Tennis maverick Ernest Gulbis quite literally won the hearts of the crowd with a 7-6, 7-6 win over Milos Raonic at The Boodles yesterday.
Earlier, the Latvian got 'engaged' to a fan who proposed to him, and the Latvian's strong play, and easy-going humour, won him several more admirers he wanted to "celebrate" with in the crowd - at the more laid-back Wimbledon warm-up than the more well-known Queen's.
"I like you a lot - but not yet," he said to the woman in the crowd. Nevertheless, he lapped the lucky lady's attention after the game - along with that of several others. And as well he might given he had just beaten a close rival and due to the stunning form he is in.
Earlier in his career, the 25-year-old found himself in hot water for allegedly soliciting prostitutes and making controversial comments like female tennis players need to think about having kids. But recently he has been letting his racket do the talking, as in 2013 he jumped over 115 ranking points from the year before to enter the top 30, and now sits at a career high of World No. 10 following some fantastic performances at the French Open, including beating Tomas Berdych in straight sets and Roger Federer.
It is hard to conclusively judge the pair's respective Wimbledon hopes from a warm-up tournament like Boodles - just as it is hard to discern too much from international football friendlies - but with that caveat, on this evidence both Gulbis and Raonic are good bets for a strong run at Wimbledon this year. Indeed, a Wimbledon tie between these two could prove quite a tasty match-up - a kind of battle between those looking to feast at tennis' top table, as Gulbis and Raonic currently sit at World Numbers 10 and 9, a little way behind the established pack of the big four plus Stan Wawrinka (at No.3), Tomas Berdych, David Ferrer and Juan Martin Del Potro.
Both players utilised their big serves well here, losing only one of a dozen service games each (Gulbis played one awful service game where he was broken to love - his "favourite" of the match). Particularly the 6'5 Canadian Raonic, who rained down aces and unreturneds on his opponent. Allied to his big forehand, Raonic's serve - described by a certain Mr Djokovic as one of the best in the game - could prove a real weapon on the hallowed lawns of SW19 from next week. Also, at just 22-years of age, he is improving with every tournament.
However, Gulbis, by his own admission, may need to work a bit on his grass court game. On a few occasions in the first set he had dig himself out of holes after his volleys and half-volleys were found wanting - something a top-class returner such as Djokovic or Murray would surely capitalise on. Speaking about his first-game Queen's exit, to World No.67 Kenny De Schepper, Gulbis said: "I feel very clumsy on grass but it's getting better."
John Isner faced another up-and-coming player, 21-year-old World No.75 Jack Sock, and the two entertained the crowd - many of whom slightly sozzled on the Pimm's and champagne - with both their play and their repartee.
The first set saw the 6'9" Isner shout "that's not gonna work," just before dispatching Sock's mediocre lob. Sock then told himself the same thing when he tried it again a few points later - to the same result.
The first set also included a serve hitting a lineswoman square on the head, a foot fault called against Sock, to his faux outrage; and Sock - jokingly - taking off the lineswoman's glasses so she could see the line, then checking the next ball on his side - a metre out - was indeed out. In between, there was also some rather good tennis. Sock won the first in a tie-break, lost the second 6-2, but took the match 12-10 in the deciding championship tie-break.
Along with Sock, 20-year-old Dominic Thiem will make his first Wimbledon appearance this year. And although he said afterwards grass is not his surface at all, he played some strong tennis to push World No.18 Kevin Anderson in a 6-4, 7-6 victory for the South African.