Serving It Fresh

by: Steve Tignor | December 21, 2009

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Looking forward to the Aussie Open? If you haven’t reached that point yet this off-season, the match highlighted above might just get you there. The titanic and tiring third-rounder between Richard Gasquet and Fernando Gonzalez was played so long ago that I had to double-check the date to make sure it really did happen in 2009. It did, and if anything the clip above makes it look even more sensational than it was the first time around—these two guys did everything short of levitate out there. You know it was a very strong year for tennis when this was only its fourth-best match.

—Roddick-El Aynaoui, Safin-Federer, Serena-Sharapova, Safin-Agassi, Verdasco-Nadal, Baghdatis-Nalbandian: what is it about the Aussie Open that allows it to churn out so many paragons of high-quality tennis? First, there’s the medium-pace hard surface, which lets any type of player play his game—Gonzo and Gasquet can set up and hit their bombs, but also track the other guy’s down. At the same time, the court is fast enough to inspire them to hit big and try to end points at the net. 

The second thing the Aussie has going for it is that the players are as fresh as they’re going to get all season. Imagine the level of tennis if they had three months off! Or would that be too much time away? From the standpoint of this tournament, maybe the length of the off-season is ideal: There’s enough time for the guys to heal and practice, but not enough so that they get rusty.

—Some facts about this match: It was the first time these two guys had played each other. It lasted 4 hours, 9 minutes. Gonzo hit 85 winners and committed 51 errors; Gasquet’s ratio was a similarly impressive 80 to 58. Gonzo’s feet bled. Gasquet had a hole drilled in his toenail. At the end, a flare went off over the court.

—You rarely hear a crowd sound so into it right from the start. The Chilean fans, famous for their fervor, were matched this time by the French fans. Both groups are in full roar during the first game.

—Gasquet is into it from the start as well. We all know about his ability to find the zone, but I’d never seen him begin a match in that state—the crowd must have amped him up. When he hits an overhead winner from behind the baseline, it feels like this going to become a circus match.

You know Gasquet is hot when he’s hitting his down the line backhand and running crosscourt forehand for blatant winners. I’ve never seen anyone make it look so effortless. When he’s in this mood, it’s almost as if the ball and racquet take on a life of their own, and he can’t hit anything but perfect shots. Afterward, Gonzalez said Gasquet played like a “superhero” through the first two sets.

—Watching it the first time, I was hoping this might be a breakthrough for Gasquet. Even after he lost the fourth set, he kept fighting, which is not what I expected. He plays pinpoint serve and volley on a couple of crucial points late in the fifth, tattoos an outrageous forehand winner from the baseline to save one match point, and even tries his own backwards-shuffling, arms-pumping celebration dance (is that how he danced with Pamela in Miami, do you think?). Alas, it still wasn’t enough, and his season quickly went south. I watched Gasquet lose badly a month later to Fernando Verdasco in Indian Wells. Then he met the aforementioned Pamela and that was it for 2009.

—Gonzalez, on the other hand, makes everything look effort-ful. But give him credit for this one. He kept swinging with gusto and racing after everything even when he was down two sets. He saved a huge point on his serve at 7-7 in the fifth by guessing right and reflexing a volley for a winner. And after 82 winners over four hours, he still comes up with three more in the 22nd game of the fifth set, including a backhand bomb on match point. The guy was relentless. What did he get for his trouble? A chance to face Rafael Nadal in the next round, where he lose in straights. It doesn’t take long for these guys to start feeling not-so-fresh again.

Now are you ready for the Aussie Open?

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