Commentary

Fresh hope awaits some in 2009

Richard Gasquet is just one of several players who underachieved in 2008, writes Ravi Ubha. But expectations were high for a reason, and a new year is a fresh opportunity to meet them.

Updated: January 8, 2009, 2:44 PM ET
By Ravi Ubha | Special to ESPN.com

When Richard Gasquet, his entire arsenal in full flow, rallied from two sets down to topple a beleaguered Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2007, most thought it was the beginning of something good. He had us all fooled.

No surprise, then, that 2009 figures to be a pivotal year for Gasquet -- and a few other underachievers. Here's a closer look at a not-so-fab five.
[+] EnlargeRichard Gasquet
Pierre Philippe/Getty ImagesHe may still be tennis' next big thing, but Richard Gasquet didn't show it in 2008.

Richard Gasquet
At the tender age of 9, Gasquet was lauded by a prestigious French tennis magazine as the next big thing. If he doesn't lift his game soon, he'll go down as the next big flop.

The enormously talented 22-year-old tumbled alarmingly down the ATP rankings (from No. 8 to No. 25), and his victory over Roger Federer in Monte Carlo is a fading memory. Worse, Gasquet's fragility resurfaced, perhaps even intensified. Examples included bailing on France's Davis Cup quarterfinal against the U.S. in April and skipping two major events back home, which is becoming a recurring theme. When Gasquet does play, you sometimes get the feeling he's doing it simply to make others happy.

Gasquet has been surpassed in France by exuberant Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, resilient Gilles Simon and excitable Gael Monfils, now settled under the stewardship of no-nonsense Aussie coach Roger Rasheed. The moody French tennis public is, unsurprisingly, growing increasingly frustrated.

"The perception is that he's a very gifted player but not mature enough and that when things go wrong, he cannot and could not handle the situation," said Patrice Dominguez, technical director of the French Tennis Federation. "So the people start to think he hasn't got the mental ability and capacity to become a top player, which I think is wrong. What happened last year was a little bit damaging, but it's not something that's definite."

According to Dominguez, Gasquet was dealt a psychological blow when Tsonga upset him in the fourth round at the Australian Open. A few months later, Gasquet cut ties with veteran coach and father figure Eric Deblicker. Then there was his blowing a two-set lead to Andy Murray, now miles ahead of him, at Wimbledon. The tables have indeed turned.

A good start in 2009 would strengthen Dominguez's theory that Gasquet won't be at his best until he's 24.

"He has to create something in the first two months and be able to regain his position for the first round of the Davis Cup. Otherwise, it's going to be very difficult because he's opened the door for other players," Dominguez said. "He lost the habit of battling to win, and that's what the problem is."

Marcos Baghdatis
When Baghdatis hovered around the teens in the rankings in 2007, he was drifting. So how would one classify his status now, given he's the world No. 98?

Sure, Baghdatis' body didn't cooperate last year: An ankle sprain limited his effectiveness in the spring; a wrist injury forced the Cypriot to skip the U.S. Open; and a back problem cut short his schedule thereafter. But blaming solely the injuries oversimplifies matters. Baghdatis remains indecisive, going through almost as many coaches as trigger-happy Monfils, and has admitted to struggling with motivation.

In the offseason, Baghdatis surprisingly parted company with prolific Swede Peter Lundgren, former coach of Federer and Marat Safin. He also cut ties with longtime mentor Patrick Mouratoglou and his academy outside Paris. Baghdatis, ever the showman, is working with Olivier Soules of France's Lagardere group, which also houses Gasquet.

"I think for almost 1½ years he was thinking about leaving," Mouratoglou said. "He felt like -- and I can understand it -- you do or similar to when you leave your parents. There's a time when you feel you want to do it, and it's a tough moment. I'm very happy he took the decision because I think he needs it. We'd been together for 10 years."

If he's in form, Baghdatis, 23, can only be good for the game. He routinely engages the crowd and features in thrillers, including a pair of five-set epics at the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2008. But unlike his startling journey to the final in Melbourne three years ago, he's losing the big matches.

"Somehow he didn't follow the path, and now it's more difficult, for sure," Mouratoglou said. "But whether he's 200 or 50 in the world, it doesn't change much because if he really wants to come back -- if he really does -- he's going to very quickly because his level is high."
[+] EnlargeNicole Vaidisova
Dima Korotayev/Getty ImagesIt remains to be seen whether Nicole Vaidisova is distracted by off-the-court affairs or, at age 19, merely still finding her game.

Nicole Vaidisova
Vaidisova continues to date fellow Czech Radek Stepanek, 11 years her senior. In the meantime, her coach, mild-mannered Brit David Felgate, continues to be asked whether the relationship is contributing to the power baseliner's mega-slump.

More than a few times in 2008, Vaidisova, a 19-year-old groomed for success at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, was spotted in Stepanek's player box. The two also show up at player parties together.

"When people start getting involved in trying to pin it down on whoever, like a boyfriend, they're way off the mark," Felgate said. "When she's at tournaments he's at, what's wrong with a girl being with her boyfriend? It was something I was totally aware of and happy with. That's not the issue."

How, then, to explain sliding out of the top 40, not reaching a single final, enduring a six-match losing streak, losing seven of eight to end the season and suffering four bagels?

Felgate said Vaidisova's struggles lie in finding the right balance between overthinking and not thinking enough and, when it comes to her game, between going for too much and simply feeding the ball to her opponent. Her serve, potentially one of the biggest on the women's tour, also didn't click. And she's still working on minimizing those looks of desperation aimed at her support camp.

A bout of mono in 2007, coupled with a wrist injury, admittedly made Vaidisova appreciate tennis more. The desire is apparently still there.

"We had some good, tough, honest conversations and made a plan of how we were going to spend the offseason," Felgate said. "She could go skiing, do what she likes, but when we go back to work it's the real deal, and you have to know that you really want to do it and it won't be easy. And she's put in a proper seven or eight weeks [of training]."

Tomas Berdych
Here's most everything you need to know about Berdych's 2008: The imposing Czech with the big weapons advanced past the third round of a major only once, last January, and lasted beyond the third round of a Masters event (or whatever they're now called) just once.

Having gone 4-1 in his first five matches against the dynamic duo of Federer and Rafael Nadal, Berdych is 0-10 against them since. Almost inevitably, Berdych muffed two makeable set points in the second against Federer in Australia, succumbing in the fourth round.

An ankle injury suffered during Davis Cup duty in April derailed the 23-year-old for a month, though most agree it hardly made a difference in the bigger picture.

"Everybody is telling me and telling him about his talent, and everyone in the Czech Republic is expecting great things from him," said countryman Petr Korda, a magician with the racket in his playing days. "I haven't seen him live up to his talent and potential at Grand Slams. That's where you make the biggest points and splash."

Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champ, had harsher words for Stepanek, for whom he serves as a consultant. Stepanek's year-end ranking rose just three spots, to No. 27, all too modest given his dangerous attacking game.

"He didn't have his head in the game for the second half of the year," Korda said. "He didn't work as hard as a tennis player has to. He thought he was going to be given everything."

Korda said Stepanek lately has been putting in the hard work in Florida, where the player is based.

Svetlana Kuznetsova
Kuznetsova reached five finals and finished last season ranked eighth, which at first glance doesn't seem too bad. Consider, though, that after ending 2007 as the world's No. 2, the Russian failed to win a title in '08 and turned in a woeful performance in her only Grand Slam semifinal appearance of the year.

Three countrywomen usurped her in the rankings -- and another, Maria Sharapova, almost certainly would have done the same if she hadn't hurt her shoulder.

Kuznetsova knew something was amiss, too, and ended her extensive association with Barcelona's Sanchez-Casal Academy. She has since aligned with former Grand Slam finalist Olga Morozova and is spending more of her time training in Russia.

Five years have passed since Kuznetsova, 23, won her lone Grand Slam title, at the U.S. Open. Given her artillery, she'll have only herself to blame if a second major doesn't follow.

"She's a player [who] has shown, mentally, that she's very good because she's won very big tournaments," said Angel Gimenez, a coach at Sanchez-Casal who guided the likes of Mary Pierce and Gabriela Sabatini. "When you do that, you're capable of doing anything. The only thing, she struggles to keep the level all the time. She needs to improve in that sense."

Dishonorable mention: When Anna Chakvetadze soared to No. 5 in the world in September 2007, she was overachieving. Yet the combustible Russian looks out of place at No. 18. Serbian Janko Tipsarevic raises his game against the big boys but can't seem to win the matches he should. He also retired four times and was a walkover at five ATP tournaments.

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.