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Monday, May 11, 2009
Gasquet continues to screw up his career

If you've followed Richard Gasquet's career at all closely, you've probably spent the past few years wondering just how many ways a guy can screw up a promising career.

Gasquet had enough natural talent to earn the nickname "Baby Federer" after he first appeared on the radar in 2002, when, two months before his 16th birthday, he beat ATP pro Franco Squillari. The sobriquet seemed a prophecy when he scored an upset of Roger Federer himself at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2005.

But over the ensuing months that soon became years, it became evident that something was missing in Monsieur Gasquet's game. That one-handed backhand sure was beautiful (albeit a bit complicated and fanciful), and his basic level of comfort on all surfaces was impressive. But Gasquet never managed to channel his shot-making, natural talent and athleticism into a cohesive, sensible approach to the game.

Long after he had sufficient experience on the tour, Gasquet was still wasting chances and choking. How about last year's fourth-round collapse at Wimbledon, where he found a way to lose to Andy Murray after serving for the match, up two sets to none? And then there was the Davis Cup match in 2007 when Gasquet flat-out refused to play Andy Roddick in a critical match (with the U.S. ultimately taking the tie, 4-1).

That certainly was a head-scratcher, but there were more to come. At the U.S. Open that year, Gasquet defaulted his second-round match, complaining about some unspecified virus and flu-like symptoms. Gasquet made the announcement in a news conference at which he hardly appeared to be at death's door. That move pretty much locked up the ATP Weenie of the Year award for Gasquet.

Considering some of those histrionics, it was amazing that Gasquet managed to finish 2007 ranked No. 8 in the world. But any hope that Gasquet was transcending his shortcomings as a competitor and figuring out how to play the game was quickly dashed. Gasquet fell 16 places in 2008 to finish the year at No. 24.

Gasquet started 2009 in familiar fashion: At the Australian Open, he blew a two-sets-to-none lead against Fernando Gonzalez and lost 12-10 in the fifth. For veteran Gasquet watchers, it was business as usual. "Baby Federer" had morphed into something more like "Baby Van de Velde."

After that, Gasquet's best finish has been a semi in Dubai -- although he got that berth via a walkover from Murray. And now comes the news that Gasquet has been suspended for testing positive for cocaine. The urine sample that turned up positive was taken at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami -- where Gasquet put on another of his disappearing acts, pulling out after the first round.

Gasquet is protesting that he's innocent, but he's off the tour until he gets to make his case at a hearing. Gasquet's buddy, fellow French player Fabrice Santoro, told Europe 1 radio: "I know his lifestyle, and this surprises me enormously, as it's not like him. I had him on the phone, he is sad and really shocked."

Given Gasquet's history, this turn of events is surprising but hardly shocking. Cocaine isn't considered a performance-enhancing drug; I think of it more as a lifestyle pharmaceutical, and it begs the question: Should tennis be testing for it, especially under the rigorous standards the sport employs?

You remember how Martina Hingis tested positive at Wimbledon in 2007 for a metabolite found in cocaine? The amount detected in her system was just 42 nanograms per milliliter -- roughly two-thirds less than the amount that yields a positive test in the U.S. military.

Unlike Hingis, whose positive test put an end to a comeback (she was 27), Gasquet is just 22. Even a fairly harsh penalty won't be a career-ender. But when it comes to screwing up a career, this is Gasquet's most comprehensive stroke yet.