Gasquet’s goal: to break into the Top-10 again

Richard Gasquet with the winner’s trophy-AP

Richard Gasquet won his maiden hardcourt title in Mumbai. This followed his victories on grass, clay and indoor carpet (Nottingham, Gstaad and Lyon) in 2006. The Frenchman seems to be adept on all surfaces. Nandakumar Marar reports.

Fabrice Santoro is emphatic that youngsters in France should not play tennis the way he does. “No,” asserted the veteran, who turned professional in 1989, when asked if setting up points using deception and control struck a chord with the young players back home. “It is tough learning such skills unless there is someone to teach you. I had my father to show me how to do these things,” explained Santoro, the most experienced of the semifinalists at t he Kingfisher Airlines Open 2007 in Mumbai.

Santoro is a distinguished and a very popular player who, at the age of 33, entered the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, the 2006 Australian Open. Finishing in the Top 75 of the ATP rankings for 10 years in succession — from 1997 — and equalling Andre Agassi’s mark of 61 career Grand Slam appearances at the Australian Open this year point to his amazing consistency.

Hitting strokes of rare timing and perfection, the French maestro’s destruction of Finland’s Jarkko Nieminen (career high ranking: 13) in the quarterfinals showed how effective soft racquet hands and anticipation can be against the fast and furious tennis of today.

“To start your career at 16 and reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam at 33 is a great moment, coming at a time when you least expected it. It came so late probably because I improved my game year after year,” said Santoro, looking back at his career.

Richard Gasquet, 21, is a Santoro follower. The two team up frequently in doubles — they won the 2006 Metz doubles — and also practise against each other, so some of the maestro’s skills will have rubbed off on the youngster.

The Gasquet-Santoro semifinal at the Kingfisher Airlines Open was a mismatch, with the former winning 6-0, 6-3. The Frenchman then followed it up with a breezy 6-3, 6-4 championship victory over Olivier Rochus of Belgium.

Doubleswinners... Robert Lindstedt (right) and Jarkko Nieminen celebrate their victory over Rohan Bopanna and Aisam Qureshi in the final.-VIVEK BENDRE

The Kingfisher Airlines Open was Gasquet’s maiden hardcourt title. This followed his victories on grass, clay and indoor carpet (Nottingham, Gstaad and Lyon) in 2006. “It shows I can play on any court, and this is very important to me. It’s my first title of the year and my first in India, so I will have great memories of this for sure,” said the young champion, who came to Mumbai 55 points behind James Blake (ranked No. 7) in the ATP 2007 Race, but flew out with improved chances of qualifying for the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup in Shanghai.

Gasquet had withdrawn from the US Open second round due to a viral illness, so winning five matches the week after, all in straight sets and in extreme humid conditions, shows the Frenchman’s resilience. “I am still young, physically in good shape for five-setters. My next target is to break into the Top-10 again.”

Rochus, who reached the final as the tournament’s eighth seed, was valiant in defeat. “He is a complete player, backhand, forehand, slice, volley and drop shots. Richard has a lot of experience and never makes stupid errors. He makes you play and makes you run,” said the Belgian of his opponent in the final.

There are also a number of pros on the Tour who are quite not able to get to the top despite their talent. Rainer Schuettler is one, for example. He humbled Lleyton Hewitt, exhibiting awesome strokeplay at the CCI hardcourts. The only active German to qualify for a Grand Slam final — Australian Open 2003 — Schuettler, who was ranked World No. 5 in 2004, is now struggling at 143 three seasons later. “I have learnt from the mistakes I made in my career and hope to put them behind me,” he said.

After the high against second-seeded Hewitt, Schuettler fizzled out in the semifinals. He was taken apart by Rochus, who seemed to use the match against the German to polish his forehand.

Among the Indians in the draw, Rohan Bopanna made his second back-to-back ATP doubles final, partnering Aisam Qureshi of Pakistan. The duo stretched Jarkko Nieminen and Robert Lindstedt before losing in the tie-breakers. “Reaching an ATP event final for the second year is hard work. These are ATP regulars so it means playing well over a week,” said Bopanna.

Qureshi’s anxiety on debut in ATP doubles cost the Indo-Pak pair points in crunch situations. Nieminen and Lindstedt, seeded No. 3, won 7-6 (3), 7-6 (5).

In the singles, Bopanna and Somdev Varman were given wildcards by the organisers, Globosport, but both lost in the first round. Bopanna fell to Nicholas Devilder of France, while Varman came a cropper against Fabio Fognini of Italy. Qualifier Navdeep Singh showed that he had the heart for battle at this level though he went down to Japan’s Toshihide Matsui, also a qualifier, in the first round.

The withdrawals of Marat Safin and Marcos Baghdatis were a dampener. Then it was the rain on the first three days of the tournament. The re-scheduling forced Hewitt, one of the crowd favourites of the $ 416,000 event, to grind his way through two matches on a single day.

Mahesh Bhupathi’s withdrawal from the doubles due to back pain deprived the Mumbai fans, and also the television audiences of ESPN-Star Sports channel, the opportunity of seeing a potentially explosive combination with Santoro.