A French Artist Turns Into a Warrior

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NEW YORK - At one time, about seven years ago, it was Richard Gasquet who was supposed to join Rafael Nadal in challenging Roger Federer’s reign atop the sport. Gasquet, imbued with an utterly gorgeous and natural style of tennis, was a star in his native France since the time he was a small child; in fact, at age nine, he graced the cover of French Tennis magazine and was touted as the future of the sport.

But talent and results often don’t follow similar trajectories and Gasquet has never been able to achieve what many thought was his God-given potential. While he has compiled an entirely respectable career, routinely reaching the fourth round of Slams, he has been entirely left out of the conversation when it comes to actually making a serious run toward a major title. The biggest victory to date in Gasquet’s career was his upset victory over Andy Roddick in the 2007 Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“He’s just too French”. This is a statement that many tennis observers have pinned on Gasquet. Translation of which is – he’s too artistic, more into style than substance, too mentally and emotionally fragile on court and lacking a killer instinct. 

It’s undoubtedly true that Gasquet is artistic. While many have said that Roger Federer has the most perfect form and the most complete game many have ever witnessed, I’d argue that Gasquet has perhaps the most resplendent shot in all of tennis: his backhand. Watching Gasquet strike a backhand winner down the line, with his dramatic uncoiling and full-flight finish is a thing of utter beauty. He’s one of those few players that are compelling to watch even if he isn’t performing well on a given day.

Gasquet also has a more than adequate serve and fine forehand and is entirely comfortable at net. So then is his inability to challenge for titles a case of lacking strength between the ears? Many would argue yes … because he’s French … and the modern crop of French players, however talented (Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Gael Monfils among them) have yet to live up to their enormous promise.

When Gasquet took the court in his US Open quarterfinal match against the mentally and physically indefatigable Spaniard David Ferrer on Wednesday afternoon, most didn’t think a victory by the Frenchman was in the offing. Going into the match he was only 1-8 against Ferrer, never claiming a set in all of his defeats.

But something happened on Wednesday: the artist turned into a warrior. Refusing to choke, even after giving up a two-sets-to-none lead and ignoring his terrible 5-12 record in five-set matches, Gasquet won the second-most important match of his life, taking the back-and-forth contest 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3.

And it was actually Gasquet’s workmanlike, exhausting Labor Day triumph over Milos Raonic that made his victory over Ferrer that much more impressive. Gasquet was down a match point and had to battle through five sets in brutally humid conditions for four and a half hours to defeat Raonic.

To follow up his victory over Raonic with a three-and-a-half-hour triumph against the boundless energy of Ferrer is something that Gasquet might not have pulled off a few years ago. He is clearly playing inspired tennis and is finally merging his signature “powerfully graceful” style of play with a newfound tenacity.

Gasquet utilized his entire arsenal of all-court weaponry to defeat Ferrer. From dazzling, backhand winners struck to all corners of the court to deft sliced volleys that contained so much backspin that they spun back into the net, Gasquet frequently amazed the crowd with his wizardry.

What was more amazing though, was how Gasquet didn’t let his disappointment in giving up his huge lead ruin his performance in the fifth set. Right from the get-go in that final stanza, Gasquet reverted to the aggressive tactics he had utilized so effectively at the start of the match and it guided him to victory.

Will he have a chance against Nadal, his opponent on Saturday? Simply put – no. Even Gasquet seemed to admit that as he spoke on-court with Brad Gilbert following his victory over Ferrer. Said Gasquet, “Last time I beat him, I was 13," Gasquet said. "It was a long time ago." Gasquet is 0-10 against Nadal as a pro.

But with Gasquet showcasing his singular brand of tennis in Saturday’s semifinals on the biggest stage in tennis, the sport has already scored a victory.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides occasional commentary for RealClearSports. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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