In April 2005, an 18-year-old French kid defeated the world number one Roger Federer 6-7. 6-2, 7-6 in the quarterfinals of Monte Carlo Masters Series. It was an epic match in which the kid not only outperformed Federer but also outclassed him. Even on his off days, Federer isn’t easily outclassed by any stretch of imagination; but this kid had managed to do that, becoming the youngest player to defeat the world number one.
In the words of the commentators:
“A star is born…Today at Monte Carlo he has beaten a legend in the game of tennis… Perhaps he will be in the same boat one day.”
The kid was Richard Gasquet. Many, including me, believed in the commentators' words not only because he managed to beat Federer, but also because he had delivered on his potential.
Gasquet, from Serignan, in southern France, even at 18 was not new to tennis. He featured on the front of the French Tennis magazine with the caption “Is Richard G the champion France is eagerly waiting for?” when he was nine years old. At the age of 15 years, 10 months, he became the youngest player ever to qualify for as well as win a match in a Tennis Masters event in 2002. A month later, he was the second youngest player to participate in the French Open.
Gasquet finished 2002 as the numero uno junior tennis player in the world and was named World Junior Champion, having won the junior titles at the French Open and the US Open. He was also the youngest player to finish in year-end ATP top 200.
At 21, he became one the three active players to have won a title on every surface. He ended the year 2007 at world number 8th position.
In a Davis Cup match against Marat Safin, British TV presenter Barry Cowan described him as “naturally more talented than Federer." The critics called him “baby Federer” for his technically sound game.
The French media had already heralded him as their bastion of hope and called him “Mozart of tennis” when he was just 15 years old.
“Great talents are the most lovely and often the most dangerous fruits on the tree of humanity. They hang upon the most slender twigs that are easily snapped off.”- Carl Jung
Gasquet is one of the most talented players to come out of France with the potential to win more than one Grand Slam. But he has failed to win any and of late, he has been struggling with injuries and losses. The French fans are already labeling him as microwave for his ability to cool down after a sudden hot streak. The French media too aren’t taking his underachievements lightly. They needed him to win Slams as badly as he did to prove himself as soon as possible.
The French media and fans have been taunting Gasquet for the shying away from the responsibilities and not delivering to his potential. The Gallic French media have enjoyed every bit of their role in launching a scathing attack on him and piling up misery over misery over him.
Such was the immense pressure on Gasquet to succeed that he was crumbling down under its burden. He has admitted that it was hard growing up, under the burgeoning expectations. And even now, when his game is below par, he sometimes seems to lose the will not just to play tennis but to live.
Being the only child of his parents, both tennis coaches, he was handed a racquet right from his birth. Ever since he came on the cover of French Tennis magazine, his life has been under constant scrutiny from the entire nation. The fact he went onto became a World Junior Champion only helped in increasing the burden on him to succeed.
Furthermore, Gasquet maybe just fifteen days younger than Rafael Nadal but is very fragile physically in comparison to the Spaniard. Even with a technically sound game, the fragile body of a young Gasquet wasn’t strong enough to meet the demands of senior circuit but the expectations off him made him continue.
Eventually injuries were bound to happen and then, he was called quitter by the French fans. It wasn’t fair to him, he was still a teenager then, but so huge were the expectations from him, his age never came into consideration.
After fining tuning his technique to perfection, doubts over his mental strength and physical fitness started lingering around him. They began to call him “former French hope” when he was just 18! When he became match fit, they began questioning his temperament and killer instinct. When he broke into the top 10 players in 2007, he was criticized for not breaking into it earlier.
Negative criticism hasn’t helped Gasquet in any way. He may be talented but he is human; and it is making things worse for the tennis prodigy.
“I have a hard time accepting advice from so many others who know nothing about tennis, but who feel they have the right to tell me what to do,” says Gasquet.
“I don't care about people who think that I should be higher ranked, and that I'm not fulfilling my potential. It's great for me, my parents, my coach, and those close to me because, believe me, reaching the Top 10 is anything but easy."
“Sometimes it is difficult because everybody tells me I have a lot of talent, I have everything. I don't know if I have more talent than other guys, but for sure I'm working really hard. People, yeah, told me all the time 'you are talented, you are talented'. But I'm working so much to do it, to be talented on the court,” he laments.
This could well have been a eulogy to one of the saddest tragedies involving a gifted sportsman ever conceived, but it is not, considering the fact that Richard Gasquet is just 22 years old at present.
Even Roger Federer had not won any of his Grand Slams till he was 22, neither Marat Safin faced so much flak for his erratic behavior in his whole career!
“Everyone has a talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the place where it leads.” - Erica Jong
But Gasquet is not running away from his responsibilities either. He has managed to keep his grounded and head cool. Tennis is still his top priority.
Gasquet took professional help from Yannick Noah, former French superstar, in improving himself and coping with the pressure. His coach Eric Deblicker believes he can still improve mentally and tactically while concentrating on his fitness. Gasquet has been training harder than ever.
Despite the ever increasing burden of expectations and the ruthless French media and fans impatiently breathing down his neck, Gasquet hasn't lost his mind and managed to keep it real.
“Anything is possible, of course, but I know how hard it [winning Grand Slams] is, and I prefer to focus on climbing one step at a time.”
Many doubts still linger over the destiny of this teen prodigy, personally I am convinced it's only a matter of time before Gasquet starts delivering to his potential.