As the nonpareil of the era emerged, it felt like his replacement was already in waiting.
At the 2005 Monte Carlo Masters, Richard Gasquet defeated Roger Federer, emerging from a captivating third set with his reputation enhanced and genial talent verified. As well as the magnitude, it was the manner of the victory that also suggested such performances would become the rule.
Immersed in a decisive tiebreaker, the Frenchman took the game to the Swiss—so irrepressible in tight moments—and punctuated the match with a Gallic flourish. First, a brutish slap of a forehand breached the world number one’s defence. Then, on match point, he castigated Federer’s net approach with an arrowed backhand winner.
Only the giddily unknowing celebration gave away his precociousness.
Gasquet would meet Rafael Nadal next—about to embark on an unprecedented dominance of the red dirt—in the subsequent semifinal and push him close in a three-set defeat. All seemed well. He looked comfortable at the deep end, as those who had feted him with such unnecessary hyperbole as a child, had in the very least hoped.
Six years on, as much of the elite congregate in the principality for the 2011 edition, it remains as comfortable as Gasquet has ever looked. The victory over Federer remains his only one, while his adversary has beaten him eight times since. Tight three-set encounters with Nadal quickly became straight set demolitions.
So now, with every year that passes, questions lurk with ever greater salience: when will the astonishing talent of Richard Gasquet come to fruition? Will it ever happen? Was his talent over-inflated in the first place? He is approaching the age now when talk of potential feels increasingly passé, especially as such a divine technique underscored his game from the very off. It would be convenient now to place him amongst all the other players that promised much for mediocre return.
But then you watch him play. And you can’t escape a notion of unbridled genius.
Everything is there. The flawless technique, nimbleness around the court, an unfussy, deceptively swift serve and a backhand that is the most unyieldingly beautiful shot ever unfurled on a tennis court, a weapon that provides phantasmagorical highlights packages within a single match. It is the one shot that seems to encapsulate tennis more than anything else; a swipe of graceful violence.
Of course, tennis is not wholly a talent contest. It has long been acknowledged that crafting the ball between the lines is something he is more gifted than most at. It’s the rallies in his head that produce the most shanks. There have, indeed, been collapses. The two-set lead surrendered to Andy Murray at Wimbledon. The two-set lead surrendered to Andy Murray at Roland Garros.
Perhaps the argument is over-simplified though.
There have been times when he has risen to the occasion; the aforementioned Federer victory when a mere sapling, the astonishing comeback from two sets down against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon 2007, the convincing dismissal of Murray in Paris when a place in the Masters Cup lay at stake.
Suitably, with Gasquet, it’s complex. Very little is ever given away. Successes are often greeted with the same impish pout as failures.
In an attempt to leave behind tennis’s middle ground, Gasquet has once more turned to his coaching set-up for fortification, introducing the duopoly of Sebastien Grosjean and Riccardo Piatti. Grosjean has been at the side of Gasquet for his recent American sojourn, with Piatti—surveyor of Ivan Ljubicic’s rise to number three in the rankings—expected to move into the foreground for the European-based tournaments.
The presence of Grosjean is especially compelling. He’s young enough to have spent many years as a contemporary of Gasquet (and indeed many of his potential opponents), yet old enough to pass on the wisdom gathered over a stellar career. The irony cannot be lost on Gasquet, that he was a player whose talent was not substantiated with the accolades it warranted.
Another baseball-hatted Frenchman, he played in such a wonderfully swift and off-hand manner, soaking in panache to the point of aquaplaning, seemingly so comfortable in his own skin, you felt his play should be accompanied by a black and white Pathé News bulletin.
Gasquet carries on that tradition with his classically seamless game. He looks like he could equally be tennis’s past or future. What effect, if any, Grosjean—an adept all-court player—has on his compatriot’s game remains to be seen. It might be hoped that some of his forthright style rubs off on his charge. Gasquet has long positioned himself resolutely deep in the court, allowing him time to unravel those picturesque strokes in all their glory.
Recently however, his aloofness has turned into farce, almost disappearing from view when returning even benign serves.
His encounter with Federer in Dubai earlier this season was a particularly unedifying example. The Swiss was able to feast on an inevitable supply of midcourt balls. It’s testament to Gasquet’s pure talent that he almost won a set in spite of his absurd approach.
In fact, Gasquet has built up something approaching momentum in the first few months of the season, establishing himself back in the top 20. His presence in the last eight at Indian Wells was encouraging, particularly his resolve in beating Andy Roddick. The follow-up in Miami saw him fall early to Mardy Fish amid a cascade of errors. Gasquet in excelsis. Mind you, it may never be a surprise that he exits Florida before you have the time to say Pamela and Charlie.
The move into the Top 20 recovers the ground lost during his suspension from the game in 2009. It does not separate himself from the chancers and workhorses. To make the next step, he must surely step closer to the line and allow his undoubted shot-making and net ability to make an impression. What good is an elegant backhand when delivered from behind the ear of a ball girl?
Gasquet faces Denis Istomin today in his first round match. Another chance to come in from the cold. To be a champion, as well as a genius.