Javier Martinez

Updated Monday,15January2024-19:19

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Here's a tennis player of the possibilities who has been back for a while. Richard Gasquet, Carlos Alcaraz's opponent in the first round of the Australian Open on Tuesday (11:00 a.m., Eurosport), will turn 18 on June 38 in what will almost certainly be his last season on the circuit. A virtuoso of the racket, also French in the delicate conception of the game, the man from Breziers has remained much less than he suggested when he was called to co-star in a rivalry with Rafael Nadal, from whom he is separated by 15 days of age and an abyss in professional qualification.

As a child, Gasquet had the pleasure of beating the Mallorcan in Les Petits As, a sort of children's world championship, a pleasure he would enjoy again in 2003 in a challenger held in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. That was the success of the former junior No. 1 in 2002, after winning Roland Garros and the U.S. Open, against the current holder of 22 Grand Slam titles, 14 of them on the sand of Paris. Nadal has beaten him in their 18 meetings on the ATP Tour.

Relegated to 131st in the rankings, outside the top 100 for the first time since April 2005, Gasquet, holder of 16 titles, the last of them just over a year ago in Auckland, and three-time semi-finalist in the majors, the former world number 7 has already announced that if he does not manage to improve his status it will not take long for him to drop the red leaf. The trend seems difficult to reverse: in 2023 he fell from the start in all the Grand Slam tournaments and is beginning to get used to contracting merits in third-rate tournaments, such as the Noumea Challenger that was part of his preparation for this Australian Open and where he did not go beyond the quarterfinals.

The dream of the French fans

France deposited in him the dreams denied since Yannick Noah won Roland Garros in 1983. He was the most eye-catching of a promising generation that also included Gael Monfils, also with one foot off the court, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who retired in the spring of 2022. None of them responded to the popular illusion and the opinion of some specialists. It was in 2016 that Gasquet reached his peak in Paris, with only one quarter-final appearance. It is not enough to have lived under the implacable autocracy of the Big Three to understand why a man of generous repertoire and virtue or hindrance, depending on the perspective from which one contemplates it, from a backhand to a hand with little aesthetic parallel, has fallen so far short of expectations.

There is, without a doubt, an explanation in his mental fragility, in his reluctance to assume the vitola with which he traveled since before adolescence. "I love tennis, but it's not my life," Monfils said recently. Although he has not gone so far as to express it that way, Gasquet will surely share that statement. Unlike Nadal, to return to a clear generational reference, he has always interpreted tennis in a more playful way, with understandable slips in a 23-year-old, his age when he tested positive for cocaine after having kissed a girl at a party.

One-handed backhand

His case lends itself to analogies with that of Grigor Dimitrov, at the time subjected to suffocating comparisons with Roger Federer, also brilliant, also with the good taste of the one-handed backhand, also far from offering what could be expected of him. The Bulgarian, however, has won bigger prizes than Gasquet, including the 2017 ATP Finals, and is experiencing a particularly sweet moment at the age of 32. He is coming off a win over Holger Rune in the Adelaide final after finishing 2022 as runner-up in Paris-Bercy, only stopped by Novak Djokovic. He made his debut in the early hours of Tuesday morning against Marton Fucsovics at this Australian Open.

Alcaraz will thus have a debut that is presumed to be comfortable. Grief will also bring back sweet and still close memories. It was in the final of the ATP 250 in Umag, against Gasquet, that he won the first of his 12 titles: he won the final 6-2, 6-2.