Djokovic, two years older, cracked the top 100 first, at the age of 18, and two years later collected his first Grand Slam singles title in Melbourne. Gulbis was also 18 when he entered the top 100 and his first major sniff came six years ago here at Roland Garros. Djokovic beat Gulbis in three straight but markedly taut sets.
Fast-forward to this year's French Open, where the two men met again Friday for the first time in a Grand Slam since that day in Paris. Although Djokovic has been the best among ATP World Tour players since the Australian Open, Gulbis -- after some soul-searching -- has been the best he has ever been, winning two titles and achieving a career-high ranking.
Their collision Friday in the semifinals held the potential for intrigue, if only Gulbis could maintain his ethereal level that was too much for Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych in the earlier rounds. For four games, he defied that gravity. But in the fifth, Djokovic and Gulbis were revealed as the players we thought they were: Djokovic, a ludicrously consistent master of keeping the ball in play, and Gulbis, prone to errors and emotional distress when under duress.
Djokovic, the No. 2 seed, won by the deceptively easy score of 6-3, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to advance to the Sunday final of the only Grand Slam he has never won. He will play world No. 1 Rafael Nadal, who crushed Andy Murray in the second semifinal.
The difference? Gulbis, reportedly suffering from a back ailment, produced 44 unforced errors, while Djokovic had only 25. This was Gulbis' deepest run at a Slam.
It was sunny and 80 degrees Friday, the hottest day of the tournament and Djokovic appeared to struggle physically. He was asked how he was feeling after the match.
"There is nothing bothering me," he said. "Just the general fatigue that, you know, probably was influenced by conditions or other things that I felt today. But I'm not going to talk about. That's it. I just I'm glad I won in four sets, because if it went to a fifth, God knows in which direction the match could go.
"I'm just going to rest today and tomorrow, try to not spend too much energy on the courts, and get ready for finals."
So it's all in front of Djokovic: The 27-year-old from Serbia will regain the No. 1 ranking if Nadal doesn't win here. Now that Rafa has beaten Murray, which was presumed by virtually everyone, Djokovic will be the only man left in a position to do that.
"Well, there is not going to be a significant difference in my tactics against Nadal comparing to other prior matches that are played, especially the one in Rome," Djokovic said. "I'm going to try to be aggressive, because that is the only way I can win against him. ...
"It's easier said than done, of course, because we all know how good he is on this court. But he's not unbeatable. You know, winning against him last couple of matches in the finals, big events, definitely gives me confidence that I can do it again."