Gasquet aims to blow away the demons
Monday 30 June 2008
A psychiatrist once saw in Basil Fawlty enough material for "an entire conference". There is another conference's worth of material on Centre Court today, where the sometimes brilliant, often petulant Andy Murray takes on the eighth seed Richard Gasquet, an even more complex character, whose trickiest opponent is often inside his own head. It could be an explosive encounter.
The pair have played each other twice before, with Gasquet triumphant on both occasions, but the curious scoreline in the quarter-final of the Paris Masters last year shows how even within the same match the Frenchman can blow chaud et froid. He beat Murray 6-3, 0-6, 6-4.
At 22, the man from the Languedoc is just a year older than Murray, and like the Scot, tennis is in his genes. Both his parents were coaches, and by toddlerhood he already thought that a tennis racket was a physical extension of his arm.
At the age of nine he was the cover star of the French magazine Tennis – "Is Richard G the champion France is eagerly waiting for?" was the caption – and there were no siblings to dilute his parents' attention.
In due course he became the world junior champion, yet his mother and father were not able to expel the demons which continue to haunt a player of truly scintillating ability but dodgy temperament. In some ways they were responsible for them; he has said that he found it hard, growing up, to cope with the burgeoning expectations. And even now, when his game is below par, he sometimes seems to lose the will not just to play tennis but to live.
So which Gasquet will stand on the other side of the net from Murray today? Will he dazzle or implode, hurry a Murray or blow a gasquet? It will probably be the dazzling version, fired by the knowledge that he has a 100 per cent record over his opponent, and relishing another appearance in the arena where a year ago he contested a semi-final against Roger Federer, having fought back brilliantly from two sets down to overcome Andy Roddick in the quarters.
Federer won in straight sets that day, but he was well aware of Gasquet's pedigree, for in the great man's annus mirabilis of 2005 the Frenchman, then only 18, had been one of just four players to beat him, on clay in Monte Carlo. Indeed, the former player Barry Cowan is on record as saying that Gasquet has more natural talent than Federer. And he was not carted away in a straitjacket, either. At any rate, it is widely accepted among the cognoscenti that, on his day, Gasquet is as fine a shot-maker as anyone out there not called Federer.
Against his compatriot Gilles Simon on Saturday, Gasquet's enormous natural talent was only sporadically in evidence. He won in relative comfort – 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 – but at times his attention seemed to wander and his whip-crack one-handed backhand, which like Sugar Ray Robinson's left hook or Jack Nicklaus's one-iron, is his box-office shot, was not often unleashed. Murray fans will be hoping that he was not keeping it fresh for today. It was mainly the formidable backhand with which he recorded an incredible tally of 93 winners in that quarter-final against Roddick last year.
In the press conference following his defeat of Simon, Gasquet said he was looking forward to being "the villain" trying to undermine the great hope of British tennis at Wimbledon. He also expressed, in broken but unambiguous English, some impatience with the notion that he is prodigiously gifted but lacks application.
"Sometimes it is difficult because everybody tells me I have a lot of talent, I have everything, " he said. "I don't know if I have more talent than other guys, but for sure I'm working really hard. People, yeah, told me all the time 'you are talented, you are talented'. But I'm working so much to do it, to be talented on the court."
He has certainly worked hard to overcome the knee injury which kept him from contesting this year's French Open – the tournament in which he competed aged just 15 in 2002, becoming the second-youngest person ever to take part in the men's singles, and in the first round even taking a set off the eventual champion Albert Costa – but there is no doubt that he is one of the game's artists rather than one of its artisans.
He has talked about how much joy it gives him to play "beautiful" tennis and it is his ambition to become the equivalent on a tennis court to his childhood hero Zinedine Zidane on a football pitch. Presumably, he is not thinking of the Zizou who got a red card in the 2006 World Cup final.
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