Richard Gasquet: a Tribute to an Underappreciated Stalwart

Richard Gasquet in action ahead of the ATP Marseille Open.

Understandably the focus of the tennis world on Sunday July 16th was on the Wimbledon final, as Carlos Alcaraz defeated Novak Djokovic in one of the great Grand Slam finals. But that was only only one of several finals taking place that day. And that particulary evening Richard Gasquet played Benoit Paire in the final at the San Benedetto Challenger on clay, with Paire winning in three sets. It may not seem like a huge story in isolation. But it represents a quite inspiring dedication from Gasquet, dedication that deserves more respect than it receives. To fully understand why we need to go back in time to the start of the 37-year-old’s career.

The prodigy

Gasquet was regarded as a prodigy at an early age. A very early age. He was just nine years-old when he appeared on the front cover of French Tennis Magazine in February 1996. A new hope for France was already being declared. Then he became the youngest ever #1 junior player at that time (since broken by Donald Young) at the age of 15. Soon after he became the youngest ever player to win an ATP match in 2002, a record that still stands.

It was in 2005 when the true breakthrough happened for Gasquet. A victory for the then 18-year-old over Roger Federer at the Monte-Carlo Masters sent shockwaves through the tennis world. Just weeks later he reached the final of the Masters 1000 event in Hamburg, this time losing to Federer. Many felt it was simply a matter of time before this young talent with the elegant one handed backhand would reach the very top of tennis and challenge with the best players for the biggest tournaments.

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Unfortunately that is not what happened. There were other notable results such as a second Masters final in Toronto and a run to the semifinal of Wimbledon in 2007. But Gasquet never got to the level needed to challenge for Grand Slams. As a result many dismissed and bemoaned Gasquet as a wasted talent, and have paid little attention to his achievements since, only judging him by the expectations of his early years.

But this is not a fair assessment of Gasquet. In fact it is disrespectful to a man who has come through pressure and adversity to build one of the longest careers we have seen on the ATP Tour, entertaining millions of fans along the way with his unique style of tennis.

Gasquet’s achievements

When it became clear a few years into his professional career that matching the sometimes absurd expectations many placed on him was likely to be impossible, it would have been easy for Gasquet to lose heart. He may have lost any love he had for tennis and faded into near total obscurity as many young talents have across a multitude of sports. But the Frenchman did not let that happen. He steadied himself and has an impressive and consistent career in his own right to his name. His achievements are many.

Gasquet reached another two Grand Slam semifinals at the US Open in 2013 and at Wimbledon in 2015. He reached quarterfinals at the US Open 2015 and French Open 2016, as well as reaching the fourth round of Grand Slams on more than a dozen occasions. There was another Masters final in Toronto in 2012. He finished inside the Top 10 in the world at the end of 2012, 2013 and 2015, and inside the Top 20 in 2011 and 2016. In addition the Frenchman has not been ranked outside the Top 100 since April 2005, a statistic perfectly representing his consistency. Gasquet has 16 ATP titles to his name and a further 17 finals.

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The achievements mentioned requred the Frenchman to battle his fair share of adversity. The biggest was when Gasquet was provisionally suspended in May 2009 after a tiny amount of cocaine was found in his system. An independent tribunal however cleared Gasquet two months later as the amount was so negligent that the Frenchman’s explanation of contamination through kissing a woman at a nightclub was almost certainly true.

Despite this the Internatinal Tennis Federation and World Anti Doping Agency appealed, seeking a two-year ban, dragging the affair out to December 2009 when the appeal was rejected. In subsequent years Gasquet spoke about how it took him at least a year to fully recover from the ordeal, when he nearly had his reputation destroyed over something he had no knowledge of at the time. But he did recover to attain the solid results he has after that unfortunate affair. That is to his immense credit.

Gasquet has also overcome a range of injury concerns. This included a painful groin surgery in 2019, but his main issue has been repeated problems with his back. Once he reached his mid-thirties and was still struggling with back problems, many would have thrown in the towel and felt it was the right time to retire. But not Gasquet. He fought his way back again, being humble enough to include some Challenger tournaments in his schedule to try and get his ranking as high as possible. His love for the game would not allow him to quit.

Gasquet’s style and special milestones

The veteran Frenchman has been rewarded for his resilience with two glorious moments this season. Firstly in January when he won his 16th ATP title and first since 2018 at the age of 36 with a stunning triumph at the Auckland Open. Gasquet defeated the current #13 in the world Cameron Norrie in the final from a set down in the country Norrie grew up in. No matter what happens throughout the rest of 2023, it was one of the most impressive tournament wins of the season. Then last month in Stuttgart Gasquet recorded his 600th ATP win by beating the current #5 Stefanos Tsitsipas in three sets. He is the first French player to ever win 600 ATP matches and is only the fourth active player to reach the number after Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray. That is longevity that deserves to be celebrated.

Yet despite his lengthy list of accomplishments, it is not uncommon during a match involving Gasquet to hear commentators query whether he has underachieved and should have achieved more. It is time for this to stop. The 37-year-old’s career has been excellent, particularly with the burden of unrealistic expectations that were placed on him. There is much to be proud of.

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We should also celebrate Gasquet’s unique style of tennis while we still have a chance to watch it. His one-handed backhand may be the most aesthetically pleasing backhand tennis has ever produced, as well as being one of the most effective. Gasquet also constructs points in a wonderful manner to watch, making use of a range of heavy topspin, angles, slices, dropshots and a willingness to come to the net.

In a game increasingly dominated by two-handed backhands and a near sole focus on power hitting from the baseline, the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist’s variety needs to be cherished. It is also impressive that Gasquet has stayed competitive with his skilful tennis despite not being one of the most naturally powerful players on the tour, and as power became more of a focal point in men’s tennis. This point is routinely ignored by those who argue that Gasquet has underachieved in some way.

Why Gasquet is an inspiration in his own right

But what exactly is so inspiring about Gasquet reaching the final of a Challenger event during the second week of Wimbledon after being knocked out in the first round in SW19? He has been around professional tennis for over 20 years. The stresses of burdensome expectations and seemingly unfounded doping accusations were lived through. He responded with an excellent career to make more than enough prize money to have a very comfortable life. He has suffered injury problems. After such a long career he must feel tired sometimes, and been tempted to quit.

Yet there the #49 was scrapping away at a Challenger event while most tennis fans were focused solely on Wimbledon. His commitment and attitude remain unchanged. The final did not end as he would have hoped. But just entering and reaching the final demonstrates his love for tennis. How many other 37-year-old’s after such a long career would have entered?

Superstars like Alcaraz will receive most of the attention in the tennis world, and deservedly so. But they are not the only type of players we can be inspired by. Some were not destined to be #1 in the world. But their dedication and love of tennis is the same, and they can still entertain many fans with their own brand of tennis. Gasquet has done that. Who knows how much longer he will be around for. But tennis fans should savour his unique style while we still have a chance, and give this outstanding ambassador for tennis the respect his service to tennis truly deserves.

Main photo credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

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