The Great Unrealized

Monday, May 24, 2010 /by
100377569 by Pete Bodo

Does it get any better than this? Suzanne Lenglen was packed full, creating a canvas that puts the most accomplished of French pointillists to shame. There was just enough breeze to snap and ripple the flags around the rim of Lenglen; whoever first thought of placing flags at intervals around the top of a stadium deserves immediate enshrinement in the International Tennis Hall of Fame. And down on that red-clay battleground, the two fellas were playing like they meant it.

This was merely the second day of a Grand Slam event (traditionally and psychologically, the first - but don't tell that to Vikki Azarenka), and a first-round match. But it made a full-force, preemptive statement about majors and why they matter. Granted, the combatants were high-value names - Richard Gasquet and No. 4 seed Andy Murray. It was a delectable and perhaps unfortunate match-up, and by consensus it was the match of the first round. But set it up at any other tournament on the calendar, and it would never come near the measure of significance - and, well, cruciality - that you may also have felt as it unfolded before your eyes.

This could be a critical test for both men, albeit in different ways. For Gasquet, the great unrealized, it offered a significant step toward professional redemption and a greater measure of rehabilitation in the eyes of his countrymen. It's tough, having to pursue those life-stabilizing goals before countless pairs of eyes, and with a scoreboard to tell you precisely how you're coming along on that quest. But that's what you sign up for as a tennis pro.

For Murray, the draw must have appeared to add insult to injury. His life appeared to get considerably more complicated instead of easier after he reached and lost the Australian Open final at the start of the year. Ordinarily, a guy who makes a Grand Slam final and loses to the Greatest Player of All time ought to be entitled to strut around with his chest flung out. Instead, Murray's diaphragm seemed to cave in, and over the ensuing months he's been adrift, like a man trying to resolve or maybe even just suppress the nagging existential question: Is it really worth going through all this, especially when the cup that ought to have tasted so sweet has left a bitter taste on my tongue? The match-up had numerous resonances for both men, but that didn't stop them from going at it, tooth-and-nail - at least not for nearly three of its four-plus hours.

I watched this one in the still chamber of my living room, on a good television (I think it's HD; all I know is that the screen is flat and I can actually see the tennis ball), with good dog Buck sleeping nearby, occasionally whimpering as - I imagined - he dreamed that he was trying to catch one of those optic yellow tennis balls that Gasquet and Murray were batting around.

John McEnroe was the color commentator for Tennis Channel, which holds the broadcast rights to Roland Garros. I'm glad they opened up the purse strings to hire him, because I like the fact that McEnroe doesn't overwhelm me with his expertise, and he has an appealing way of stating what ought to be obvious, but isn't, always. Like when, late in the second set, he pointed out how Gasquet, serving into the deuce court, was going for the big first serve right down the pipe. He did it, McEnroe speculated, because he was a little tired, not very tall, and the net is lowest at the center. Three solid reasons, which is still three too many if you're making a bad choice, or merely a choice of convenience.

Of course, Gasquet was coming off a big win over Fernando Verdasco in Nice - a 7-6 in-the-third win, which is a pretty good stint of rehab. He had barely a day of rest, but you sometimes have to play the hand you're dealt, whether you like it or not. And that's something for which Gasquet, with his princely bearing and that long-lost but once radiant aura of predestination, does not have a great talent.

Gasquet probably was tiring long before the rest of us could say that was the case, but early enough in the match to be in conspicuous danger of hitting himself out and losing steam. The match was competitive for two-plus sets, and early on I got to thinking about the two questions every fan, and maybe every player, ought to consider: Where are the balls landing, and where is the one or the other guy playing?

For part one, the formula is pretty simple: the closer to the sideline, the better, and if you can hit close to the sidelines and also get halfway or better through the other guy's backcourt, you're in with a shot - no matter what the rankings or form chart suggests. As for the latter, decisions like where to serve, and even the specific serve to use, ought to be made taking into account the receiver's position. And in rallies, the further back a man (or woman) is playing, the more room you have to improvise and innovate; just make sure that if you go for the sharp angles in a rally, you cover your line, especially when your opponent is hitting the forehand.

Gasquet was at his mercurial best through the first two sets, taking those enormous cuts and going for broke time and again, especially with that roundhouse one-handed backhand. But Gasquet and others have shown time and again that you can't bank on such heroics to get you through a five-set match on a slow surface, and certainly not when you're coming into an event with a lot of recent mileage on your odometer. Murray certainly knew where Gasquet had been this past week, which may help explain why he seemed to be in no hurry to handcuff him. Give him enough time and fatigue, or the law of averages, would accomplish that.

For a while, it looked as if Gasquet might get the job done before the law of diminishing returns kicked in, and in all honesty he should have gotten it done. Other players have come off a taxing week of play and just continued to roll. Gasquet led by two sets and a break, when it suddenly looked as if he realized that he didn't really have to win. And in the blink of an eye, Gasquet lost his grip on the match. He went from a man who looked to be in charge to a player who seemed to take stock of the situation and, quite irrationally, decided: Well, there's no way I can win this one. Or, perhaps, There's no way I must win this one. . . Or, perish the thought, Maybe I should just lose this one to stick it to the arrogant snits - my countrymen! - who wouldn't deign to give me a Tuesday start. I know, I'll lose, that'll show 'em!

Let's face it, he wouldn't be the first person in history to bite off his nose to spite his face.

If you saw how downcast and frustrated Gasquet looked on the changeover after he allowed Murray to break back in the third, you might have thought he was the one in the deep hole. Was it fatigue, whispering in his ear, telling him he could bail, that there was no shame in losing a long match because he felt spent? Was it the smoldering resentment he surely felt, having had a request for a Tuesday start turned down cold?

One beauty of five-set matches is that it asks all the tough questions of a player. It can offer him every temptation to throw in the towel, tease and tantalize him (or her) with numerous options for quitting, offer up the best of all reasons for quitting (including spitefulness), whispering, Go ahead, it's just another tennis match, and you'd be justified. . .    A long five-setter always demands that you be tough for its own sake, because it's a value unto itself. But let's remember, it's hard to be tough when you're spent, even if that's when toughness would be most meaningful.

On this day, Gasquet wasn't tough enough, and despite the fact that showed plenty of sand against Verdasco, that was Nice, and this is Paris. Were it a competitor of a lower order across the net, Gasquet still might have found a way to win. But a top player is by definition a great competitor, and therefore an opportunist of the first rank. And any concern for Murray's own level of fatigue was unnecessary. Murray appears to have been born tired, but he's got a knack for navigating around that one with a Beckett-esque mantra: I can't go on, I will go on. That's the language toughness understands.

It was a good day for rehabilitation at Roland Garros; Murray made significant strides in his own; Gasquet is still working on his.

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