For an hour and fifteen minutes of his fourth round match against Andy Murray at the Roland Garros, Richard Gasquet was on another plane. You only needed to look at the rasping backhands and stinging forehands to know that you were watching something else; something beyond the usual hitting. And then it all went pear-shaped, as it has often in the past. Alas! The tide has not turned; not just yet.
If you were to introduce someone to tennis for the first time, you would probably show him videos of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray. You would show them Federer playing and say, ‘Exhibit A – grace.’ You would show them Rafa playing and say, ‘Exhibit B – grit.’ You would show them Djokovic playing and say, ‘Exhibit C – solidity.’ You would show them Andy playing and say, ‘Exhibit D – variety.’ And then you would show then Richard Gasquet and say, ‘Exhibit E – style.’
Seldom has there been a more stylish player to grace the court; no I do not mean in the brightly colored designer clothing, but purely in terms of the tennis on display. There is something surreal about watching a one-handed backhand. As fans of Roger would so readily tell you, he bears an artistic grace when it comes to executing that shot, and they are right; he is indeed a master. But Gasquet’s backhand is something else. The backswing is anything but simple. The modern literature talks of efficiency and compactness. Gasquet’s strokes (on both wings) are hardly what a coach would advocate to his pupil. They are exaggerated; excessive even. They are however, gorgeous. Absolutely stunning.
Richard Gasquet burst onto the scene when he was a mere teen and it seems has been around forever. He has so much talent and so much potential. Surely, there must be more to show for it; there must be, but unfortunately, not.
Notoriously shy, this Frenchman has just gone about his business quietly and in the most unspectacular manner. The latter, a most unfortunate event. For all his talent, a lone semi final appearance at Wimbledon (with his next best result at a Grand Slam being a 4th Round exit) hardly does justice.
The forehand is flat with a hint of top-spin, the backhand is pretty similar; they both pack a punch. The volley is solid and sharp. The overhead is surprisingly brilliant for such a a fellow who isn’t all that tall and the serve is not too shabby. Overall, the game is much better than his current ranking suggests.
Gasquet breezes through the first set. The second set is on serve. Gasquet is serving 4-5 (30-40). One solid point to take it to deuce. First serve. Wide. Fault. Second serve. Into the net. Tamely. There is no reaction. Andy Murray has tied the game. Just like that. No fuss from the Frenchman. No emotion, it seems. An anticlimax, if there ever were one.
Perhaps the reason for this low ranking is something a lot more inherent. Perhaps it lies in his origins. Being French, he displays in oodles all the charisma and indeed the crazy streak that all great artists display. There is a certain degree of disdain with which he dispatches some shots. There is an air of arrogance. At times, this borders on the Cantona-esque.
The problem, perhaps, lies in the fact that you hardly ever see Gasquet playing the ‘percentage game’, putting the ball back in. He plays the game on his terms. If there is a ball to be hit, he hits it. If the ball is on the rise, he steps in. Gloriously. When it comes off, it really does come off. When it doesn’t, it makes one wonder why he lets his talent go to waste. I can readily imagine an old man sitting in the gallery, watching this young Frenchman, nodding his head, and saying, ‘Such a waste.’
Murray has raced into a 5-0 lead. Gasquet holds. There is some sense of sanity to the scoreline. Things have not come off this set. Backhands have caught the net. Forehands have sailed long. Murray has been brilliant. Murray serves 5-1. Gasquet does not really put up a fight. Six one.
At times, you watch Gasquet and are amazed. ‘How did he do that?!’, you ask yourself. That was incredible! At other times, you are equally amazed. ‘Now, why did he do that? Surely, he should not have gone for it that much!’, you say to yourself. Perhaps it is the winner in you that is tempted to ask that question. Perhaps not everyone plays solely to win. Perhaps there is an artist there somewhere for whom beauty is paramount. In his mind, there ought to be something that makes you go ‘Ah!’ Gasquet’s backswing, in a sense, is like Lara’s backlift. Stunning to watch but when he gets yorked, you do end up asking yourself, ‘did he really have to make it that elaborate?’
5-1 in the final set. Gasquet is down. He’s serving. 30-40. Match point Murray. Murray returns. Gasquet senses the opportunity. He comes in. Murray tries to pass. Gasquet makes the volley. Murray whacks it back. The ball is floating away from Gasquet. He puts his racquet out firmly; angling it just the right amount. The ball hits the racquet. It catches the line. Deuece. The crowd erupts. Gasquet puts his hands up in celebration. He has not won the match. He does not look like he is going to win the match. Perhaps it is not about the war itself. Sometimes, a victory at a battle is enough.