NEW YORK—At 5-3 in the fifth set against David Ferrer on Wednesday, Richard Gasquet gathered the balls from the ball kids, shot a quick look up at his player’s box, and stepped to the baseline to serve for a spot in the U.S. Open semifinals. Then the Frenchman did something that he hadn’t done all match: He hit a backhand—that famous, flowing, formidable one-handed backhand—and he grunted.
Gasquet has never been a member of the grunting school; he’s a man of art rather than grit. Now, though, with the match on the line, it was as if he felt the need to take a page from the man across the net from him. Ferrer is definitely of the grunting school; he's a man of grit rather than art. Whatever he had been doing against Gasquet, it had been working. Ferrer had won eight of their nine meetings before today, including the last five. This time, though, things would turn out differently.
Whether the grunt helped or not, Gasquet’s backhand at 5-3 had a little extra oomph on it. He went for the percentage play, the cross-court, rather than his favorite showboat shot, the down-the-line missile. The ball skidded past Ferrer for a winner. A couple of minutes later, after a few last anxious deep breaths, a few last looks up at his box, Gasquet whistled a final forehand in the other direction. It went for a winner, too. The man of art had survived a five-set war with the man of grit, and made his first Grand Slam semifinal in six years.
“I knew I was so close to win this match,” Gasquet said later. “Especially at 5-3 I was a little bit nervous to go into the semis of the U.S. Open, and I managed to do it.”
He was so nervous that, when Ferrer challenged a call in the final game, Gasquet looked up to the sky and said a prayer that Hawk-Eye wouldn’t betray him. For once, the fates were working with, rather than against, the much-maligned Reeshard. Hawk-Eye confirmed that Ferrer's shot had been out.
Earlier this week the world had been stunned when Roger Federer lost, in the words of one U.S. sportswriter, “to some dude named Tommy Robredo.” But for anyone who follows tennis closely, the sight of Gasquet winning the first two sets against Ferrer, losing the next two, and righting himself in time to win the fifth was nearly as big a surprise. This is a player who has made something of a specialty of losing from two sets up over the years. He did it against Andy Murray twice, once at Roland Garros and once at Wimbledon; and he did it again in Paris this spring, going out to Stan Wawrinka in an epic heartbreaker. Gasquet is one of the few men with the dubious distinction of having lost two five-setters over the course of one Davis Dup weekend, against Russia in 2006.
“It’s true I lost sometimes [in fifth sets],” Gasquet admitted when he was asked about his record today. But rather than making him more fearful, he said it served as motivation. “I really wanted to close out this match to win, because it’s Ferrer, center court in the U.S. Open.”
It was also a big win because it came over an opponent whose career has been everything that Gasquet's hasn’t. For example:
—The Spaniard has always made the most of his talent. It would be glib to say that Gasquet has made the least of his—he is in the Top 10, after all—but the original Baby Federer has never fully converted style into substance.
—Ferrer, 31, is a late-bloomer. Gasquet’s peak came either when he was featured on the cover of a French tennis magazine at age 9—“Richard G.” was touted as the future savior of the sport in the country—or when he beat Roger Federer at age 19 in 2005.
—Gasquet hits an elaborate, high-loop backhand that’s celebrated for its flashy beauty and preposterously easy power. Ferrer uses compact, no-frills strokes designed to get the job done. On his backhand, he keeps his hands a couple inches apart when he swings. It's not a shot that will be remembered for its elegance.
—The Frenchman had sky-high expectations put on him when he was young. Ferrer, who has always stood safely in the shadow of Rafael Nadal, makes a point of going on court with as few expectations as possible. While that keeps him from rising to the occasion against the Big 4, it also keeps him from feeling too much pressure against the guys beneath him in the rankings.
Guys, in other words, like Gasquet. Even before this tournament, though, things had slowly been changing for the Frenchman. Two years ago, he hired Italian coach Riccardo Piatti and finally committed to the fitness work that had been lacking in the past. Last summer Gasquet's ranking began to rise, in January he cracked the Top 10, and he arrived at Flushing Meadows as the No. 8 seed. What he hadn’t done was show any improvement at the Grand Slams. Gasquet came into his fourth-round match here with a 1-15 record at that stage in majors, and that one win had been six years ago against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Wimbledon. On Monday, Gasquet improved to 2-15 with a five-set, four-plus-hour win over Milos Raonic, a match in which Gasquet was one point from defeat.
“For sure I think I work a lot physically,” he said today. “Was a little bit tired after Raonic. We play four hours, 30 minutes, but I knew I could play another big match.”
Both players credited Gasquet’s backhand with making the difference today; he had the down-the-missile detonating. More important, and more uncharacteristic, was his persistence through all five sets (6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3). Gasquet didn’t play poorly in the third and fourth sets, but each time he lost a long game that sent the momentum in Ferrer’s direction. Gasquet was determined not to let it happen a third time. He held onto his serve early in the fifth set, and to the everyone's surprise, it was Ferrer who bumbled his way to a service break at 2-3.
“I knew in the fifth set it was a very important set for me,” Gasquet said.
Important for this match, obviously, but also important for his career. Richard G. is in the semifinals, and after being all but written off numerous times, he has another chance to make good on at least some of his legendary potential. All it took was a little grit to hold together all of that art.
It will take a lot of both for Gasquet to get past the man he will most likely play next, Rafael Nadal. He’s 0-10 against Rafa as a pro, but the new Gasquet isn’t letting that bother him.
“I beat him when I was 13 years old,” Gasquet joked today.
You have to find confidence wherever you can, right? And what better way than to go back to the days when you, rather than your Spanish opponent, was the future of the game?