Gasquet's Tennis and the Triumph of Petulance

Rotterdam, The Netherlands – February 2012. It’s only February and it already feels like the dregs of the professional tennis season. The Australian Open, the traditional start of the season and its first Grand Slam, has been over for a month and the next major won’t be played until spring arrives in Paris for Roland Garros. You can see it in the way players approach the court at the ABN AMRO Rotterdam Open, with a weariness that suggests the only thing to be gained is ranking points, not glory. This is the look on the face of our (anti)hero, Richard Gasquet. After a chance to finally make a splash at the Australian, Gasquet has once again receded to the player we know him to be. An underachiever of the highest order. Prodigiously talented with strikingly little to show for it. Rotterdam is a microcosm of his entire career. String together a few wins, playing fabulously beautiful tennis, before exiting to a solid, entirely unspectacular player. In Rotterdam it is 40th ranked Nikolay Davydenko to whom Gasquet loses in the quarterfinals. But it could have been anyone. This is what he does. It didn’t have to be this way.

When I learned that Richard Gasquet, a twenty-five year old French professional tennis player, lived in Neuchatel, Switzerland, I admit I was a little surprised and disappointed. I had assumed he lived in that other famous tax haven, Monte Carlo. Maybe that’s because the first time I can remember ever seeing him play was on the red clay of the Monte Carlo Masters. Whether or not this was truly the first time I saw him, it might as well have been. Nearly all serious tennis fans must feel the same. It was 2005 and Gasquet was playing Roger Federer, the man who had then just begun his ascendancy to the title of greatest of all time. Gasquet, with his one handed backhand and prodigious shotmaking abilities, had been called “Baby Federer,” an honorific which the talented but petulant boy hardly deserved. It was the quarterfinals and anyone with any familiarity with the pro game thought Federer would win easily, teaching the flamboyant teenager a lesson. What happened on that court remains one of the most memorable tennis moments of our modern age. With the panache expected of a Languedocien, Gasquet beat the then world number one Federer, besting him in a tight three sets, saving three match points along the way. It wasn’t so much that Gasquet beat Federer – anyone can have an off day. It’s more the way Gasquet beat the Swiss. With a mix of devastatingly beautiful backhands, sprightly footwork, and cagey tactics, Gasquet took Federer’s own game to him. It was as if the apprentice was teaching the master. After dropping the first set in a tiebreak, Gasquet went on to win the next 6-2 and the third 7-6, showing the poise of a considerably older and more seasoned player. Certainly not one who was only eighteen years old with a face even younger than that. And so I will always associate Gasquet with Monte Carlo, a tournament of which he’s never even made the finals. For it was on that show court, with the blue ocean directly behind and always in camera sight, that Gasquet arrived. He was a debutante, and moreover, the most desirable one at the ball.

It is now 2012, more than six years after Richard Gasquet’s momentous arrival. He is now twenty-five years old, a young man nearly everywhere except the world of professional men’s tennis. He is currently ranked a respectable, if unremarkable, 18th in the world, and in the time since his debut he has won a meager six titles. In a telling comparison, his contemporary Rafael Nadal has won forty-six titles in the same timeframe, including the aforementioned 2005 Monte Carlo tournament. So how did we get here? Or more appropriately, how did he get here? It’s hard to say, really, where Gasquet went wrong. His career has been a series of gorgeous shots and little else. Middling, unreliable, frustrating – such has been the career arc of Gasquet. For every incredible shot he hits there are four that leave the viewer shaking his head, muttering about squandered talent. His high-risk tennis, heavy on flair and light on mental fortitude, has given him a comfortable, if unsatisfying, career. He is perpetually hovering around the top twenty but hasn’t seen the top ten since 2008, practically an entire generation past in tennis terms. So how exactly did Gasquet go from the “can’t-miss-kid” to an exciting but unsuccessful player? Any answer is supposition, but the clues seem to be there any time Gasquet steps on the court. The devil-may-care, rakish way he plays has done him more harm than good. Where a simpler shot would suffice Gasquet often attempts a harder, prettier one. He is an aesthete on the court, more concerned with the appearance of the shot than its effectiveness. A fine philosophy, but one that hardly wins tennis matches. As Gasquet has littered the highlight reel with dazzling shots, his peers have racked up wins, money, and glory. And yet Gasquet hardly seems bothered.

In fact, the most memorable moment of Gasquet’s career has been an off-the-court scandal that only added to the impression that Gasquet is less a tennis player than the last of the international playboys. It happened in May of 2009, a period in Gasquet’s career that resembles much of the rest of his career. With a ranking in the mid twenties and a slew of mid-round losses, Gasquet was doing his best impression of himself. That was until the International Tennis Federation gave word that Gasquet was to be suspended for a drug test that revealed the presence of cocaine in his system. Hardly the typical drug test failure, Gasquet’s positive test sent shockwaves through a sport that prides itself on having the strictest doping policy in all of professional athletics. While the tennis community expressed the obligatory shock, fans of the game were hardly surprised. Gasquet always seemed a little less invested on the court, as if he couldn’t wait to change into a crisp white Lanvin shirt and hit the club. Maybe it was his boyish looks and attire – Lacoste polos with notably short shorts and cap always turned backwards. Maybe it was his profound lack of remorse after ill-advised shots. Whatever it was, the distinct impression was always that Gasquet would rather be somewhere else. That somewhere else, given his ever-present tan and sun-washed hair, was probably Cap d’Antibes or South Beach. So color me unsurprised when it was announced that the positive test occurred at the Key Biscayne tournament, just minutes from the beaches of Miami. Naturally, Gasquet maintained his innocence. What’s notable is the way in which he did it. Rather than deny that cocaine was in his system, Gasquet asserted that the positive test was the result of kissing a woman with cocaine on her lips. Two months later his defense was accepted and his suspension lifted. In a single moment Gasquet confirmed everything I thought about him. He was exactly the man I pictured him to be – one minute hitting divine backhand winners, the next kissing a model in a dark club, pounding French electro playing, the world spinning all around him. Richard Gasquet was laid bare, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

January 2012. Richard Gasquet is in the midst of what appears to be a career-reviving run. He has performed admirably through three rounds, beating players ranked 40, 146, and 9 to reach the quarterfinals, all without breaking a sweat. Most impressive was his third round match against the upstart Serb, Janko Tipsarevic. A former wild-child himself, with tattoos and piercings so rarely found in the still conservative world of professional tennis, Tipsarevic rose meteorically in 2011, from 49th in the world to 9th. Most notably he finished the year with a victory over tennis’s new regnant king and world number one, Novak Djokovic, at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. What did Gasquet do? Of course he manhandled him, 6-3, 6-3, 6-1. A convincing win over a bona fide player, I thought that this was exactly the kind of match that could propel the run the entire tennis world has been waiting for. In typical Gasquet style it simply wasn’t. He went out in the quarterfinals in the most routine of fashions, to the most routine of players, the 5th seeded David Ferrer, a human backboard who has plodded along at the highest levels of tennis without ever even sniffing a grand slam trophy. He is, in many ways, the antithesis of Gasquet, especially on the court. The contrast became clear in that match in Australia. As Gasquet ineffectively dazzled, Ferrer played his soul-crushingly boring yet effective game, handling the Frenchman in a little over an hour and forty minutes. While Gasquet had the looks Ferrer had the game. And in professional tennis it’s the game that pays the bills.

Not only is it January 2012 in Melbourne, but it’s January 2012 in New Hampshire, because despite time differences the month is consistent. I’m on the tennis court, much like Richard Gasquet, except of course not at all like him. Except for the similarities that keep popping up in my mind. The one-handed backhand. The emphasis on beauty over effectiveness. The striking inability to recapture the success of a previous era. It has been over three and a half years since I played a competitive set of tennis. Back when I was playing competitively I wasn’t even that good. Frankly, my strokes made me appear to be a whole lot better than I actually was. So while I could run with the big boys I always ended up making enough unforced errors to ensure speedy losses to players of any caliber. After high school I gave up competitive tennis, not so much out of disillusionment, but more out of lack of consistent opportunity. I wasn’t good enough to make the traveling club squad at school, and New Hampshire’s tennis season is short enough to ensure that any time on court is a hassle involving a long trek to indoor facilities. So I gave it up, going months at a time without picking up a racquet except to take practice swings in the mirror, hoping to capture the spark of years gone by. Every few weeks I’d get the itch to hit a few balls but circumstances would always intervene. And so maybe once every few months I’d find myself on court but it was always disappointing. Tennis is not quite like riding a bike. Though my strokes may have looked the same, the effectiveness that used to flash intermittently in my playing days was now more blue moon than full moon, appearing infrequently rather than dependably. That was until this summer, when I dedicated myself to playing once a week. Though I didn’t quite make that goal I played enough to find a rhythm and return to some semblance of form. It wasn’t competitive but it was something. Of course anytime I tried to make a regular thing of tennis something else intervened. So after summer it was four months before I stepped on court again, the aforementioned January 2012. And it’s all coming back. Rolling the ball cross-court with my backhand, holding the finish. Firing serves so hard down the T that my elbow begins to ache. With the glory comes the downfall, too, though. For as many backhand drop shots that land perfectly just over the net, there are four that don’t even make it over. And for every punishing forehand winner that clips the inside of the line there are five, hell maybe ten that land five feet out. It dawns on me that playing in the manner of Richard Gasquet is the ultimate tennis pitfall. For while the aesthetics are certain so is the futility of said style. Tennis is a lot like art: beauty does not imply functionality. And while the game of Richard Gasquet and Benjamin Riley may be beautiful, functional it is not.

In my younger days, I thought that if Richard Gasquet was the player I was, he was also the man I wanted to be. Everything I knew about him suggested that he, jet-setting and kissing models at clubs in Miami, lived the glamorous life any young man dreams of, if only for a while. Gasquet was living the dream, so to speak. He spent his days playing tennis for a living and his nights wiling away that living in dark clubs, the air thick with seductive intrigue. His life to me wasn’t real, it was a movie waiting to be made. As it turns out, Gasquet is nothing of the sort. To paraphrase John McEnroe, Gasquet is the type of guy who barely ever even drinks a beer. Which is to say, he is not only not the man I imagined but also not the man I dreamed of being. And maybe that’s for the better. For the glamorous life is nothing if not fleeting. Richard Gasquet does not aspire to be a playboy and maybe I shouldn’t either. Maybe we should both just focus on placing the ball within the lines rather than on them; maybe we should both just focus on hitting the smart shot rather than the beautiful one. But to put it simply, where would be the fun in that? I would rather hit one absurdly dazzling shot than ten safe ones. It’s easier for me to say than for Gasquet, as my livelihood isn’t dependent on a high winners-to-unforced-errors ratio. At the end of the match I go back to real life whereas the match is Gasquet’s real life. But I do wonder if perhaps Gasquet would be happier and more content with his career if he accepted his place as tennis’s entertainer-magician rather than continue to strive for results. With nearly six million dollars in career prize money and countless more in endorsements, Gasquet has ensured that the outcomes of his tennis matches are immaterial to his worldly comfort. So maybe he’d do better to embrace the life that his tennis style so clearly alludes to. He is a rascal on the court and could be one off. For now, and probably forever, he’s just an unremarkable middle-aged tennis player. He made his professional debut, at the age of 15, in Monte Carlo. He played his most memorable match ever, at the age of 18, in Monte Carlo. Maybe when he retires he should move there and be the playboy I, and the world, wishes he were. Drive fast cars, gamble, be the profligate man he was destined to be. Or if he wasn’t destined to be that man, maybe he should have been.


Benjamin Riley