I posted this interview in the Gaudio forum but I felt there might be some among you who would find it an interesting read.
This is a translation of the more important parts of the loooong article that appeared in Crítica Sunday Magazine, now that he´s considering playing again.
Gastón is brutally honest, as usual, and at the end of the interview, for the first time he talks frankly about his psychological problems. It´s pretty harrowing to see what he´s been through. He says he´s suffered from chronic psychological problems for a long time. But he talks in the past tense...
I´ve always felt he was struggling against depression, or maybe cyclothymia, and unfortunately athletes cannot take the drugs usually prescribed to combat these illnesses. Hopefully during this long rest he may have been able to deal with this.
The article starts out mentioning the film The Royal Tenenbaums where a Bjorn Borg-like tennis player leaves the court in the middle of a Wimbledon match, goes to sea and is never heard of again. And then it recalls that Borg, who never could show any emotion, gave up tennis at the age of 26 and made a mess of his life. It goes on to say:
There were occasions when Gastón Gaudio´s tennis verged upon genius. On others he played like a beginner. What he did do was lose his head many times. During at least four seasons Gaudio gave the circuit a collection of unforgettable backhands, drop shots and heartrending screams. Watching the “Gato” play one witnessed the drama and the beauty, the pain and the magic. A mercurial player, a tormented talent.
Gaudio´s existential anxiety and his reactions made us feel uncomfortable -to the point of having to change channels-, made us laugh or feel embarrassed for him.
One could hardly remain indifferent to such disproportionate –and incomprehensible- signs of suffering. Why should a guy who goes on court to play –I repeat: to play- scream as if he were in Auschwitz? How can a person who is paid very well to hit a little ball feel that his life is a nightmare?
But it´s not so simple. Tennis is no easy job, even though seen from the outside we may believe or imagine otherwise –jet set, euros, the best cities…
The profits for doing it well are extraordinarily high, but the cost of belonging to the élite is sometimes also very high. The circuit is a merciless jungle, a true social laboratory in which the participants are brutally tested. Only the fittest survive: the most outstanding, the crazies and the guys who are mentally superior. None of them is normal: they couldn´t be, being subjected to the pressures they submit to.
To top it all, as sports are constantly defying the laws of physics, tennis is being perfected day by day, converting competition into a suprahuman adventure.
Roland Garros 2004 final:
Coria and Gaudio played a final that also reminds one of The Royal Tenenbaums: the winner started out being demolished, and, mysteriously, that afternoon the loser lost his happiness forever. It was another dramatic encounter, but not because of its technical level but because of the quantities of Argentine anguish spilt over Paris that sunny afternoon.
The temperature of the match, and perhaps its outcome, changed forever when the crowd intervened and started a wave with devastating force. It was an amazing performance. After several minutes, a previously resigned Gaudio became aware of the magic of that unique and unrepeatable moment and began to applaud the crowd. That seemed to set him free.
- Is that how it was?
-“Yes, I said to myself: ´I´m in the Roland Garros final, I´m feeling like shit, I may never be in this situation again, so at least enjoy it, try to live this moment as well as you can´.
- At first did you think Coria was faking again?
-“Yes, of course. I think you can´t go on playing after you cramp. Besides, afterwards in the fifth set he ran as usual. He was the 10 to 1 favourite. He´d been winning everything until then. That´s why I don´t understand what happened to him afterwards or what is happening to him now. He was unbeatable on clay, like Nadal is today.”
As soon as the match was over Coria went to the conference hall and displayed all the mental confusión that assailed him: he began to cry and even began to recall the hard moments he´d had in his life such as the death of an uncle. An Argentine melodrama, broadcast live for the whole world.
During those two weeks Gaudio played the best tennis he´d played in his life. Especially in one match: the quarter finals against Lleyton Hewitt, who two years earlier had been the world´s best player. Gaudio gave him a dazzling tennis lesson. In the post-match conference an Argentine journalist asked him the first question:
-Gastón, was this the best match of your life?
The reply had all the flavor and style of the best “Gato”: timid, relaxed, overcome, apathetic:
-“Mmmm, yeees… yeees… I played well, today I played well.”
Four years later we ask him the same question once again:
- Was it the best match of your life?
-“Yes, everything worked. I played well during the whole tournament, except in the match against Coria.”
-It was also in Roland Garros, five years before, that you realized that you could belong in that élite, right?
-“Yes, when I was 19 I played against Alex Corretja, one of the best players at that moment, and it was a very even match. That´s when I realized that I could play well. I remember that during the course of the match I would say to myself: ´This is Corretja?´ He didn´t seem all that special to me. That made me feel that I could easily play (at that level).”
- Three years later, in 2002, you also played great.
-“Yes, I won Barcelona playing unbelievably. I beat Costa in the final – he won Roland Garros a month later. In those days I always used to lose against Ferrero.”
- Ferrero is living proof of just how hard the circuit is. He was No.1 at the age of 23, and after that he couldn´t even get into the top ten again.
-“Yes, and that that he works his butt off to return. That´s why Nadal´s case is so amazing, because when you see him play you say: he´s a great player, obviously, but he doesn´t do incredible things like Federer does, and even so all he wins is unbelievable.”
- Federer, on the other hand, seems to play more easily.
-“Yes, he´s something else. He has everything to be a champion. But in Nadal´s case, his tennis doesn´t seem to be all that special, and in the end he´s a genius.”
-You used to play well against him. In fact, you´re the last player who beat him before he started to win everything (Buenos Aires, February 2005).
-“Yes, but after that he always beat me well.”
- Did you enjoy playing with him?
-“When I was playing well I enjoyed playing with anyone. Also with Nadal. I felt that we had the same style. They were entertaining matches, because we gave each other´s game rhythm. Who I least liked playing with was the “Chino” Rios, I felt I would never be able to beat him. In fact, I never did. I couldn´t. I hated playing against him.”
- And with Federer?
-“Well, the same thing happens to me with Federer. Once in the Toronto Masters Series I was winning 4-2 in the fifth set, 15-40 on his serve. So he hit an ace, ace, ace. Bye-bye, end of match. That´s where you realized that the guy was something else, because when he had to play well, he played well. That´s why I say that Nadal is a genius, because in the critical moments of the Wimbledon final Federer played unbelievable tennis, and even so Nadal won.”
- What are you doing nowadays?
-“Right now, nothing. I want to go skiing.”
- Will you continue playing?
-“I still haven´t decided, but what I did do is ask for a protected ranking.”
- How does that work?
-“To ask for it you have to have been injured for six months. I injured my ankle in Naples last year. Then I tried to play in Miami and Viña del Mar and I couldn´t. I´m short two months. If I get it, in two months I can return with the ranking I had when I was injured, when I was ranked 200. At least so as not to return placed so far back. I´m waiting. But first I have to take the decision to start all over again, which will be terribly hard.”
- Besides, if you take the decision to return you want to do it properly...
-“Yes, if I´m going to waste my time I might as well go home. And it won´t be easy, it´s not like I can just decide to get my act together and it´s done. Recently I was finding it very difficult.”
- If you return, what shape are you in?
-“I will have to start from scratch. Even so, in a month and a half I will be ready. After that I will have to get into rhythm with match practice. I have to do a really good pre-season.”
- What then is your immediate objective?
-“To be able to play in the circuit, that´s what I want. Besides, one thing leads to another. The hardest part is to begin, but once you´re inside the motivation comes naturally. But if at the beginning you don´t win a couple of matches in challengers it kills you.”
- Of course, you think: ´If I can´t beat this guy ranked 530, how on earth can I play in Roland Garros?´
-“Exactly. Besides, at this stage you give up more easily. When you´re a youngster you´d kill to play”.
- Looking back, what was it that tired you most?
-“So many matches, every week. There comes a time when you´re totally spent, not physically, but mentally. I remember that in 2005, which was a good year, I was a wreck when I reached the Masters Cup in Shanghai. And to top it all I went to Doha in January. I used to play too many tournaments. If I could change something now it would be that.”
- Why did you play so much?
-“Because I had to make the most of the clay season. And then I couldn´t get out of playing in the big tournaments. The thing is that, being high in the ranking, you´re obliged to play. You´re rather under pressure.”
- Do the organizers call you to get you to go?
-“They put on the pressure, and if you don´t go they fine you and so on. And the other tournaments use other incentives.”
Gaudio reached his best ranking just a year after achieving glory in Paris. In May 2005 he was fifth in the world. To be in the Top Five places a tennis player on another plane: sponsors and organizers put on the pressure for him to take part in tournaments. There´s a lot of money involved, not only prize money (Gaudio has earned six million dollars), but also in appearance money: a guaranteed cheque for the star players, whatever the result.
- When you became a top five, were you aware of a star treatment?
-“Yes, you notice a difference. Everything is better. They treat you better, they pay more attention to you. Everything depends on the ranking. That´s how it is. And I don´t think it´s wrong. For example, Federer and Nadal do a lot for tennis.”
- What do you miss about the circuit?
-“To compete, the adrenaline when you go on court. There´s no ordinary job in the world that can offer you that. Except at the casino, when they throw the ball and it starts to spin around the roulette wheel. I´ve only had that feeling when competing. That feeling of fear, of anxiety. It´s like being on a roller-coaster, when you´re up there you ask yourself why the hell did I get on. It´s the same thing.”
- It´s as if you want to be there and at the same time you´d like to get off.
-“Exactly, you don´t know if that´s really what you want.”
- When do you feel that excitement?
-“Every day. It´s something you feel all the time, even more so if you win. That´s why I say that any other job I might do now will bear no comparison. Yes, I may be nervous, but it beats everything. One has to become accustomed to it.”
- Besides, it´s not just competing, it´s to compete around the world in a circuit where everything fits perfectly.
-“That´s for sure, the circuit works perfectly.”
- Which are the tournaments where you have a really good time?
-“Kitzbühel, in Austria: I thoroughly enjoyed going there, we had an amazing time. I always wanted to win that tournament. We went there to party, because the night-life is wild. Really wild. Everybody who went there played in the tournament, exploded at night, and next day they couldn´t play. I used to go out every night, get up at noon and on top of that I´d win. Total madness, I swear.
I would also have liked to win in Monte Carlo. That was the first tournament where I started to play well.”
- Which players did you get on well with?
-“I got on well with Carlos Moya, the Spaniard. And, even though everybody got on badly with him, I got on very well with Hewitt. Also with Federer. In my opinion, the two best of the circuit, on a human level, are Guga Kuerten and Federer.
Guga is fantastic, always perfect with everybody.
And Federer is tops. He has everything, he is a star and a real good guy. We talk a lot. About all sorts of things, about football, about life. For example, in Paris he booked the Crillon Hotel (the best in town) for me, so we could be together. His girlfriend made the booking for me.”
Roland Garros 2005:
Inescapably, Paris appears again in Gaudio´s biography: it is where he embraced glory and where he went through the most somber moments. One year after winning the title, Gaudio arrived in the city of light with his head in darkness. During that month of May in Paris we saw the most vulnerable and tormented image of Gastón, especially in a match which he´d practically won and that he unbelievably let slip through his fingers.
On the centre court of Roland Garros the “Gato” faced the Spaniard David Ferrer. If ever there was a perfect antagonist for the Argentine, that is Ferrer: self-sacrificing, with an ordinary game, but with a heart bigger than he is. A player who, in spite of his obvious limitations, has become an enormous tennis player.
Gaudio won the first set and was leading at the beginning of the second. During an unimportant point the Argentine´s backhand ended in the net. It wasn´t a crucial point nor one of those shots one can´t miss, and neither did Ferrer´s winning the point turn him into a bête noir. But Gaudio, the defending champion, the guy who one year before had filled Paris with talent and now had an unconditional crowd on his side, felt he was on the brink of a precipice. He looked up to heaven and shouted: “If you have no confidence in your life in general, how can you have confidence in what you do?”
Someone who´s nerves were in tatters couldn´t be the hero of that circus.
-“I was already burnt out then. Not only that, I was winning 4-0 in the fifth. Yes, I talked too much.”
- It´s as if the first obstacle triggered the downfall.
-“Yes, I had no patience, I let things get me down.”
- With the mind-set you had the previous year you would have won in three sets.
-“That´s true. But I was tired, everything bothered me, everything seemed difficult to me. My head didn´t let me do anything. I didn´t have the peace of mind to fight out every match, every week, as I´d been able to do the previous year. The very first hitch would make me think the worst, I could never think positively. That way I couldn´t play.”
- And besides you don´t play a serve-and-volley or a serve-and-forehand tennis, your style is to wear away your rival, so winning each point meant an extra effort.
-“Exactly, and that´s why it became harder and harder. I already felt a rejection towards playing. It had become a burden, it wasn´t something I enjoyed.”
- Did it depend on who your rivals were or did it depend on you?
-“In the end it didn´t matter who I played against. It had to do with me.”
- During a long time you worked with a psychologist (Pablo Pécora). How much did that help you?
-“It was good. People think a tennis player has a psychologist to improve his tennis, but in my case I didn´t need him for my tennis, I needed him for my life. I had a thousand problems that were reflected in my game. There were times when I didn´t want to go on court because I wasn´t well off the court, but not because I didn´t feel like playing tennis but because I didn´t feel like doing anything. I didn´t feel like playing football or doing anything.”
-He insisted that you had to focus. He made you play chess in order to help your concentration, didn´t he?
-“Yes, but if you have a problem it´s always present, in your head, it´s not easy to detach yourself.”
-In that match against Ferrer there was a moment in the last set when you looked at his coach and said to him: ´Don´t worry because he´ll win today´. As if some part of you also wanted to lose. Like a sort of self-boycott.
-“No one could be in the Roland Garros quarterfinals and say: “Today I´ll lose”. There wasn´t a millimeter in my body that wanted to lose. But it seems that unconsciously I did.”
- Were you feeling so bad?
-“Not bad: terrible. I know that I couldn´t control myself and that I used to say all sorts of crazy things that afterwards made me feel ashamed, but I don´t know if at some level it helped me. It was a way to vent all that anguish I felt. My outlet was irony, it was the way I had.”
- When you see yourself -if you do- as you were in those matches, saying all those outrageous things, what do you think?
-“That I´m not a normal person.”
I´d like to add my own opinion:
If Gastón had had a physical impediment everybody would sympathize, but as this was not a visible injury he´s had to bear with jeers and criticism, and still he had the courage to fight on.
It´s awesome that in spite of his problems he still managed to become one of the world´s top clay court players! 10% of the world suffers from clinical depression, but they don´t achieve the heights Gastón has in spite of his drawbacks.
I hope he himself realizes there´s special merit in his achievement.