A few years ago I was watching Richard Gasquet play a sterling match at Wimbledon. I believe it was against Stanilas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. A quick search on Google (that know it all search engine) tells me I am right. Richard Gasquet won that match, 11 – 9 in the fifth set. It was a wonderful display of shotmaking on both ends and an exhibition in the legendary one-handed backhand. It was Richard Gasquet at his best.
My mind traveled back to that match, as I watched Gasquet trade backhands with another practitioner of the beautiful stroke and a far greater tennis player at that. Roger Federer. We know Federer is the probably the greatest tennis player of all time and most certainly the greatest tennis player with a one-handed backhand that ever lived. This is a very different title – if you want to call it that – from having the greatest one handed backhand ever. The latter refers to having the greatest version of the shot and there are a few candidates that sit above Federer in that ranking. Richard Gasquet and Stanilas Wawrinka are two such candidates. The backhand exchange was fast and furious, ending as quickly as it began, with a Gasquet down the line special – a rocket created on his strings, and detonating right on the baseline, near Federer. That it was near Federer, and yet the Swiss could not get his racket on it, tells you just how swift the shot was. Gasquet at his very best… again.
Federer, on the other hand, was not at his best. Just like he did in his first match of the tournament, Roger sprayed his forehands wide, dumped his backhands into the net and even managed to hit a horror of overheads in the fifth game of the first set. That shot barely made it to the net. This was interspersed with the occasional brilliant plays he is capable of producing. I commented in the first match, that Federer looks to be moving well even if the rest of his game isn’t up to speed. I still felt that way seeing him in this contest – his third of the tournament. He was getting to Gasquet’s shots in well enough time. He just wasn’t doing much with them often enough. That was always going to be problematic, especially against Richard Gasquet. If there is something I have noticed about Gasquet, it is that he feeds off of his opponent’s lack of form. He may be the consummate opportunist, in that regard. Much like in his two victories against Federer – all on clay – and his victory against Wawrinka in 2015, Gasquet’s confidence rose with every Federer mistake. I do understand that this is the persistent problem for any dominant athlete facing an underdog. The more the favorite flounders, the more dangerous the underdog gets and the more an upset seems likely. That danger is increased ten-fold when the underdog is Gasquet.
Here is a man who was once heralded as the next great French Champion. His dominance of tennis was predicted long before he became a junior and there are videos on YouTube to prove it – especially one of him outclassing a young and muscleless Rafael Nadal when they were both about fourteen. Such was the talent of Gasquet. I do not remember another tennis player whose potential greatness was anticipated with such eagerness. Not even the young Federer, enjoyed such prophecies. Perhaps that is why Richard Gasquet’s career has been viewed as a tragedy by many. Still, the French man shows us glimpses of what could have been. When he is feeling confident and his shoulders loosen, he begins to produce a level of tennis that feels like a relentless onslaught, just looking at it. Even his normally loopy and weaker forehand flattens out and becomes a biting weapon.
Why do I call Gasquet the mini rocket? It is unfortunate that I was born at a time long after the great Rod Laver hung up his tennis racket. Thank God for YouTube. There is an article that talks about how Laver got the nickname “The Rocket.” It was a slight jibe at his lack of speed and strength as an up and comer. Funny enough, it became a prediction. Watching Laver move on old grainy youtube videos, hitting brilliant passing shots, driving well timed one-handed backhand shots, and carving sweet volleys at the net, all the while relying on the motor power of his stocky legs, he does in a way look like a Victorian era version of Richard Gasquet. A Gasquet that discovered his greatness, permanently, and used his left hand. Conversely, when Gasquet is playing near his best, he does look like a modern-day Laver. Though Gasquet has about three inches on Laver, his stocky calves make him appear shorter than his 6ft 1in height. In an era of giants, he looks even more diminutive and he does play with a low center of gravity. Gasquet is a beauty to watch when he is in form. He runs down shots with quick little steps that look like they sap little effort from him and he uncorks forehand and backhand with a champion’s grace that still makes you wonder what if?
That mini rocket living inside Gasquet, gave Federer a serious fright today. It also gave us a chance to appreciate an often overlooked quality of Roger Federer. He is Roger Federer. Not many players are as adept at figuring out a way to win, the way Federer does. Federer knows Gasquet well enough to realize that he amplifies and reflects the opposite of whatever you give him. Give Gasquet a tense game filled with mistakes, and he will deliver an assured game punctuated by screaming rock… ahem winners from both wings. Give Gasquet an assured forceful game, and the French man will slowly recede. He has never been the toughest player mentally. Even though he was broken in the second set, Federer slowly tightened up his game. When he held at love in the fifth game of the second set with a deftly placed backhand drop shot, Gasquet’s spirit was finally broken. For the first time in the match, the last four games followed a familiar script. One player closed out the match, reminding us and the history books why he will be remembered as one of the greatest, if not the greatest. He found a way to win without playing his best. The other reminded us and the history books that potential greatness doesn’t always translate to actual greatness. He managed to waste his chances and once more left the loser.
What if indeed.