Here are some hints:
1. Play the match of your life
2. Play him on clay, his weakest surface.
3. Catch him at the end of a long winning streak when he is likely to be worn down from the physical stress of playing so many games on Sunday and the pressure of the expectation to win every tournament he enters.
Let’s see how this is done. We are at the Masters Series Monte Carlo tournament on April 15, 2005, and Richard Gasquet is Federer’s opponent.
To open the match, Gasquet loses at love to his idol, Federer. It doesn’t get any better as Gasquet is broken in the second game. Federer is a bit shaky himself. He has thirteen unforced errors in the first five games and he seems easily annoyed. We’ve already heard four or five “oy oy oy”s from him and he’s talking back to the fans. Gasquet breaks back in the third game to get to 3-3.
By this time we start to get a picture of Gasquet’s game. He was the number one junior in the world at age 16 and he has spent most of the last two years playing challenger events after and up and down career. He looks serious, worried even. Federer himself was the number one junior at age 17. Gasquet is probably experiencing the immense pressure Federer felt until he finally won his first grand slam, a victory that brought as much relief as it did joy.
I can see why Gasquet is up and down. He goes for everything all the time. His sharply angled cross-court shots barely pass over the net before catching the tape only a few feet beyond the service line. He doesn’t fully rotate his trunk on his forehand. He runs around so far behind the baseline I’m surprised he doesn’t run into a linesperson. It’s hard work to cover a court that is bigger than your opponent’s.
But that one-handed backhand, it’s a hammer.
With break point on Federer’s serve in the seventh game, Gasquet gets an impossible pickup of a low dipping passing shot to his backhand and angles a cross-court winner to go up 4-3. Up and down again, Gasquet give the next game back at love as Federer begins to attack the net.
Gasquet is two points away from losing the first set when he drops a drop shot on a dime then gets to the tiebreak with two service winners. This guy is fearless. He creeps in almost halfway to the service line to pressure some second serves. Even Agassi doesn’t come in that far. If Gasquet can learn to combine his fearlessness with a bit more strategic play, he has the tools of a champion. At the very least he is exciting, reckless and a very entertaining player to watch.
Federer starts to track down some of Gasquet’s smashing backhands and hits only one unforced error to Gasquet’s four to win the tiebreak 7-1.
This tournament is in Monte Carlo in a beautiful scene with the tennis court looking out on the ocean. Today is the funeral of Prince Rainier who died on April 6th after a long illness. The procession will leave from the 17th century Palatine Chapel in his palace and end at the Monaco Cathedral where Rainier married Grace Kelly in 1956 and where he will be buried. In deference to the funeral, the tournament halted play from 11am-2pm. Three hours, I suppose, was all they could spare.
Federer and Gasquet trade breaks in the second and third game of the second set but then Gasquet breaks Federer again to go up 4-1. We have a match. True to his style, Gasquet is still hammering backhand winners sharply cross-court and attacking second serves. He is even hitting some winners down the line when Federer attacks his backhand. Federer did the same thing in the Australian Open. He hit down the line to counter Agassi’s attacks on his backhand but he wasn’t hitting them for winners.
In the next game, Federer finally takes advantage of Gasquet’s deep position behind the baseline and gets a dropshot winner, a weapon he should have used more often against Rafael Nadal in Miami. Nadal also likes to run around way behind the baseline.
Federer is now serving at 5-2 to stay in the set. In this game we get a marvelous sequence of points that shows just how special this match is. On the first point Federer runs Gasquet wide to get an open court then pushes the backhand long. On the next point, Gasquet rips a backhand down the line to pull Federer wide and gets to the net for a winning volley. Federer is tired of the rocket shots from the baseline and comes to the net to cut them off. He stabs at a net chord passing shot for a winner then serves Gasquet wide. Gasquet barely returns the ball and gives Federer a swinging volley but Gasquet tracks it down and blasts a forehand passing shot cross-court to take the game and second set, 6-2.
This is tennis at its best.
Gasquet survives the first game in the third set but he’s still on fire and hits three winners in the second game to go up 2-0. He’s still going for winners at the slightest opportunity but Federer is mixing up volleys and drop shots and his serve is starting to heat up. Gasquet’s break holds up for a 5-3 lead. Gasquet is now serving for the match and the crowd is on its feet. They would love to see the Frenchman to win this tournament but they’re clearly applauding both players.
As amazing as this day is for Gasquet, this is a match that will get him out of the challenger circuit and into the realm of players who will be expected to win a major, it is stunning that Federer ever gets to a place where he has a match point.
Gasquet is either tired or feeling the pressure and hits a few lazy shots but he does get a match point only to hit set up a swinging volley and anxiously hit it long. He had a sitter for the match! He smiles at himself as he walks back to the baseline, he knows he wanted it just a bit too much. On break point he serves and volleys on second serve, did I say he was fearless, and Federer botches his own easy shot. After getting to the net for the fifth time in the game, Gasquet nets a volley then follows with another unforced error and we are back on serve. You could never fault Gasquet for being cautious.
Gasquet gets two return winners and a beautiful cross-court volley that bounces off the line to get another match point in the next game but Federer wrong foots him and hits two very good serves to get to 5-5. Federer sniffs after the service winner as if to say, “No problem, I’ve done this before. In fact, I did it in my last tournament, in the final no less.”
Both players hold serve and the match will be decided with a tiebreaker. Gasquet is hitting inside out forehands to pull Federer wide and Federer is attacking Gasquet’s forehand. At 5-5, Federer approaches with a backhand down the line and gets his first match point.
As amazing as this day is for Gasquet, this is a match that will get him out of the challenger circuit and into the realm of players who will be expected to win a major, it is stunning that Federer ever gets to a place where he has a match point. Gasquet has unloaded a barrage of deep and sharply angled winners and attacked everything in sight. Federer keeps attacking the net after he gets passed, keeps swinging for the lines even though an unusually high percentage of them sail long, and keeps attacking Gasquet’s gorgeous backhand.
Gasquet hits a service winner to get to 6-6 then gives Federer his second match point by hammering an inside out forehand into the net. Federer gets yet another match point, his third, but sends a forehand wide. Gasquet finally hits an inside out forehand for a winner to get a match point and hits a backhand passing shot from, no lie, eight feet behind the baseline that flies down the line and past Federer’s racket. Gasquet has finally won the match. He’s happy, his father and coach in the stands are happy and we’re happy.
As for Roger, you never know what a player is thinking and he certainly isn’t going to tell me, but if I was him, I’d be disappointed in the high number of unforced errors but pretty comfortable that my clay court preparation was on schedule.