U Tennis: One Week in April

by: Steve Tignor | February 27, 2009

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The vast majority of the time, we feel like we’ll never see anything new under the sun. Or the clouds. Or the bright blue sky.

Rock is dead, it’s politics as usual, tennis has no new personalities—on any given day, all of these clichés are likely to seem true. But just when you’re about to give up on the future, you might notice a disturbance in the force. The last time I can remember this in music or movies or politics was the early 90s. We’d all thrown in the towel and resigned ourselves to a lifetime of hair metal, Richard Gere, and Barbara Bush. Then over the course of what seemed like one weekend in the middle of 1992, they were all vanquished. The world was, however briefly, an edgier and smarter place. In their place was Nirvana, there was Bill Clinton, there was, coming soon to a theatre near you, Pulp Fiction.

When you read that list of what we actually got in the 90s, you realize that not much changed in the end. Nirvana offed itself, leaving us with the horrifying Stone Temple Pilots—I guess we were fools to think we deserved better. Clinton was as embarrassing as he was inspiring. Pulp Fiction retains its deadpan brilliance, but now looks as dated as any other 15-year-old flick. After 9/11, the previous decade’s cartoonish movie violence and grunge angst seems pretty naïve.

The last revolutionary, star-aligning moment in tennis came in the spring of 2005. At Key Biscayne, Rafael Nadal had announced himself as not just an exciting newcomer, but a contender to the throne when he nearly beat Roger Federer in a five-set final. But before we could learn to do a flying fist-pump and scream "Vamos!", there was an even fresher face on the scene named Richard Gasquet.

The French teen was not an unknown quantity. He was on a magazine cover at 9 and the No. 1 junior in the world at 16. But behavioral and confidence issues had kept him from lighting up the tour until that point. Then he arrived in Monte Carlo, the tournament off the coast of France where he’d been given a wild card three years earlier and become the youngest player to compete in a Masters event.

His first upset in '05 came over Nikolay Davydenko in the round of 16. That set up a quarterfinal against Roger Federer, who was making one of his periodic runs at invincibility with a 25-match win streak. Gasquet ended it 10-8 in a third-set tiebreaker. He'd lose in the semis in three grueling sets to Nadal, who would go on to win his first Masters title.

It wasn’t the fact that Gasquet beat Federer and challenged the new challenger, Nadal. It was the way he did it that shocked. He jumped into his shots. He showed touch and goods instincts around the net. He had a glorious flyaway backhand. He hit effortless bullets. Does that last term make any kind of sense? It’s the best way I can describe how the ball came off Gasquet’s racquet. When he got hot, as he did in the second-set against Federer and the first set against Nadal, it seemed like he could have hit those winners blindfolded. I loved Nadal’s style, but I was thrilled by Gasquet’s game, to the point where two nicknames immediately seemed appropriate: “The Microwave” and, to the eternal disparagement of my friend Peter Bodo, “Baby Federer.” I thought I had seen two futures of tennis arrive over the course of one week, in the forms of Nadal and Gasquet.

Only one future had arrived, and it was Nadal. He foreshadowed events to come by taking the best Gasquet had to offer and slowly dissolving it in the red dirt, where it could do no harm. For Gasquet, that weekend, like Nirvana’s moment in 1992, remains both his summit and a symbol of his unfulfilled potential. Today I watched him get dismantled by the much more earth-bound David Ferrer 6-2, 6-2 in Dubai. I thought I was noticing a little more fight in the Gasquet game this year, and it may still come. But as Ferrer showed, the Frenchman has never found a way to consistently beat top players without going into Microwave mode. Unlike Federer, he hasn’t learned to dictate points routinely. Most of the time, his flair goes for nought. Like his countrywoman Amelie Mauresmo, his style will only win him points when it's backed up with a dull but reliable weapon.

But we still have Monte Carlo 2005, and a few key points of his win over Federer live today on YouTube. Here’s how that non-turning-point in history looks today.

—The sight of this famous court above the sea makes me think of spring, and even feel a little of its blustery warmth. Cannot wait.

—Neither guy looks too different now. Federer has improved his hair, but Gasquet persists with the abominable backwards cap. French journalist Philippe Bouin said last year that this atrocity was a symptom of Gasquet’s wish to remain a coddled child and never accept the responsibilities of manhood. Gasquet replied, according to one translation, that that was “hogwash.” I didn’t know the French had a word for hogwash.

—Gasquet’s father, a teaching pro, is sitting next to Richard’s old coach, Eric Deblicker. You don’t see his dad much these days. He’s got the same facial twitches as his son.

—As I remembered, Gasquet launches himself into the ball and into the court. It’s almost as thrilling to see now, but I wish there were clips of the second set. That was jaw-dropping. You can see a little more of the match, from an odd angle and with a screwed up soundtrack, in the clip below. Check out the snap Federer overhead. It also gives you a good view of the aggressiveness of his footwork—he launches himself around the court as well.

—Mirka more smiley and playful back then. Does she distract Federer before the 8-7 point?

—Federer’s backhand looks stronger here, especially down the line. Or maybe I’m just remembering how he hit it in the fifth set against Nadal in Melbourne.

—It’s surprising that Gasquet could give away match points and still survive the two that Federer has. You’d think the world No. 1 would have closed the door. But Federer seems slightly peeved by the atmosphere in general. I’m guessing he wasn’t the crowd favorite this day.

—Gasquet is letting it rip and looking to come in. Today against Ferrer he was more passive. He couldn’t figure out a way to make a dent in the Spaniard’s game; I’ve seen him lose to Ferrer in a similarly despondent way before. But like I said, I don’t think going Microwave is a viable tactic. Playing the world No. 1 as an 18-year-old is one thing; winning matches on an everyday basis all year is another. You’re not going to generate that kind of energy at will.

—Who’s the announcer with Leif Shiras? He seems a little overconfident that Gasquet will end the match at 9-8. I have a hard time imagining Gasquet telling Federer in his head, “You’re history now, pal.” It might help if he did.

—The final running backhand bullet pass up the line: The best match-ending shot of consquence ever? It’s hard to beat for athletic pizazz. It’s also no way to plan to win a point. Those two sentences pretty much sum up Richard Gasquet’s career four years later. We really did see the future that day in April.

Have a good weekend.

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