By Ben Fisher, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.
TORONTO - The men’s tennis landscape has changed an awful lot over the past six years, a fact that Richard Gasquet is quick to point out.
"I think now there are more very, very good players," says Gasquet. "When I started [my career], I just remember Roger and Nadal coming up, but now there are four incredible players with Rafa, Roger, Novak and Andy."
The growing group of elite talent atop the game has made life difficult for the rest of the ATP Tour, Gasquet included.
At the 2006 Rogers Cup, the Frenchman was 20 years old, possessing a world of potential after a decorated junior career, armed with three ATP titles and in the process of reaching his second Masters Series final (2005 Hamburg was his first). Future Masters Series -- and maybe even Grand Slam -- titles appeared to be a foregone conclusion.
Fast forward six years, and it hasn’t entirely worked out as planned. Gasquet’s career highs (2007 Wimbledon semifinalist, career-best No. 7 world ranking, men’s doubles bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games) have been largely offset by tough lows (no second week Slam appearances other than 2007 Wimbledon, an overturned drug suspension in 2009). It’s a credit to his perseverance that he’s spent the better part of the past two years in the top 20, but he also hasn’t been a top-10 player since 2008.
Now, a "veteran" in ATP terms at 26, the tide seems to be slowly turning back around for Gasquet. And sure enough, the turnaround is coming back where he enjoyed one of his greatest successes.
On Saturday, Gasquet secured himself another trip to the Rogers Cup final in Toronto with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 8 seed John Isner. After the match, the big-serving American acknowledged the difficulty in handling his opponent’s backhand, a picture-perfect stroke and a key element of his arsenal.
"It’s world-class. It’s just a gift of his, really," said Isner. "It’s tough for me because I like to take the majority of my shots if I’m playing a righty to his backhand, and he was able to handle that pretty well."
Armed with that kind of potent weapon, it isn’t difficult to fathom Gasquet coming through on his considerable promise. He now appears to have the right support staff around him, with Sebastien Grosjean and former Ivan Ljubicic mentor Riccardo Piatti co-handling coaching duties.
"It’s nice for me to have two good [coaches]," said Gasquet. "I’m with Riccardo, who has a lot of experience. Now in some tournaments, I’m with Sebastien Grosjean, and he was No. 4 in the world. So I have a lot of respect for him."
In Toronto, Gasquet has the chance to show that he’s come full circle. But things weren’t easy for him in 2006 and they aren’t likely to be much easier this time around. After falling to then-defending champion Roger Federer six years ago, he will meet yet another defending titlist in Novak Djokovic as he seeks that elusive first Masters shield.