A star is born. A legend has been slain,” hollered the commentator after witnessing a delicious display of one-handed backhands on the clay courts of Monte Carlo in 2005. “For years to come,these two will sail in the very same boat.”
A 17-year old had just thrown his hat in the ring on a few counts. With a straight sets win in the quarters over four-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer,Richard Gasquet was the promise of a refreshingly European future to the game (Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt,the other who’s who of tennis then,were neither European nor true challengers).
Switzerland’s Federer had dragged the men’s game out of its usual orbit of mediocrity. Now,with the potential of a rivalry thanks to the rise of this young Frenchman,many pundits were certain that the game’s golden era would be ushered in. And Gasquet had made all the right noises to earn the Next Big Thing tag.
At nine,the boy from Beziers adorned the cover of Tennis (see pic). When just 15,he became the youngest player to win a match in an ATP main draw. That year he went on to play a men’s Grand Slam,taking a set off the eventual champion Albert Costa in the opening round of the French Open. The feat didn’t stop him from lifting the boy’s title in the same event.
By the time he beat a world number one even before he was eligible to vote Gasquet was the talk of tennis town.
So where did it all go wrong? Was it his inability to deal with the pressures that comes with expectation? Or did his grit,or the lack of,get exposed with the rise of future contenders? We follow his career from the match after this great win,when he lost the Monte Carlo semi-finals to a young Spaniard named Rafael Nadal — who would also beat Gasquet in the following French Open,win his first Slam and usurp the Frenchman as the biggest threat to Federer’s supremacy.
Now,a decade later,they meet in the semis a place the 12-time Slam winner has visited 19 times. Gasquet has made it beyond the fourth round of a Slam on just two occasions. When asked just how he was going to overturn a 10-0 record to Nadal when they meet on Saturday,Gasquet said: “But I beat him as a 13-year old.”
The boy prodigy never did grow up.
(Aditya is a principal correspondent based in New Delhi) firstname.lastname@example.org