Serve and Volley

Gasquet the Great

Final eight at the U.S. Open brings out the winning spirit.

By 9.5.13

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At the first deuce of the fourth game, Gasquet unleashes one of his famous gorgeous backhands and hits a perfect crosscourt winner for the advantage. He loses it in the net on the next point. At deuce again, he follows his serve to the net and drops one of his gorgeous soft-hands shots over the net. On the next point he gets in another drop shot but this time Ferrer catches it and with it the point for the break. It is 4-1 now, and no one doubts David Ferrer is back in the match, chasing everything down and hitting merciless accuracy from anywhere on the court.

There had been some doubts about where he was during the first two sets. That is the last thing on his mind now because tennis is forward, you do not turn pages back or worry about missed chances. Historians of the game will note that he was limp, listless, even, it would seem to the untrained eye, lazy. Ferrer is not lazy, he is the hardest working man in tennis, as well as a perfect gentleman, what in Spain they call a caballero, but in those first two sets, superficially, it looked that way. There is also the fact that Gasquet, whom no one ever accused of wimpdom, is playing magnificently in this tournament, and it is by no means a sure thing he will not win the honor of going to the semifinals, there to meet either Tommy Robredo or Rafa Nadal.

In the fourth round Richard Gasquet played a thrilling five-set match against Milos Raonic, coming back from behind, one set to two, in a nerves-of-steel fourth set tiebreak and a to-the-wire 12-game fifth set. He is the last French player in the draw, but if you go by the rankings -- which you should not do, but which have some ballpark validity nevertheless -- you must note that he is ranked 9th, seeded 8th at the U.S. Open, and David Ferrer is ranked No. 4, which is also his seed here. Ferrer closes out the set at 6-4, never leaving any doubt who is dictating the points, and it will be up to the man from Beziers to try to turn the tide back in his favor: for if this match goes to five, it will be hard to stop the redoubtable Ferrer, dogged all-court player who goes after everything, best returner in the business and, at 32, certainly one of the most fit.

Ferrer gets to a 3-2 lead in the fourth. He knows he has his man on the run now, but he is not going to give him a break. He keeps moving him all over the court, never relenting. He is always polite, why should he be nice? Was Napoleon, when he invaded Spain? He is nice anyway, though not intentionally, giving Gasquet two points on swanked forehand shots, recovers quickly with a service winner down the center line. Gasquet is no slouch, wins the next one, a 26-shot duel that shows the kind of stamina he used against Raonic. Ferrer charges back. They go back and forth, trading precision passes; Ferrer saves a deuce point that looks like a perfect winner to his backhand, fails to convert, gets the ad again, overhits a down-the-liner, saves a Gasquet advantage with a strong serve, saves still another one. An ace gives him back the ad. A second one gives him the game. There is a reason why they gave David Ferrer the best sportsman award this year.

Ferrer closes out, 6-2, and they are even. From the looks of how they have been playing, it would be a brave gambler to put money on the Frenchman now. However, in his autobiography, Rod Laver remembers a case they should teach in tennis school, where someone blew a two set, 5-0 lead at the French international championships at Roland-Garros, in 1958. It was an amazing case. As Laver recalls, “… a Frenchman named Robert Haillet was so far gone in a match with the stylish American, Budge Patty, that he needed extreme unction. Patty was serving and he led, 5-0, 40-0 in the fifth set. Triple set point and two service breaks up. There was no way Haillet could win, so he figured he’d drop dead with a flourish and he swung spectacularly on a return. The ball landed on a line for his point. Nice, but so what? Still match point and that tremendous lead for a Wimbledon champion and one of the world’s finest clay court players. Haillet, as loose as Marie Antoinette at the guillotine, thought what the hell and kept swinging at Patty’s serves with all he had…” You can read the rest in The Education of a Tennis Player (Rod Laver with Bud Collins, 2009), a fine tennis book.

IT IS THE BEGINNING of the quarters, the last dash toward the finals at the final major tournament of the year. They began Tuesday with Na Li, Li Na in Chinese usage, winning a tough match against Ekaterina Makarova, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2. Speaking for the mental ambiance of the high-pressure quarters, she said, after noting she was not happy with her performance, “Yeah, because, I mean, today’s first time I was feeling so nervous. Start beginning of the match until end of the match.”

All in the head: but that is not quite what she means. She knows how hard you have to train to be here, and she is conscious of being the first Chinese player to get to a semifinal at the U.S. Open (there will be a Chinese-Indian team in women’s doubles at least as far as the semis, as well). The pressure is intense, physical and mental. There is no way she can avoid thinking about her next opponent, the defending champion, Serena Williams. But the pressure is there already. “I was feeling the pressure behind me to come, push me to go forward. I mean, it’s semis. Only four players end of the tournament, so nothing you can worry about. Just play the tennis. Just enjoy the time.”

This is not Oriental wisdom. Every coach knows that when the pressure is building up, tell the player to relax and “enjoy the time.”

Not that it has been especially enjoyable for Serena’s opponents, the most recent of whom (in singles), a few hours after Li-Makarova, was the Canaries cutie, Carla Suarez-Navarro, shot down in straight sets and about half an hour, 6-0, 6-0. This was rather breath-taking, given how well Miss Suarez-Navarro played in the earlier rounds, notably against the Chinese dynamo Jie Zheng (half the Asian doubles team that is advancing in the semis) and the German high seed, Angelique Kerber. Maybe this was a case of the head just not getting in the game. It was Miss Suarez-Navarro’s birthday and this is what she gets, a date with the world No. 1, the lady who gives no quarter.

Miss Li has a sensible view on this; when asked if she is worried about facing Serena (who won their last meet a few weeks ago), she says, “I mean, if you only think about what opponent doing, of course you already lose the match before you come to the court.”

GASQUET IS CERTAINLY not conceding the match, even though Ferrer, even now at two sets each, seems to be on an unstoppable tear. He holds at love as the set begins, and Ferrer strikes back, holding at 15. He goes on the defensive offense in the next game, smashing returns of serve all over the place to keep Gasquet back of the baseline, making him move, fatiguing him. They are both sweating, have been for some time -- it is a beautiful day in Queens, the great northeastern borough of the greatest city in the world, but it is warm on the court in Ashe Stadium. It usually is, no matter the weather.

They hold serve to 2-2. French tennis is strong. Their Federation has several boys in the juniors’ tournament, and they are doing well, advancing toward the final rounds. They will be around for a while. The Spaniards are deep, too. Later in the day, two of their iron men, Tommy Robredo and Rafa Nadal, will play their quarterfinal, the former being the man who shot down Roger Federer in straight sets at Louis Armstrong Stadium the other day, using a superb combination of passing shots and excellent returns-of-serve.

Gasquet has reserves yet. Up 3-2, he breaks Ferrer, hangs tough and holds serve. Suddenly it is 2-5, and Ferrer, on serve, has his back to the wall. They open the game with a 29-shot baseline, cross-court rally that Ferrer follows up with a perfectly executed serve-and-volley, then another one of these baseline nerve-wrackers gives him a 40-0 lead, which he tops off with a service winner to Gasquet’s backhand.

With Ferrer, a comeback at 3-5 is perfectly reasonable. But Gasquet’s nerves are steady, considering the situation. He is serving for the match and quickly goes up 30-0, then plays too cautiously and blows his lead. Ferrer nets on the next point. The final point is anti-climatic after all the hard fought rallies and Ferrer’s superb volleying. Gasquet serves down the middle, Ferrer is forced to return to midcourt, where Gasquet already is waiting to send him a passing shot in his forehand corner; typically, Ferrer goes after it, gets the tip of his racquet on it and sends it out of bounds.

A couple hours later, Richard Gasquet is serene, to the degree you can be in the quarters of the U.S. Open. He says he knows it is going to be very difficult against Rafa Nadal, who is about to begin his demolition of Robredo, “… because he’s powerful, especially with the forehand.”

Confidence comes with winning, though, after two big five-set wins, the man whose tendency till now was to crack in the final set says, “I’m in semis in U.S. Open. I want to do the best I can do. I will try to go in this match to win. If not, don’t go on the court.”

Photo: UPI

Maybe he has been listening to Miss Li? She said, after her quarterfinal win over Miss Makarova, “For tennis you have to figure out what you have to do on the court, what you should do. Yeah.”      

 

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About the Author

Roger Kaplan, a Washington-based writer, covers the Middle East and Africa (and tennis) for The American Spectator.