Is the Rome Masters a cursed tournament for Roger Federer? It's one of the three Masters 1000 that the Swiss, after 16 Slams and as many Masters 1000 title, hasn't won yet, despite the losses in 2003, as the favorite against Felix Mantilla, the two match points wasted in 2006 against Nadal and the stuttering semifinal of last year against Novak Djokovic.
This time he went out at the second round, in his debut match, against Ernests Gulbis 26 61 75 in less than two hours. Aside from the first set, when he probably played his best tennis on the clay of his career, Roger, who exited in his first match also at the Paris Masters last year, was totally ineffective towards the talented Latvian.
Federer registered only two aces (to 9) and a modest 52% of first serves in, and realized just 20 winners to 32 and, after his defeats to Baghdatis and Berdych in Indian Wells and Miami, became the first world n.1 to lose his debut match since Agassi in 2003.
"Sometimes it takes a loss to wake up and shake you up for your approach the next week. When you always win, sometimes you forget how hard it is. That's why today I don't get too worried about this loss" said Roger in the press conference after the match.
Federer dashed at his best, easily won the first set and didn't concede a single break point until the fourth game in the second set, when he missed a forehand wide to send Gulbis 3-1 up. The Latvian broke again to 5-1 after a series of errors and a rare overhead miss.
Federer had other chances to change the match. "I don't have a word in English for it" said Gulbis referring to the six match points he squandered. His first served dropped away, he twice double-faulted and missed two easy forehands and a smash. "I just started shitting in my pants" admitted without any circumlocutions. His paralyzing tension started to go flow away when he broke to 6-5 and went 40-0 in the last game of the match.
The Swiss tennis expert Claudio Mezzadri, who deeply knows Federer, said that Roger, after such defeats, would need someone to confront himself with, someone that could help him to analyse and understand what to do.
Gulbis, who had already forced Federer in Doha earlier this year, changed approach to his career after hiring the Argentinian Hernan Gumy as his new coach. "My game hasn't ever changed" he said. "But I'm different: I started to see tennis as a work, and not as a hobby. Before I trained for three days, and for the next three days I went out with my friends. Now I have an exceptional team, and my father is part of it".
His father, Ainārs, an ex basketball player, owns the national natural gas pipeline and is one of the wealthiest man of his country. Gulbis grew in an affluent environment. Hia mother, Milena, is an actress and sent Gulbis to the best schools: in this way he learnt Russian, English and German. Sport is in DNA of his family. Hi paernal grandfather, Alvils, played in the Latvian national basketball team, while Ernests' two sisters Laura and Monica play tennis and his younger brother Kristops is attending the Saddlebrook golf academy.
According to Nikki Pilic, his first talent-scout, it was this way of living, this personal life to delay his explosion. Pilic, who trained him with Novak Djokovic, left the Latvian because, he said, "Gulbis is to wealthy to accept all the necessary sacrifices to become a top-player".
Until now the prophecy fulfilled itself. However, this match could change perspectives and horizons.