- Kamakshi Tandon
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They are the face of British tennis and the face of French tennis, respectively, a pair of 23-year-olds who have the two most attractive games of their tennis generation. The luck of the draw has paired them in the first round of the French Open -- a little unfortunate for whoever walks away the loser but some nice early excitement for the tournament.
Richard Gasquet was famously featured on the cover of France's Tennis magazine at 9 years old, with the tagline: "Richard G.: the champion that France awaits?" But despite huge early promise, he is still more famous for his gorgeous one-handed backhand and shot-making flair than his résumé, which features a lone Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon in 2007. Other names, like Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have now eclipsed Gasquet as great French hopes.
British tennis pretty much begins and ends with Andy Murray, who as Roger Federer joked earlier this year, is trying to win the first Grand Slam for "British tennis in, what is it 150,000 years?" Murray has reached two Grand Slam finals so far, one at the U.S. Open and one in Australia, losing to Federer both times, and impatience for that first crown is building.
Memories of Murray and Gasquet's most recent encounter heightens anticipation for this clash. It took place on Murray's turf, a late-evening classic at Wimbledon in 2008 that had the crowd on its feet and proved to be something of a crossroads for both players. Flexing his biceps and roaring into the gathering dusk, Murray came back from two sets down to win the fourth-round match, showing off the newly developed stamina and strength that would soon make him one of the Big Four in men's tennis. Gasquet, meanwhile, remained stuck making quarterfinals and semifinals, and then, last March, came the blow of his positive test for cocaine.
His alibi was comical (he said he ingested the cocaine when he kissed a woman at a nightclub the night before) but ultimately credible enough (it must have been a French kiss) to get him a reduced 10-week suspension instead of a ban. But the Frenchman felt the stress of the ordeal so acutely that he could not practice until it was over, sitting in front of the TV and avoiding public appearances.
Drained and rusty, Gasquet drifted upon his return to the circuit, but always had one eye on preparing for the French Open. He hired Argentine coach Gabriel Markus and eschewed the winter indoor circuit to play the Latin American clay events in February. The results finally started to come during the past two weeks, with a win at the Bordeaux challenger and at the ATP event in Nice -- his first tour title since 2007.
But Gasquet has also paid a physical price for the streak -- he experienced cramping during his three-set final against Fernando Verdasco on Saturday, and his request for a Tuesday start at Roland Garros was denied by tournament organizers.
Nevertheless, simply being able to play is an improvement on 12 months ago, when a provisional suspension meant he was not even allowed on site. "Last year, I could not play, and it was terrible," he said. "So believe me, to go and play a match at Roland Garros, I don't have any pressure, truly. With what I went through, it's just a pleasure."
It remains to be seen whether this attitude will help Gasquet in front of his home fans, where he has never made it past the third round and once admitted to having a "meltdown" because of nerves. But his friend and compatriot Tsonga is happy to give Gasquet a vote of confidence. "I think he will win," Tsonga said. "Because he is in a very good shape at the moment, and I know a time will come where he's going to have a very good result, and I know it might be now."
But Gasquet's long week means that Murray will stay the favorite, though the Scot denies that tag.
"The one thing I know is it's not a match I'm going in to being the favorite, which probably hasn't happened in a Slam for quite a few years. So it will be a different sort of feeling," he said. "Obviously with him playing at home in front of his home supporters and crowd, then obviously that's something I'll have to deal with and make sure I'm ready for."
But then again, they're both old hands at fielding the weight of expectation.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.