With the French Open less than three weeks away, the prospect of the host nation’s best player giving the home crowd reason to celebrate is looking as likely as an empty road on the Parisian périphérique. In losing 6-4, 6-1 to Peru’s Luis Horna, the world No 111, in the first round of the Rome Masters here yesterday, Richard Gasquet gave the appearance of a man who would have preferred to be anywhere other than on a tennis court.
Gasquet, one of the game's most exciting young talents, has always been a complex character, a man of emotional highs and lows, but the world No 9 has hit new depths in recent weeks. After the furore surrounding his refusal to play a vital Davis Cup rubber against the United States last month, he followed an early exit in Monte-Carlo with a dreadful performance here. Once Horna had broken serve at 3-3 in the first set, Gasquet’s game fell apart.
After the match Gasquet’s inner turmoil was evident. Running his hands through his hair, nibbling at his fingernails and fiddling with his sweatshirt, the 21-year-old was at a loss to explain what had happened.
“After the first set I lost all my confidence and just had this huge feeling of panic,” he said. “I felt total emptiness. Nothing was going through my head. Anybody in the draw could have beaten me. It was my worst match of the year. I was awful. I didn’t think it would be possible to play as badly as that.
“I wasn’t expecting this. Everything had been going well in practice and I was happy to be here, happy to be playing. I practised for three-quarters of an hour with Fabrice Santoro before the match and everything was going well.
“What happened today has happened to me a few times before. When you get very low all sorts of things go through your head. You think about the crowd, about what you’re going to say to the press afterwards. Yet all you want to do is to be in a room on your own.
“It’s not a question of motivation. I really wanted to play here. I’ve been practising well, practising hard. I’m happy to come to the tournaments. I regard myself as lucky to play at such wonderful events and to be playing tennis at such a high level.”
Gasquet rejected a suggestion that he should seek help from a sports psychologist. “I just don’t believe that someone who doesn’t know me or someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to play sport at this level could be of any help to me,” he said.
The Frenchman can only hope that he will recover as quickly as he has from some past setbacks. Within a month of going out to Kristof Vliegen in the second round of last year’s French Open he reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, where he lost to Roger Federer.
An only child, Gasquet has been groomed for the top from an early age. At nine he was already being touted as a future champion and featured on the front cover of a French tennis magazine. At 15 he became the youngest player for 14 years to win a match in the main draw of an ATP event and the second youngest player ever to appear in the French Open. Three years later he was one of only four players to beat Federer in 2005, knocking out the world No 1 in the quarter-finals in Monte-Carlo.
Never the strongest of players mentally, Gasquet has looked particularly vulnerable since last month’s Davis Cup quarter-final against the United States at Winston-Salem. With France trailing 2-1 going into the final day, Gasquet complained of a sore hand and a knee problem and refused to play against Andy Roddick in the crucial fourth rubber. Paul-Henri Mathieu took his place and lost in straight sets, after which Gasquet lost the dead fifth rubber to James Blake.
Christian Bîmes, president of the French federation, was among those who criticised Gasquet afterwards. "You have to make the players understand that they need to fight, to make sacrifices, even if they are undermined by an injury," he said.
In the circumstances, Gasquet’s chances of enjoying success at his home Grand Slam tournament do not look good. In six appearances at Roland Garros, Gasquet has lost in the first round three times, the second round twice and the third round once, when he was beaten by Rafael Nadal three years ago.