We take a break from our regularly scheduled programming at Monte Carlo to revisit the Fan Club. In this edition, Tennis.com editor Ed McGrogan and I discuss his early favorite, Richard Gasquet, a man who made his breakthrough at this event once upon a time, and who we assumed would at least be playing it this year. Alas, he pulled out. In a way, though, thinking about Gasquet, it makes more sense like this.
To read my Racquet Reaction on Novak Djokovic's emotional win over Alexandr Dolgopolov today, go here.
It's not that surprising, I guess, that we're doing a Richard Gasquet Fan Club, and the guest of honor is a no-show—that might sum up some fans' feelings about the career of this particularly talented Frenchman. The idea, as you know, was to talk about him during the one event where he really made a mark, back in 2005, with a win over Roger Federer when he was still a teenager. But Gasquet hurt himself last week playing . . . soccer.
You got into the tennis-media business with a blog called Gasquet & Racquet. First question: In your mind, did you make those two words rhyme? Second question: What was it that drew you to Reeshard as a fan? I've always been one as well, at least of his game. That week in Monte Carlo in '05 is still about as exciting as any week in tennis that I can remember. First we had Rafael Nadal, an 18-year-old who had just taken Federer to five sets in Miami and looked set to do even better on clay. Then, suddenly, there was an entirely new face in Gasquet, a former prodigy largely given up for dead who beat Federer by playing some of the most jaw-dropping (there's no other word) tennis I'd ever seen—his running backhand pass at match point might be the best match-winning shot of all time. In the semis, Gasquet got on a roll again against Nadal, but Rafa was ultimately too strong and stopped him in three. Somehow I feel like that match was essentially the end of Gasquet.
I called Gasquet the Microwave after that. Nobody could heat up as quickly or get as scaldingly hot; and I still haven't seen a shot like his backhand. I've waited for those Microwave moments ever since. It's been disappointing that he hasn't put them together long enough to win anything big, but I don't mind that much anymore. He still has the backhand, which is enough for me.
Do you remember your first Reeshard sighting, Ed? And were you invested in his wins and losses at a certain point?
I'd like to think my headline creativity has improved since “Gasquet & Racquet,” but I'll let TENNIS.com readers be the judge. As you suggest, those two words rhymed in my head, like so many song lyrics we unintentionally mispronounce. But G&R was conceived purposely, mainly because I loved the -quet suffix in both words—like many place names, there’s something I enjoy about it.
Which basically describes my temporary interest in Gasquet. It was an unlikely marriage from the start, which might explain the subsequent divorce. Unlike the other pro teams I support, I didn't grow up watching or have any local connection to Gasquet—good luck trying to find a French bistro in upstate New York. I don’t even swing a one-handed backhand, though not for lack of trying. But after watching Gasquet uncoil his signature shot in person at the 2005 U.S. Open, seemingly with very little effort, I was hooked. That was the first tennis tournament I attended, and like many things in life, you tend not to forget your first time.
The setting was optimal: Grandstand, front row on the baseline, sun setting. Gasquet just happened to be the player who was scheduled at that time (OK, so was Girgio Galimberti, but I wasn't about to pull for someone who retired). From that point on, I made an effort to watch most of Gasquet’s matches, and was rewarded two years later when RG came from two sets down to beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals. Oddly, of all the Gasquet tennis I watched—which does not include the 2005 Monte Carlo Masters; I was without Tennis Channel at the time—this sequence, against Lleyton Hewitt at the 2006 U.S. Open, is perhaps my favorite.
I suppose it's fitting that Gasquet loses that match, but the man endeared in defeat. At some point, though, the losses became too much to bear—blowing a two-set lead to Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2008 was particularly stomach-turning, this shortly after he bailed on a Davis Cup tie I drove to in North Carolina. I’d say by 2009 I had let the Gasquet bandwagon, or what was left of it, pass me by. That’s a tough thing for me to admit, being an ardent fan of the New York Rangers and Buffalo Bills, and a vocal critic of bandwagoners in all sports. But I wonder if the non-team nature of tennis contributed to my quick defection. Can we really support tennis players with the same intensity as, say, a hockey or football team? A tennis pro only has a finite time to play, and lacks a tradition to draw upon, as well as a long-term future. The phrase “maybe next year” doesn’t always apply here. It seems that hardcore tennis fans have to embrace the present while they can, and if this Fan Club series is any indication, they're doing that.
As for Gasquet: Do you think we’ve seen the last great surge from le micro-ondes? He’s still just 25, and remains a Top 20 presence. As you said, Gasquet is capable of heating up at any moment; he’s won six titles across four surfaces and reached two Masters finals. Lately, we've seen a lot of players emerge with a breakthrough result after years of seasoning (Francesca Schiavone, Ivan Ljubicic, Mardy Fish). Why not Gasquet, who inspires an if-only-he-was-consistent article from the media every few months or so. I always thought his forehand and serve weren’t too shabby, either.
Can Gasquet ever rise again, for a Schiavone-like stunner? I can’t say it’s impossible. And I don’t mean, “it’s impossible to count out a player with his talent.” I just mean that nothing is impossible. Still, for me, Gasquet has traveled past hope or even regret. When he played Djokovic in Miami this year, despite the fact that he was up a break and briefly threatening, it never really crossed my mind that he could win. At this point, I wait for a few uncorked backhands and move on. Gone are the days when he was a special case, The Tragic Richard G, the child on the magazine cover at age 9 who was cruelly crushed by the expectations of a nation. Now he seems like a gifted, watchable, perennial third-round guy, but no one to get angry about. Which, come to think of it, is probably even worse than being a tragic disappointment.
While we badmouth him and act disappointed and disgusted in his career, though, Gasquet is closer to the norm, on court and off, than someone like Roger Federer or Andy Murray. Richard G even has more disciples than those two so far. Dimitrov, Dolgopolov, Tomic—we want them to be the next Federer, but right now they’re all looking more like the next Gasquet. They’re talented, have had character issues, and show off their talents only sporadically. One brilliant set is what they seem good for much of the time.
And aren’t most of us, really, as much as we might not want to admit it, closer in character to players like Gasquet and David Nalbandian than we are to the top guys? Shouldn’t they be our heroes, the ones we relate to, the people who don’t conquer the world and put their names in record books? The tennis rankings just put these natural human hierarchies in stark numerical terms. I guess it’s not as much fun to see shortcomings on display. Maybe that’s one reason why so many tennis fans, especially now, gravitate toward the very top. I feel like every serious tennis fan is either in the Fed, Rafa, or Nole camp at this point. Gasquet, by comparison, is a novelty, a sideshow, but who would want to put their own happiness on the line rooting for him?
Tennis fans are natural bandwagoners, in other words, and as a fan of Borg, McEnroe, Agassi, and Graf, I’ve long been one as well. Only the champions resonate, while the Reeshards of the world are dismissed as gagging bums while they’re playing. But there's hope in retirement. Here's a post-career scene I see playing out for Gasquet:
When a clip of Richard G is shown, very briefly, on a highlight reel, or when he makes an appearance at a tournament and waves from the stands, many fans will say, “Gasquet! Remember that backhand? That’s when tennis had style, flair, variety!”
The losses and the chokes and the crushing disappointments? Why spoil the image of his effervescent style with thoughts of failure? Pamela who?
“What about that backhand?" we'll ask instead. "Remember the sound it made…?”
Ed, I liked your point about how, as a fan, it’s harder to hang onto a disappointing player than it is to a disappointing team, because the team, even if they're a bunch of losers, has always been there and will continue to be there. What other differences do you see between team sports and tennis? Sometimes I wonder if the players ask themselves, “Why do these people care what I do?” There’s no connection—beyond inexplicable emotion, that is.
There are countless differences between an individual sport like tennis and a team sport, but those that pertain to fandom are harder to identify, probably because the act of cheering for a particular player is such a personal decision. One that I think is worth mentioning is the lack of identification on tennis players—there is no team logo, or city colors, on their apparel; the Nike swoosh on the bandanas of Federer and Nadal may be the closest thing there is to a crest. Players change shirts on a weekly basis, and sometimes wear the exact same outfit as his or her opponent. This may all sound insignificant, but I believe that a reason we support teams is because we feel part of something bigger. I can't play for the Rangers, but I can wear Brian Leetch's jersey, along with hundreds of other Blueshirt fans. By contrast, people who dress up like tennis players at tournaments look a little strange to me.
Just as it can be difficult to establish a connection with a tennis player, I've also found it difficult to dislike a tennis player. Don't get be wrong, I've rooted against players many times, usually when a favorite of mine is playing against them. But I've never held a longstanding grudge against someone in tennis. Roger Federer was arguably the reason I became enamored with the sport, and I savored every one of his wins over Andy Roddick when the American was at his peak. But when Roddick won Miami two years ago, I was very happy for him. I wouldn't be as respectful of a rival in a team sport—the New York Jets could go 16-0 and win the Super Bowl, but I'd still call them a classless organization that doesn't even play in the state they claim as home. A team represents much more than just its players; a tennis player usually represents only him or herself.
There are other differences, I'm sure. And I think we look for elements of team sports in tennis because of these differences. I've grown to really enjoy Davis Cup over the past few years, probably because of my natural affinity to team-based sports, and if I had been watching tennis when Jimmy Arias played, I probably would have pulled for the Grand Island, NY, native. But I don't think I would have experienced a sustained relationship as an Arias fan. I used to watch every Federer match from start to finish, but now I'm more interested in how Novak Djokovic is doing. And it's not like Federer has fallen off the map. My tastes in tennis just seem to come and go, as Gasquet was one of them. I still seek out his matches at tournaments, I still like to write about him, I still purchase Lacoste clothes. But I don't feel guilty in saying au revoir to Reeshard, like I would if I gave up on the Bills. I'm stuck with them. As for the Frenchman, I'm just stuck trying to replicate one of his backhands.