(Photo credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard)
There are more than a few similarities between Richard Gasquet and Fernando Verdasco. Both have both recently achieved quite remarkable milestones in their careers. Gasquet, the 31-year-old Frenchman claimed his 500th career singles victory against Mischa Zverev in a 6-2 7-5 win in Monte Carlo last month. For Verdasco, win number 500 was perhaps even more special, coming as it did in his hometown of Madrid where he defeated Paolo Lorenzi of Italy.
For both men, the natural talent they possessed was obvious from a very early stage in their careers. In fact, few other players can have been tipped for greatness as early as Richard Gasquet, who first appeared on the cover of a French sport’s magazine aged just nine. He went on to win his first ATP match six years later, beating Franco Squillari, then ranked 54th in the world, in Monte Carlo to become one of the youngest players ever to win a Tour-level match.
He showed further promise in his teenage years, with Monte Carlo the site of what was surely the greatest achievement of his then-nascent career. In 2005, after qualifying into the main draw, an 18-year-old Gasquet fought his way to the quarterfinals, where the world #1 Roger Federer awaited him. Gasquet triumphed in a thriller, outlasting the great Swiss and sealing the win in the deciding tiebreaker with a backhand down-the-line, the shot that was to become his trademark.
For Verdasco, expectations were more muted. Despite his obvious talent, the attention in Spain fell on the shoulders of Rafael Nadal. The 16-time Major champion bore the weight of that expectation with ease, becoming easily one of the most successful teenagers ever to compete on the main Tour. The Spaniard put together a 24-match winning streak when still a teenager, a run that included his first victory at the French Open when he was aged just 19.
But Verdasco was not without his early successes. He was twenty when he won his first Tour-level title in Valencia, defeating Albert Montanes in the final. By the end of the year, he was ranked inside the top 40, and in 2004 he made further progress, finishing the year ranked world #32. But his progress stalled somewhat thereafter, and he did not crack the top 20 for the first time until 2008, finishing that year ranked 16th in the world.
Verdasco’s major breakthrough came in 2009, at the Australian Open. The Spaniard arrived at the tournament on the back of a career-year and was seeded 14th. That he would have a good tournament was not a surprise. But just how well he played during that two weeks in Sydney must have surprised even him. He battered his way into the semifinals, defeating fourth seed Andy Murray in the fourth round before defeating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who had made the final the previous year, in the quarters.
Rafael Nadal just edged him out of a five-set thriller, that at 5 hours and 14 minutes was the longest ever Australian Open match until it was superseded by the 2012 final between Djokovic and Nadal. But defeated though he was, his efforts saw him rise into the top 10 for the first time, and it seemed that Verdasco’s moment had arrived. He continued to perform well in 2009, qualifying for the Tour Finals for the first time in his career.
But he was unable to sustain his progress. 2010 saw him reach a first and thus far only Masters 1000 final in Monte Carlo, but he managed just one game in a crushing defeat at the hands of Nadal. The following years saw Verdasco’s ranking begin to slide. He fell out of the top ten in April of 2011, and has not managed to return. Though there have been good results for him since, notably his run to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2013, they have become increasingly few and far between.
For Gasquet there was a far more marked fall from grace. The Frenchman made his first Grand Slam semifinal in 2007 at Wimbledon in an impressive run which saw him win in five against Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals, having been two sets behind. Though Federer defeated him comfortably in that semifinal, the future for Gasquet looked very bright. He broke into the top ten as a result and looked to be amongst the golden generation that were emerging in Federer’s wake.
But he proved unable to sustain his success. A string of poor results in the run up to the French Open left him feeling, by his own admission, burnt out. He withdrew ahead of his first round match at the French Open, and at Wimbledon he was knocked out by Andy Murray in the fourth round despite having led by two sets and a break, in a reverse of his victory over Roddick the previous year. His ranking fell outside the top ten and Gasquet’s struggles continued for the remainder of the year.
Meanwhile, his contemporaries were establishing themselves as the game’s leading lights, with Djokovic winning the Australian Open in 2008. Murray reached a first Slam final in New York later that year. In 2009, Gasquet’s career was to reach its nadir. Traces of cocaine were found in a sample he provided to drug testers and he was provisionally suspended. The suspension was lifted due to the small quantity that was discovered and the fact that Gasquet’s explanation of contamination by kissing was accepted. None-the-less, it was hardly an edifying moment for a professional sportsman.
He rebounded from that low, making a further two Slam semifinals in 2013 at the US Open and in 2015, and also reached the last eight at Roland Garros in 2016. But Gasquet managed just one set in what were surely the four biggest matches of his career, winning the first set in Paris before losing in four to Murray. Whilst he had to face a member of the big four in each of those matches, to become a champion one has to be able to defeat champions, and that Gasquet has never really managed.
Not greats but goods
In truth, for all their unquestionable talent, neither Gasquet and Verdasco had the makeup of great champions. Their bodies were too frail, particularly in the case of Gasquet, who has had to contend with injuries throughout his career. More importantly, though, neither man possesses the iron discipline and self-belief that separate the Hall of Famers from the mere mortals. Tennis is a sport that requires far more than just talent.
Verdasco in particular has rarely shown the requisite determination. Whilst for a brief period under the tutelage of Darren Cahill and Gil Reyes, both of whom had worked with Andre Agassi, he had formidable powers of endurance. Since the end of that partnership he has never again reached the same level of fitness. Both players have also faded mentally on the biggest stage more than once in their careers, something that the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would not tolerate from themselves.
But the reality is that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have a combination of qualities so rare it would have been amazing to have one player of their ability, let alone three. There are few players in the history of the game that would not pale in comparison to them. The achievements of Gasquet and Verdasco are no less impressive for being overshadowed by the greatness of others. Few players indeed reach 500 wins in their careers.
In reaching those 500 wins they have provided fans of the sport with memorable moments almost beyond count. And even in defeat they have shone. The big five have dominated the sport and thus they are arguably entitled to the lion’s share of the fans affection. But talents like Gasquet and Verdasco render the game into a wonderful technicolour even if they do not often walk away triumphant. For that, if nothing else, they deserve their moment in the sun.
What is your favourite memory of Gasquet and Verdasco? Let us know in the comments below!