The Tragedy of Richard G.

Monday, May 24, 2010 /by

Rg “Whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising.” So said British author Cyril Connolly. Did he foresee, all the way back in the 1930s, the rise, and thus far the fall, of Richard Gasquet? As a kid, the Frenchman, who this Saturday won his first tournament in three years before losing in a predictable five sets to Andy Murray today, was featured on the cover of the country’s national tennis magazine under this headline: “Richard G: The champion that France awaits?” He was 9 years old. Notice that he wasn’t the “next big thing” or “hope for the future.” France was waiting, presumably with impatience, for Gasquet to grow up.

Has Richard G, the child of two teaching pros who still wears his baseball hat backward and apparently likes to party a little, ever grown up? As a junior, he somehow managed to live up to that towering, looming potential; he was ranked No. 1 in the world at age 16. But he had behavioral problems—he was defaulted from the U.S. Open for drilling someone with a ball one year—and struggled in his early seasons on tour, until he broke from his parents. Gasquet has had a lot of success in the years since, reaching the semis at Wimbledon and cracking the Top 10. But there’s been even more disappointment, including a hideous five-set record and the embarrassment of having been perceived to be too "scared" to play a Davis Cup match for France against the U.S.

From a technical standpoint, Gasquet doesn’t have an unbeatable serve or forehand, which everyone must have who wants to win a Slam at this point. Aside from that, he really is a world-class talent, with speed and flair and variety, and, when he’s got it all going, the most uncanny and inexplicable timing of any player I’ve ever seen. But it’s not good enough; France is still waiting.

Like anyone else, Gasquet has to fight his opponents and the usual demons, but he also has to fight his childhood version of himself, the one who, in a mythic way, is better than the 23-year-old he is now. You can see that kid break out of the adult body at certain moments, what I call Gasquet’s Microwave moments. These are the stretches of games when, like the old Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, he can’t miss—he couldn’t miss if he tried. Gasquet hits winners effortlessly, from anywhere and to anywhere, making up angles and trajectories that no one knew existed on a tennis court before. He doesn’t even seem to be looking at the ball or swinging particularly hard. The only way you know how fast the ball is traveling is that his opponents can't even take a step before it's past them. It can’t be explained, other than as something Gasquet was born with. You can imagine that when adults saw him hit these same types of inexplicable shots as a kid, shots no one had seen before, they must have believe he was the future of French tennis.

The Microwave returned for the better part of two sets against Murray today on Court Suzanne Lenglen. I was fifth row center for it, and it was a scene. The stands were overflowing, and the chants of “Ree-shar!”—a chant we haven’t heard a whole lot here—echoed over the grounds. Early in the first set, Gasquet took a perfect Murray lob, let it bounce, and absolutely tattooed it past him. You can tell a player’s natural talent by his overhead—the best of them, like Rafael Nadal’s, have a pistol-crack sound—and Gasquet, when he’s loose, pistol-cracks it as well as anyone. At this moment, amid of all his fans on this bright red clay court, with flair to spare in every stroke, Gasquet looked like the embodiment of French tennis, if not its next champion.

But it’s more complicated than that, and Gasquet is more complicated than that. A few years ago he was accused by a French tennis writer of being coddled throughout his career and never forced to “become a man.” (Gasquet said the article was “hogwash.”) But while hitting impossible shots may be child’s play for him, it takes a man to do the dirty work of winning. Murray, I thought, was ready to go out. He was too keyed up to start, too easily frustrated, too ready to believe the worst—if I didn’t know better, I’d say he had one eye pointed at London, one foot on grass. He looped his backhand with more topspin than usual and looked cautious and uncomfortable when attacking.

When Gasquet broke for 3-2 in the third, it was all over—for the Frenchman. You could see in his eyes that now, for the first time, the pressure was on, he was supposed to win this match, France was waiting again. It didn’t help that Gasquet lost from two sets and a break up against Murray at Wimbledon in 2008; he served for that match before blowing it, and, while he denied it afterward, it was clear he hadn’t forgotten the experience. On the first point at 3-2, Gasquet went for a backhand up the line, a Microwave-esque shot he’d been making all day. This time he was late on it and missed it badly. His nervous grimace afterward wasn’t a good sign. I almost said out loud, “He’s done.”

I should have. When he was broken, Gasquet suddenly appeared ready to throw everything away, as if he'd been waiting for disaster all along. Even serving at 4-5 in the third, right after he'd broken a still-shaky Murray, Gasquet double faulted to lose the set. He had nothing left, physically, after that. In Gasquet’s case, the man, the guy who has to hit the last shot under pressure, just can’t measure up to the kid, who gets to have all the let-it-rip fun. The man was asked afterward, “At what point did you feel the match was slipping away.” His answer was sad: “The game at 3-2, 3-2, I could . . . in the third set. That’s the most important game in the match for me. And I missed it.” It’s a sad answer, and a telling one, because Gasquet was unable to explain, to himself or to us, what happened. It's never been his forte. He’s still a boy genius at heart.

Still, it hasn’t been a bad run for Gasquet of late. It may have even been the start of a new road ahead. He won a challenger two weeks ago, and the tournament in Nice last week—those 10 matches obviously took their physical toll today. When I got to Paris Saturday, the Nice final was on TV. After, predictably, blowing a lead against Fernando Verdasco, Gasquet came back to win in a third-set tiebreaker. It was a low-level event, but you wouldn’t have known it by his reaction. Gasquet fell flat on his back as if he’d won the French Open. He hadn’t, of course, but he had won in France. The home crowd stood and cheered. For that day, at least, in a small way, Richard G. was the champion they’d been awaiting.

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