Sometimes having a little more to play for makes a difference.
Coming into his second-round match in Paris today, Richard Gasquet had lost six of his last seven to his opponent, Fernando Verdasco; the Spaniard had been having his way with the Frenchman since 2007. That may seem like a surprise when you look at the rankings, where Gasquet is currently 24 spots ahead of Verdasco. But watch them play for a few minutes and you can see why the left-handed Verdasco has dominated his right-handed opponent.
Verdasco's best shot, his cross-court forehand, overwhelms Gasquet's best shot, his one-handed backhand. The same is true for Verdasco’s favorite serve, the slider out wide in the ad court. Time after time today, he went there whenever he needed a point, and he usually got it. Verdasco-Gasquet is like Nadal-Federer—except without, you know, the greatness.
Today, after two hours and 14 minutes, five match points, 18 break points, and three unpredictable sets, Gasquet managed to turn the tables on his oppressor with a 7-5, 6-7 (6), 6-3 win. The Frenchman had an obvious motivation: He has a chance to qualify for the season-ending World Tour Finals for the first time in six years; Gasquet, along with his countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, is on the bubble at the moment. Verdasco, on the other hand, has no shot to make it to London this year. The first clue to their differences in motivation may have been the backwards baseball cap that Verdasco was sporting for this indoor match. It had a vacation-starts-tomorrow feel to it.
Still, Verdasco made Gasquet work. He saved 14 of 18 break points, two match points in the second set, and two more in the third. Most of these saves came via his hook serve, which pushed Gasquet past the doubles alley and behind the baseline. But Verdasco also won points when he changed directions and speeds with his serve; Gasquet was bamboozled by it in general. He was also pushed around the court during rallies. Gasquet, who has never beaten Verdasco’s countryman Rafael Nadal, has no answer for their heavy lefty topspin. His one-hander, as brilliant as it can be when he has time to hit it, doesn’t allow him to take their shots on the rise.
Yet this time Gasquet persevered. He forced himself to attack with his forehand whenever he could, and not get stuck floundering near the linesmen at the back of the court. He did this well enough to win 78 percent of points on his second serve; this was, strangely, 12 points better than his percentage on his first serve. Gasquet saved five of six break points, hitting his passing shots well, and came through just often enough in the clutch.
Of course, much of the responsibility for the result lies with Verdasco. Serving at 5-6 in the first set, he missed three easy balls and was broken at love. He was broken again while serving for the second set, and he squandered three set points in the tiebreaker before finally closing it out. Verdasco was broken at 3-3 in the third when, after saving seven break points in that set alone, he missed a routine forehand wide. By the final game, he was firing his shots with reckless abandon. Vacation time was here.
Happily for Gasquet, it hasn’t come for him yet. He’ll play the winner of tonight’s match between Kei Nishikori and his fellow London striver Jo-Wilfried Tsonga next.