ROME — Ernests Gulbis had a simple approach to his third-round match against Rafael Nadal at the Italian Open on Thursday.
“I have to bring my A-game or I’m going to get three games,” Gulbis said a day earlier. “So I’m going to bring my A-game.”
Gulbis delivered on that promise during the type of early onslaught that Nadal seldom faces on clay. But Gulbis, despite believing that he was the superior player Thursday, wasn’t able to finish off his first victory over Nadal in six attempts. Nadal overcame the big-hitting Gulbis 1-6, 7-5, 6-4 to advance to the quarterfinals, where the six-time champion will meet David Ferrer on Friday.
The 24-year-old Latvian gave the King of Clay all he could handle, channeling the likes of Robin Soderling (who handed Nadal his only French Open loss, in 2009) and Lukas Rosol (who stunned Nadal at Wimbledon last year) in showcasing pure power off the ground. Gulbis needed only 19 minutes to build a 5-0 lead. Nadal lost an opening set 6-1 for the third time in 303 clay matches, according to the ATP Tour.
“Everything was going my way,” Gulbis said.
But as the match progressed, Nadal steadied himself and Gulbis’ aggressive play led to a rash of unforced errors, particularly off his forehand, at the most inopportune times. Still, Gulbis hung tough, breaking at 3-5 in the second set and erasing a 0-40 deficit to hold in the next game; breaking at 2-4 in the third to get back on serve; and saving two match points in the third before Nadal finally sealed it in two hours and 38 minutes.
“I was the better player,” Gulbis said. “I was still the better player in the second set. I think I was still the better player in the third set. I was the better player in the match.”
Gulbis hit 59 winners and 50 unforced errors compared with 13 winners and 19 unforced errors for Nadal, who was out-aced 15-0. Gulbis won 97 points to Nadal’s 94. As Gulbis knows, though, matches aren’t always won on the stat sheet.
“He’s a champion. You have to beat him. You have to do something extraordinary,” he said. “He didn’t do anything special. I did the mistakes. But you have to beat the guy. He’s not going to give you anything free.”
Nadal disagreed with his opponent’s assessment that Gulbis was the better player in the match.
“Tennis is not like fútbol where you score a goal and you stay back and if you are lucky you can win the match,” Nadal said. “In tennis, we play [a lot of points]. So normally, I don’t say always, the best player wins.
“If you understand that the best player [is the one who] hits every ball as hard as you can — doesn’t matter if the ball goes in or goes out — maybe he was the best player today. If the best player was the one who tried to find solutions against a difficult opponent and this player had a good fight in every moment, the right attitude in every moment, if that’s something, probably the best player today won.”
Nadal went on to say that Gulbis needs to show more composure. The 11-time Grand Slam champion was unhappy with the number of times Gulbis requested for the chair umpire to check ball marks.
“If I say ‘out,’ it’s because it’s out,” Nadal said. “If not, if I have any doubt, I let the umpire [come] down. I don’t like this attitude on court.”
Regardless of the disagreement, Nadal was very complimentary of the 46th-ranked Gulbis, who will go into the French Open as one of the most dangerous unseeded players.
“I think he needs to be a little bit more calm, and if he is, he will have a great chance to win the very top position because his potential is amazing,” Nadal said.
Gulbis refused to take any solace in testing Nadal yet again. This was the fifth time in six matches that Gulbis took a set off Nadal, who also came back from a set down in their last clash, at Indian Wells in March.
“It doesn’t matter how good I played, how great the match was. I didn’t win,” Gulbis said. “That’s what counts.”