PARIS—Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet have a long history together. They were born within 15 days of one another; Nadal turning 32 tomorrow, Gasquet on June 18. Long extant is the tale of them playing one another as 13-year-olds, a match won by Gasquet.
On the ATP World Tour, they had played one another 15 times prior to their third-round match at Roland Garros today. Nadal had won them all, including the last ten in straight sets.
One wonders how those who have been repeatedly pummeled by Nadal, especially on clay, conceive their game plans. Do they hope Nadal will merely miss? Do they grab an index card and jot down three point-winning strategies—a dash to the net, a drop shot, a rapier forehand, even an underhand serve?
Asked if he had pondered anything different for this 16th encounter, Gasquet said, “No, I tried to play my game, you know. It's not easy to do, to find another game. I tried my best. I tried to serve well, but I think it's tough for me, because my best stroke is the backhand. With him, I'm going on his forehand. And on the diagonal, he's just better than me. That is a big key for me. That's why it's very difficult for me to play against his game.”
WATCH—Nadal beats Gasquet in straight sets:
Permit a digressive juxtaposition. When Gasquet was nine years old, he was featured on the cover of a French tennis magazine. Imagine had the same opportunity come to the Nadal household, a glossy publication keen on showcasing the promising child from Mallorca. Picture young Rafa, his fingers pouring over slick pages. Uncle Toni’s likely answer: No, no, this is nothing but vanity, fool’s play of the ignorant. There was no way Toni Nadal would dare let his nephew be celebrated. Better yet to spend another hour or two hitting forehands. And let’s also work on that lefty serve, perhaps even into the sun.
Had the fates of these two men been decided years ago? Had the white light of publicity condemned Gasquet to the burden of an entire nation’s expectation and rendered young Richard too invested in the precious qualities of his elegant one-handed backhand? Certainly it was a shot worth honing. But was it meant to be the anchor?
Meanwhile, Nadal had toiled under his uncle’s infamous humble-inducing regimen, Toni a philosopher-scientist of sorts who in the boy’s youthful days issued the now legendary decree that his nephew play left-handed, an executive decision forged between coach and player that changed the history of the sport.
For Nadal, playing Gasquet was a chance to showcase the values the Spaniard so cherished—competition and camaraderie, wrapped up in mutual respect. Said Nadal, “Richard is a good friend and is a nice person. We grow up together. Lot of talks between both of us when we were kids. Now we're older, that's all.”
But as much affection as Nadal had for Gasquet, he also knew that the highest form of respect you could pay to your opponent was to bring every ounce of effort in your quest to destroy him.
So Gasquet had the idea that he was going to play his game, which given his history against Nadal was surely slated to demonstrate the notion that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result.
Barely had the crowd settled into its seats than Nadal had jumped out to a 5-0 first set lead. Per boxer Mike Tyson’s trademark saying, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Gasquet rallied to win three games, but that proved meaningless. In 35 minutes, Nadal 6-3. The second, just as bad, Nadal going up 4-0 and taking five minutes longer to close it out, 6-2.
WATCH—Rafael Nadal on Tennis Channel's set at Roland Garros for an extended post-match interview:
“You see the quality of his ball,” said Gasquet. “He strikes strongly. Deep ball. When he plays on his backhand, he has an intensity which is monstrous. You know it, you have to hold on for all points. But I really have trouble with his forehand that comes to my shoulder every time. It's not easy for me, for my game, and it's what hurts me against him, because 90 percent of players I can control this diagonal, and with him it's complicated.”
Complicated—that single word to describe a troubled relationship, in this case a longstanding bromance between Richard and Rafa that the Spaniard had successfully cast aside every time they’d done battle.
The third set continued the pattern, Nadal requiring 43 minutes to win it 6-2. He’d struck 37 winners to only 16 unforced errors, nicely above the desired 2:1 ratio. The 16th straight win over Gasquet, against zero losses, 6-3, 6-2, 6-2.
Nadal on Chatrier is not just a love match, it is a tribal affinity, akin to Roger Federer and Pete Sampras on Centre Court Wimbledon, Jimmy Connors on Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open. Such Chatrier attributes as the steep rise in the stadium seats and the orange clay add to its visceral slaughterhouse qualities.
“Today it was fabulous,” said Gasquet. “I tried to do my best on each point and to fight till the end, but he was simply stronger than I was.”
Give Gasquet an A for effort, one supposes. But what grade for imagination? Something, something, something to try and ward off the inevitable dread of walking on to Court Philippe Chatrier alongside Nadal. Tomorrow, on his birthday, Nadal will eat cake. Today, he ate Gasquet.
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