Gasquet playing with clear conscience
Richard Gasquet was looking relaxed, which seemed strange since he was at the French Open. For six years, so much has been expected of him by the home faithful with so little results.
There Gasquet was Monday, kidding around with a reporter from sports daily L'Equipe following a convincing win over Radek Stepanek. He can't command the stage like carefree countryman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but Gasquet raised his head as he spoke instead of simply glancing downward at the table where he sat.
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He offered a few smiles, a rarity in years past, particularly when asked about the possibility of facing Novak Djokovic, owner of a current 40-match winning streak, in the fourth round.
"I am just hoping to be there," Gasquet said, the sentence, coupled with his mannerisms, drawing laughter.
His backhand is still one of the most groomed strokes in tennis, yet less than a month away from turning 25, you could say Gasquet is growing up. He's showing the kind of maturity needed to join the tennis glitterati -- and stay there.
Whereas beating Roger Federer on clay in 2005 marked his breakthrough, topping the 16-time Grand Slam champion weeks ago in Rome -- aptly named the Eternal City -- signaled his rebirth.
"It's probably the first time he's arrived at the French Open in a good position," said co-coach Sebastien Grosjean, who's not far removed from retirement. "He's winning matches and mentally feeling well, especially outside the court. He's starting to understand that he has pressure, but that it's a good pressure."
Gasquet has felt pressure his whole life.
Featured on the cover of a high-profile French tennis magazine as a scrawny 9-year-old, he was the most talked-about French junior player ever and was expected to be a Grand Slam winner by now, especially after downing Federer in his prime as a teen in Monte Carlo.
But life is full of twists. Two years ago, Gasquet served a drug suspension for testing positive for cocaine. He said his life became a living hell.
No news conference involving Gasquet goes by without the utterances of "pressure," "pleasure" and "Pamela" as enquiring minds want to know if he is finally having fun on court. The mysterious woman was at the heart of the brouhaha in Miami, where Gasquet said cocaine entered his system following the now-legendary kiss. Ultimately, tennis officials believed him, and the ban lasted a mere three months.
Gasquet is getting over that trauma.
He was able to joke about the incident in Rome -- where he took the fateful drug test -- with the same reporter from L'Equipe, Franck Ramella.
He reminded Ramella that in 2009 he said he'd never fail a test because he had nothing to hide. They could target him as many times as they wanted, he added back then.
"He can talk about it now," Grosjean said. "That's why he's feeling much better. Before it was more inside him. His mind is clean now."
Gasquet's other coach, Riccardo Piatti, hasn't broached the past since officially teaming with Gasquet in Monte Carlo.
"I know what happened in Miami. That's normal life that can happen to everybody," Piatti said, before catching himself. "Well, not to everybody, but it can happen. And now I can say Richard is concentrating on what is happening now."
Piatti downplayed notions that Gasquet lacks motivation, a sticking point in earlier times. Mind you, his thoughts were different prior to their collaboration.
"When you see someone as an opponent, it's one thing," said Piatti, still in the corner of Croatian Ivan Ljubicic. "When you start to work with that person, it's [another]. I didn't know he was working so much. He's very motivated. That's the other part I didn't know."
Gasquet certainly appeared motivated and tension-free in beating Stepanek. He's more animated, uttering "allez" intermittently and even the odd, "yeah," in an intimidating fashion. He was trying to get the crowd involved -- and succeeded.
It was entirely dissimilar from his performance at the 2007 French Open, when Gasquet collapsed against Belgian Kristof Vliegen in the second round. His body language suggested Gasquet wanted the court to swallow him. Last year, a fatigued Gasquet blew a two-set lead to Andy Murray in his opener.
A deep run in Paris would see Gasquet climb inside the top 10 for the first time since June 2008. He's currently 16th, up 70 spots from almost exactly a year ago.
"In recent months, I can say I have had a number of victories again under my belt, so there's nothing really fundamental that's changed in terms of my tennis style," Gasquet said. "But I know I have decided to fight for it, fight for it for two years, and now it's payoff time."
With that attitude, who's to say Gasquet won't surpass the third round, his best finish, this fortnight? Unlike Amelie Mauresmo, who struggled with expectations at Roland Garros and quit the game in 2009, he has time on his side.
"Too many times I was not able to go very far," Gasquet said. "I'm improving. But I would like to go a bit further."
Piatti and Grosjean aren't particularly worried about Gasquet's performance at the French Open, although they'd likely be happy with getting to Djokovic.
Piatti is convinced the foundation is strong.
"I spoke with Sebastien when I started and told him we needed a bit of luck in the first few tournaments, to have a good draw, to win some matches and get confidence," he said. "Now the feeling I have is I don't care anymore about the draw. I would like that he has a tough draw, like against Stepanek, because he's ready. If he loses, he's ready to control the situation."
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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