Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis earned the second ATP title of his career on Sunday, rallying to upset top-seeded Mardy Fish of the US 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 to win the Los Angeles hard-court crown.
Gulbis, who arrived in California ranked 84th in the world after a series of lackluster results, denied Fish a second title in as many events after the ninth-ranked American’s successful title defense in Atlanta the previous weekend.
The 22-year-old Gulbis had played just one previous ATP final, when he won his only title at Delray Beach, Florida, last year.
After reaching the semi-finals in Sydney in January he climbed to a career-high ranking of 21 in the world in February, but his first-round victory over fifth-seeded Belgian Xavier Malisse ended a five-match skid.
Gulbis’ lack of finals experience showed when he served for the match at 5-2 in the third set. He opened the game with a double fault en route to dropping his serve.
After Fish held to narrow the gap to 5-4, Gulbis again faced a break point after netting two backhands. Gulbis averted the threat with a drop shot that Fish couldn’t quite answer and he put the match away with a forehand down the line on his first match point.
“I was tight a little bit, sure,” said Gulbis, who added that the nerves kicked in more when he served at 5-4. “I wasn’t nervous at 5-2 — that’s why I lost. It’s good to be a little nervous, that’s when you push yourself.”
Fish said he knew Gulbis might be vulnerable when it came to closing out the match.
“I knew he hadn’t been in that position since Delray Beach last year,” Fish said. “I tried to exploit it. It was close. I missed that drop shot by an inch.”
Both players held serve through most of a close first set, although Gulbis said Fish’s strong return game forced him to play more rallies than usual, rather than winning points with his big serve.
Gulbis had the first opportunity to break, but Fish held him off in the 11th game.
Fish claimed the set in the next game, giving himself a break chance with a backhand-volley winner, before Gulbis double-faulted to concede the set.
Gulbis admitted that he “choked” on set point.
“It’s normal in these moments, everybody’s choking, everybody’s nervous. The best guys don’t allow these moments to happen,” he said.
Gulbis admitted that after dropping the first set and having failed to make any early inroads on Fish’s serve in the second, he wasn’t feeling confident.
“When I lost the first set and it was 3-2 to him, I thought I was going to lose the match,” Gulbis said.
However, he gained the advantage with a break in the seventh game of the second set, setting up break point with a cross-court winner, before Fish netted a backhand.
Gulbis went on to claim the set with an ace, then broke a slow-moving Fish in the opening game of the third and again in the fifth en route to a 5-1 lead.
Fish was hobbling after the match, but said a sore heel “had zero bearing on the match.”
Instead, the American admitted he was feeling the wear, mentally and physically, after his deep runs in two straight tournaments.
“I was tired,” Fish said. “I’ve played a lot of matches the past couple months.”
For Gulbis, who is projected to rise to about 57 in the rankings, the victory was a much needed morale builder after his string of early tournament exits.
“I a little bit lost trust that I could compete with the best guys,” he said. “Now it’s a big confidence boost.”