On one end, a handful of Korean tennis fans carried banners and their national flag to support the world no 25, and the second seed at Tata Open Maharashtra, Hyeon Chung.
At the other end of the court stood the lonely figure of Ernests Gulbis. Lonely, because he’s spent most of the last few years travelling solo on the ATP tour, going through the grind of booking practice courts, figuring out his travel arrangements and schedule, doing his pre-match warm-ups and post-match cool-downs all by himself, as injury pulled him down to the lower echelons of the sport – in July 2017 he was ranked as low as 589.
He was the underdog against his seeded younger opponent, a bona fide superstar from the ATP’s fabled Next Gen. And Chung held his end of the bargain in the early exchanges, racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set and laying the foundation for a comfortable second-round win.
Not too far back, Gulbis too was one of the bigger names in world tennis before a string of injuries took a toll on the once world no. 10 and 2014 French Open semi-finalist. He was down, but not out. The recovery was gradual, but effective. Now he’s the world no. 95 looking to make further strides upwards.
On the day, he made a slow start, but turned the momentum around to out-hit and out-run the Korean 7-6, 6-2 in a 100-minute encounter.
“In the beginning, I was trying to make winners when it wasn’t necessary,” said the 30-year-old after the match. “Later, I started putting a lot more balls and waited for the better opportunities and then he started to miss.”
Gulbis mixed his shots to get back into the match – play short, long, slice, topspin, and on a few occasions, stand up to receive Chung’s second serve. And he had the legs to run down shot after shot.
This wasn’t the first time the pair had met on the tour. They played each other in a first-round qualifier of the ATP 500 Barcelona Open where Chung won in straight sets.
The Korean has, till date, been the only player from the Next Gen to have reached as far as the last four of a major. He also won the first ever ATP Next Gen Finals, beating Andrey Rublev in the 2017 title clash.
Gulbis, though, feels the time of the younger players at the Slams is still a few years away. “This year, first reaction, first emotional reaction is no (For anyone from the Next Gen to win a major). But you never know,” he explains. “You don’t know how people are coming for the first Slam of the year. But for people to win a Slam when they are 17-18, I think those times are far gone. (The younger players) are much more professional than when the time I was coming up. It was a little bit more relaxed attitude towards everything, you didn’t have a coach, physio, fitness trainer travelling with you full time. The guys now have the ability to do this.”
Slowly though, Gulbis is catching up to them. In Pune, he ousted one of the biggest names from the Next Gen. Next he takes on one of the oldest singles players still competing at the highest level, 39-year-old Ivo Karlovic. But Gulbis is ready to make the hard yards to play the biggest players in the most prized competitions. And he knows what he has to do to get there.
“I wish to be healthy and remain fit. I don’t think too much about rankings. I just want to make it to the main draws of Grand Slams and this was the goal for last year.”