Gasquet! Gasquet! Vive Gasquet!
Richard Gasquet has played this game with unbounded promise. He was the No. 1 junior and World Junior Champion in 2002 winning the Roland Garros and US Open junior titles that year. He turned pro that same year at the tender age of 16 and has played solid if unspectacular tennis since.
Unspectacular, that is, if your country has pinned their national hopes on your young back. In 2006 he finished as the No. 1 player in France and within the top 20 for the second year in a row, presently he is ranked 14th and that number will go much higher following his tremendous Wimbledon victory in five sets over Andy Roddick. Richard has wins over Davydenko, Federer, Safin, Blake, Murray, Ljubicic, and now Roddick.
As McEnroe noted during his match against Roddick, for Richard to go to the next level on the international stage he needs a big win on a big occasion, and certainly the quarterfinals at Wimbledon against the big serving third seed was just such an opportunity.
So before taking a look at his game, let’s check some of the highlights from the stats of his quarterfinal win over Andy Roddick. More or less the boys were even on percentage first serve (64% Roddick and 62% Gasquet), on aces (22 Roddick, 23 Gasquet) and on winning percentage on fist and second serve. But within the winners category Gasquet had half again as many winners as Roddick.
In the fifth set, which Gasquet captured 8-6, all the stats shifted in the Frenchman’s favor. Gasquet outplayed Roddick with less far errors, a tremendous conversion rate on his second serve, and again with 22 winners against Roddick’s 13. Sometimes in the crunch, it is not the player who “hopes it happens” but rather the one who “makes it happen” and in this case it was all Gasquet.
Now the question will be whether young Richard can live up to the new set of French (and international) expectations based on his soon to be top ten ranking. To my eye he has the goods off the ground, he plays an all court game, and his tactics are excellent. But somehow there is the slightest thing missing in the footwork department – he does not move like Federer the dancer, or Nadal the quick but brutally efficient bull.
Pretty simple motion here, rather than a circular windup ala Sampras; he employs a “pick-up” where his hitting arm and racquet move up with the toss. After release of the toss, note how he keeps all his weight onto his back foot. As the racquet reaches its lowest position on the swinging drop (used to be called somewhat erroneously scratching one’s back) he is fully extended, eyes well up.
At impact there is a straight line from his left shoulder up through his right shoulder to the upper arm and lower arm, and the racquet is not in line but angled slightly to his left and the viewer’s right. These are excellent mechanics, well worth your copy. Could he get a little more snap at the top of the swing? Probably, at Wimbledon his serve was not huge but very effective, so I am not in any position to ruminate on changes. He finishes totally balanced on the left foot, and from this position is able to square off into a baseline ready position, or follow this serve to the net.
Approach and Volley
In this sequence Gasquet approaches to the backhand corner and appears to finish the point with a delicate cross court angle. We saw similar touch volleys from Nadal in the Wimbledon final.
Often when the opponent bangs the passing shot, they are unable to move quickly enough for the little dinker. Mac, Newcombe, Nadal, and now Gasquet (yes James Blake and Maria Sharapova this can work for you as well) all have used or are using this type of shot. Though the professional game has become more and more about power, a stiletto can work equally as well as a framing hammer. In the approach and backhand volley sequence again we see finesse (that is a French word right?), this time with a sidespin “shorty” dumped away from the opponent.
And now to his signature shot, the full blooded one handed topspin backhand. Darn big, nothing tentative here, but classic form from start to finish. In the first example note how close he holds his racquet to his body, with the racquet head directly above his hand, not exactly a take back but rather a turn and a “take up.” This is more about style than mechanics, but you might experiment with a similar stroke, for the racquets backward motion becomes abbreviated, and the height of this position enables a flowing down under and ultimately up against the ball.
Gasquet has turned well away from the ball, we can clearly see both of his shoulder blades, and he steps classically forward onto the right foot, swinging the racquet head well below his knee before accelerating up and into the hit. Left arm swings back nicely, ala Federer or Edberg, and the follow through is truly magnificent.
The one proviso on this backhand, however, appeared to be court positioning. Yes he plays the ball big, yes he is deadly accurate, and yes he trusts this shot when the chips are down. But somehow, I am not sure that with the fullness of this stroke he is able to hold his court position consistently on or inside the baseline.
Gasquet seemed to return serve from really well behind the baseline against Roddick. And I suspect he may need the slightest bit more time on the fast hard courts this summer, which in the end may mean a step or two back, which, for better or worse, translates to just a tiny bit more time for the opponent and just a tiny bit less angle for him to work with. The same was true of Gustavo Kuerten, and their backhands look darn similar.
Now in the second example we may get an inkling of Roddick’s predicament when approaching crosscourt with his underspin backhand. In a crosscourt approaching sequence the volleyer must move quickly to cover the down the line pass, but when moving too quickly in that direction the passer may play crosscourt and behind the volleyer. If on the other hand the volleyer moves somewhat cautiously (and the classic net rushers including Edberg, Rafter, and McEnroe were never cautious but rather always acrobatic), then the passer can easily drive the ball up the line for a winner. And Gasquet owns both shots and used both time and time again in the Wimbledon quarters.
In this example we can see the opponent at the net. Gasquet turns, starts his unique “take up” preparation, but then somehow waits just a moment. And within this pause, I cannot tell from this video where he will drive the ball. Total disguise; absolutely no “tell.”
Bjorn Borg played with similar disguise, and the story goes that most volleyers of the day could not out wait Borg, and when that volleyer leaned or committed to one side Borg would whip the ball to the other side. But one volleyer with extraordinary reflexes and footwork could and did wait the slightest moment longer, this was McEnroe, and some think Mac’s knack at the net drove Borg first from the pinnacle and then ultimately into a premature retirement. That however is another story, for the moment, revel in how darn hard it would be to read Gasquet’s backhand passing shot.
So, now you might be asking, how can I build such a backhand? How does this topspin drive feel? My first coach, the wonderful Blackie Jones, who freelanced on the tennis courts at Acalanes High school in Lafayette, started me in 1960 as follows (it worked for me and it will work for you, guaranteed).
Each and every time (without exception) whenever a ball was in my hand to start a rally, or to give the ball to the server, or even send the ball to someone on an adjacent court, Blackie had me set a full eastern backhand grip, and drop hit the ball with a topspin backhand stroke. On my first tries, and I suspect the same will be for you, this grip tended to close the racquet ever so slightly, such that the ball would initially go into the net. If I rolled the wrist, it only got worse. But if I kept the wrist quiet, and swung up, setting the wrist so the racquet was as open as possible with this grip, then slowly but surely the topspin started to flow. So consider on each and every drop hit opportunity, a full grip change to the eastern backhand, and a purposeful topspin drive. Gasquet is driving the topspin backhand with this grip, not continental but truly eastern backhand, and with repetition on hundreds and then thousands of drop hits, you too will get this feel.
Richard is the real deal. Not yet at a position to consistently threaten the games top five players, but he is gaining on them. Let’s see whether he can catapult from this Wimbledon to a stellar summer season. Over the years I have always attempted to watch Fabrice Santoro at the professional events, now I have added Richard Gasquet to that list.
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