatever you want.’”

The two clicked. Bresnik is 53 years old and soft-spoken, but he has a wry sense of humor and the broader perspective of someone who came to tennis somewhat reluctantly. He had planned on becoming a doctor like his parents and began teaching part-time at an Austrian tennis academy only to earn spending money. Then professional player Horst Skoff fell out with the Austrian tennis federation and asked Bresnik to coach him. After Skoff made it to the top 20, other players came calling, including Becker and Israeli player Amos Mansdorf. “I was stuck in tennis,” Bresnik said. He has also coached the talented 20-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem, currently ranked no. 45 in the world, since Thiem was 9 years old.5

Since teaming with Bresnik, Gulbis has rededicated himself to tennis and quickly risen up the ranks. Gulbis said he had missed only one practice in the past two years and that he had sworn off alcohol — hence the virgin Bloody Mary. Still, he recognizes that he must improve to join the sport’s highest echelon. When I asked for his thoughts on the day’s match with Sousa and the current state of his game, his analysis was dispassionate and, I think, accurate: “I didn’t hit the ball well. The serve was the only thing working for me; everything else was completely off. On return games, I was just putting the ball back in the court. Still, this was a really big win for me after having a month off.”

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Gulbis’s second-round opponent was the veteran French player Julien Benneteau. Though he’s ranked 47th in the world, Benneteau had beaten Gulbis in their two previous meetings, most recently in a close, three-set win at the Miami Masters in March. “Everything, his serve especially but also his strokes, is better than Sousa,” Bresnik explained. Still, the 32-year-old Frenchman had never been ranked higher than 26th, and his best Grand Slam result was in 2006, when he reached the French Open quarterfinals. Before this day, I had never seen Benneteau in person. I thought of him as someone who’d win a round or two at tournaments before getting pummeled by a top-10 player.

But against Gulbis it was Benneteau who had the first shot at a break at 2-2. Gulbis served an ace down the middle and held after unloading two more big serves. “Ernests usually plays well in pressure situations,” Bresnik told me after the match. “If he’s serving, he’ll usually come up with an ace or service winner.”

Gulbis was serving well, but so, too, was Benneteau, who took the next game at love. And like the previous day, Gulbis was struggling from the baseline. He’s normally a good mover, especially considering his size, but in Toronto he looked a half-step slow. Benneteau wasn’t striking the ball as hard as Gulbis, but he was going for sharp angles and pulling Gulbis off the court at every opportunity. And when Benneteau served, more often than not he went wide to Gulbis’s forehand, where the Latvian struggled to make solid contact.

Up 6-5, with Benneteau serving, Gulbis earned his first break point after winning a long forehand-to-forehand rally. Benneteau saved the game with a service winner. He fought off another break point with a volley, and then Gulbis hit two errant backhands and it was 6-all. Benneteau won the tiebreaker 7-4.

Gulbis had his chances in the first set, but it was the first game of the second that sealed his fate. It was early afternoon and the sun glared down on the court, distracting Benneteau while he served. The Frenchman served four double faults, but still Gulbis couldn’t break and lost the game with a poor drop-shot attempt. Gulbis held his service at love but then dropped his next service game and never recovered the break, losing the second set 6-3. Throughout the match, he looked up to his coach and flicked his wrist, a gesture that mimicked his topspin strokes and expressed frustration that they were letting him down.

After the match, Bresnik pulled no punches. “He played terrible,” he said of Gulbis. “His movement was off and so was his timing, even on his backhand, which is rare.”

Benneteau agreed. “I didn’t get too many chances in the first set, but in the second set I saw his serve better and tried to press the action, move him around, and come to net,” he explained. “When he has a lot of time, he hits the ball very hard, but on the run it’s harder for him to do.”

Bresnik tried to take the blame for Gulbis’s poor showing. “We had four weeks off, and we did a lot of fitness and not as many points,” he said. “Usually, he practices with Dominic, but they had different schedules, so we brought some juniors to hit with Ernests. But it’s not the same thing.”

I came away from the match not so much doubting Gulbis as I did harboring a newfound appreciation for Benneteau, whom I had previously dismissed as a journeyman. A wiry 6-foot-1, in his white Lacoste uniform Benneteau looked like the 1950s ideal of a tennis player. He may not be the game’s hardest striker, but he has a good serve and sufficient power to hurt anyone on a short ball. And he’s smart, consistently hitting the right shot, be it a down-the-line approach or a dipping cross-court shot. It was hard to believe that the world’s best beat him as reliably as they do.6

But Gulbis still should have beaten him. “For sure, my A-game is good enough to beat anybody,” he said. “The problem is my lowest game is too low. When I have an off day, then it’s bad.”

This, more than anything, separates him from the Big Four. “Especially in the early rounds, you see Rafa, Andy, Novak, and Roger not playing their best tennis,” Gulbis said. “But even if they play really bad, the other guy can’t win. And then they get to the quarters and are playing their best tennis.”

A few years ago, Gulbis might have availed himself of Toronto’s myriad nightlife offerings, but this August he practiced the day after his loss, then went to dinner with his coach and friends at an upscale Asian fusion restaurant before departing for Cincinnati. He struggled there as well, dispatching Dodig in two tiebreaks and then falling in the second round in straight sets to 55th-ranked American Steve Johnson.

But many top players, including Murray and Djokovic, have had disappointing results in recent weeks. While Gulbis’s struggles may hurt his confidence going into the U.S. Open, if his game clicks he’ll be tough to beat. “I like the pressure that comes with my style of play, which is aggressive,” Gulbis told me. “When I play, the outcome mostly depends on me. It doesn’t matter whom I’m playing.”

Gulbis said he wants to rise higher in the ranks, to qualify for the year-end Masters in London, to win Grand Slams, and even to hold the top ranking. “I want to have these feelings,” he told me. “How does it feel to become no. 1 in the world? How does it feel to win a Grand Slam? You can talk about it, think about it, and dream about it. But if you haven’t done it, you don’t know.”

While tennis players — and other athletes — are extending their careers well into their thirties, Bresnik believes Gulbis is unlikely to do the same, especially if his ranking dips again. “He has high expectations, and he wants to be competing at the highest level of the sport,” Bresnik said. “I can’t see him hanging around between 20 and 50 in the rankings for the next 10 years. Sure, it’s a good living, but for him it’s about satisfaction.”

That satisfaction, Gulbis explained, doesn’t necessarily come from the victories themselves, even the big ones. “When you win a match, it’s just relief,” he said. “I had a lot of moments like this in Paris. After my five-set win against Roger, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I just wanted to sit in my room and look at the ceiling. The feeling was relief.”

But isn’t there happiness, too?

“Happiness in this sport is hard to define,” he said. For Gulbis, a large part of turning his fortunes around on the court was understanding that he had to enjoy the process of being a professional player. “I figured out that I can still enjoy life — even enjoy it more — if I do my job well,” he told me. “If I train hard for five days then on the weekend if I take some time off, I’ll be happier than if I just sat on the couch all week, drank beer, watched TV, and did stupid things.

“The tennis life is really short,” Gulbis said. “You have success one day, and then screw up. You have to enjoy the process, or there’s no chance.” 

Paul Wachter has written for The New York Times Magazine, New York magazineBloomberg BusinessweekHarper’sThe NationThe Atlantic, Grantland, and other publications.

Filed Under: Tennis, U.S. Open, Men's Tennis, Ernests Gulbis, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rogers Cup

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