In praise of Paul-Henri, by: Stephen Tignor, TENNIS.com
Last year TENNIS Magazine did a cover story about the game's new young "Hot Shots." I wrote the entry on Richard Gasquet and dubbed him, with intentional hyperbole, "Baby Federer." This didn't mean I thought he was going to win 12 majors anytime soon; it meant that he had the same type of free-flowing game as Adult Federer, only he hadn't found a way to make it work consistently.
At Wimbledon last year, it looked like the Frenchman was beginning to find that way. Down two sets to Andy Roddick, he went into his every-shot-I-hit-will-be-a-jaw-dropping-winner mode and came back to reach his first Slam semi. My alternative nickname for Gasquet had been "The Microwave," for his ability to heat up on the spot, a la Vinnie Johnson of the 1980s Detroit Pistons.
A year later, Gasquet looks more like a Baby Malisse, or just a baby. He's 9-7 so far in 2008, and he sank to a new low in Davis Cup this weekend when he told his teammates that he didn't want to play Roddick in the do-or-die first rubber on Sunday. Instead, Paul-Henri Mathieu, still shell-shocked from his five-set loss to James Blake on Friday, was thrown back into the lion's den, where he could muster only token resistance.
Last month, I watched Gasquet go through the motions in a desultory straight-set loss to Blake in Indian Wells. He played passively, with no ideas or Plan B. Is Gasquet, who will never be as physical a player as Federer, that good after all? His most common look these days is raised-eyebrow bewilderment after a lost point.
Yes, he's still ranked No. 10 in the world. But that ranking has been watered down in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic age. Last month they became the first trio to earn at least 5000 ranking points. With that kind of dominance at the top, you don't have to come up with that many wins to keep yourself in the top 10 -- the man one spot ahead of Gasquet is David Nalbandian, hardly a towering figure. Five years after turning pro, and three years after stunning Federer with his Microwave act in Monte Carlo, Gasquet has yet to put together a reliable plan that will make inroads against game's best players. It's jaw-dropping winners or bust.
If there was a positive to France's lost weekend, it came, perversely, in the performance of Mathieu. Watching him get close to finishing off Blake on Friday, I kept thinking: "How does he keep going, knowing that he's going to choke?" This is a man who has made an art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory -- he lost the deciding rubber of the 2002 Davis Cup final against Russia after being up two sets to none. Mathieu couldn't finish this one either. He got to the brink, with two match points, but played tentatively when it counted.
Despite that, Gasquet's non-performance gave me new respect for Mathieu. He tries, he chokes, he tries again, knowing that he's going to choke again. Mathieu doesn't have Gasquet's artistry or sporadic brilliance, but it takes a twisted kind of honor to keep putting yourself on the line, failing, and getting up to do it all over again.