'Baby Federer' Shakes Off Growing Pains
Australian Open 2008
by Georges Homsi|
From the tender age of nine, Richard Gasquet has been touted as a future World No. 1. His game is so technically complete that he has been dubbed 'Baby Federer,' and at 21 he is one of just three active players to have won titles on all surfaces. He finished 2007 ranked No. 8, yet some French fans still doubt he is destined for greatness.
As a bookend to his breakout year in 2007, it was not the grand finale that Richard Gasquet had in mind.
With a shot at the Tennis Masters Cup semifinals at stake, the young Frenchman suffers a crushing 6-1, 6-1 defeat at the hands of Spanish revelation David Ferrer. Gasquet is as groggy as a boxer reeling from an uppercut as the French media bombard him with questions. "What can I say? Ferrer is the toughest player for me to face. I'd rather play Federer or Nadal," says the 21-year-old native of Sérignan, a small city in the south of France known for its laid-back attitude, warm hospitality and passion for rugby.
After an inspired debut in Shanghai, which saw him force Nadal to three sets, then outplay world No. 3 Novak Djokovic, Gasquet looked every bit a Top 10 player before being humbled by the rampaging Ferrer. Asked whether finishing a career-best No. 8 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings was the realization of a lifelong dream, Gasquet, seemingly a little irritated, replied: "Yes it is! It's not my ultimate goal, but a dream come true, yes, absolutely. I don't care about people who think that I should be higher ranked, and that I'm not fulfilling my potential. It's great for me, my parents, my coach, and those close to me because, believe me, reaching the Top 10 is anything but easy."
Like Tim Henman, who throughout his career was criticized in Great Britain for failing to win Wimbledon, Gasquet is the victim of a reputation he developed at an extremely young age: that of a potential world No. 1. At age nine, he was featured on the cover of France's Tennis magazine with the caption: "Is Richard G the champion France is eagerly waiting for?"
The tone was set - at least in the eyes of tennis fans. Privately, the Gasquet family knew his path would be long and hard. "In spite of his exceptional results back then, he never became big headed. He never took those results as a guarantee that he would make it on the professional Tour," says his father, Francis.
Gasquet captured the junior titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2002 at age 16 and soon after was crowned Junior World Champion. Earlier that year Gasquet became the youngest player in more than 10 years to win a main draw ATP match when, after advancing from qualifying, he took out World No. 54 Franco Squillari in the first round of Masters Series Monte Carlo. He was just 15 years, 10 months old. Many viewed that victory as his long-predicted professional breakthrough. But Gasquet wasn't yet ready to find his way on the ATP Tour. Physically his body was far from strong enough to sustain the demands of playing at that level week-in-week-out, and the weight of expectations took its toll.
And, as a growing boy competing in a man's arena, injuries didn't spare him. When, on a few occasions, he wilted before the conclusion of hard-fought matches because of exhaustion, extreme heat, or physical distress, he was quickly labeled a quitter. In the eyes of French fans, Gasquet's fragility did not compare favorably with the iron man feats of Rafael Nadal, just 15 days older than Gasquet, but with a body of a hardened veteran.
"The comparison with Nadal was not always easy to accept, but it motivated Richard to set even higher goals for himself," Gasquet's father says. Francis taught his son the basics of tennis with a technique so pure that Gasquet was quickly dubbed the "Mozart of French tennis." "He was always so intent on reaching technical perfection, that sometimes he was making things harder for himself," says Francis. "A few years ago, he played very well in the South American clay swing, and I was able to get the tape of his best matches. We watched them together, and I was surprised at how disappointed he was at seeing himself missing a forehand here or there."
So came three years of doubts and sustained injuries, which for some made Gasquet the "former great French hope." "I think that at a certain stage of his young career, criticism has hurt Richard," explains his coach, Eric Deblicker. "Technically he is a prodigy, but he is no less human, and you need time to put certain things in place, but his critics felt he should have reached the Top 10 much earlier."
Deep inside, Richard knew his time was yet to come. In 2005, two months before his 19th birthday, Gasquet once again chose Monte Carlo to make a statement, defeating World No. 1 Roger Federer in the quarterfinals before falling to Rafael Nadal in a riveting three-set battle in the semifinals. Finally, Gasquet was back on track just when many had given up on him.
In 2007, while Gasquet's ranking kept improving, doubts lingered about his physique and killer spirit. On the plus side, he staged a remarkable comeback from two sets down to defeat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in a performance Roger Federer described as "phenomenal." Yet two months later the Frenchman was savaged by the French press when tonsillitis forced his withdrawal from a second-round meeting with American youngster Donald Young at the US Open - just when an attractive draw had opened up. Even if he was sick, the feeling was that he should have at least given it a shot.
This episode gave Deblicker the idea of soliciting the advice of charismatic French superstar Yannick Noah, the 1983 Roland Garros champion, who is now a popular singer in France. Inspired by the words of wisdom of his prestigious elder, Gasquet went on to capture his first title of the year in Mumbai, losing only 20 games in five matches. In doing so, Gasquet completed a career 'surface slam' of winning titles on all four surfaces (carpet, clay, grass, hard). Of active players, only seasoned veterans Federer and Roddick can lay claim to that feat.
Following the US Open, Gasquet won nine consecutive matches before falling to Ferrer in the Tokyo final. "The collaboration with Yannick helped me tremendously," Gasquet says. "Yannick knows tennis, and I listened carefully to every bit of advice he gave me. He told me in a very blunt way some things he felt I was not doing right, but coming from him, I welcome criticism. Just like I have a hard time accepting it from so many others who know nothing about tennis, but who feel they have the right to tell me what to do. Yannick's help is precious to me. He made it clear that his door was always open if I needed anything. I intend to take him up on it, and ask for his advice on many future occasions."
"The areas where Richard can improve are still many," says Deblicker. "First, he needs to keep working hard physically. This is the area that he started focusing on a little later in his career. He has come a long way in the last three years, but there still is a lot more to do. He also can improve a great deal mentally, and also tactically."
Now Gasquet's goal for 2008 is simple: "Keep strengthening my body, and try to qualify once again for the Masters Cup. I think I can get even closer to the top." As for a Grand Slam success, Gasquet remains cautious. "Anything is possible, of course, but I know how hard it is, and I prefer to focus on climbing one step at a time." After all, at age 21, even Federer had not captured the first of his 12 Grand Slam titles.
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