By Amy Fetherolf
(March 26, 2013) MIAMI – Watching a match in person between World No. 10 Richard Gasquet and World No. 12 Nicolas Almagro was not only a chance to see two of the most visually appealing backhands on the ATP Tour up close, but it was also a chance to see two players that share similar reputations for lacking the mental strength to do bigger things than linger near the bottom of the top 10.
It was fun to observe the differences in those two backhands. Almagro strikes the ball cleaner, with a more efficient follow through. Gasquet’s backhand has a more artistic look, with a follow through that almost feels hyperextended, but despite all that, it’s a comfortable shot for the Frenchman.
Almagro’s serve is also an interesting shot to watch. He can get incredible pace on the first serve, and will hit plenty of aces in any given match. His relatively low ball toss is a stark contrast to players like Tomas Berdych and Juan Martin del Potro, who toss the ball high into the clouds.
Both men enjoy spending the vast majority of points behind the baseline. I went in expecting long rallies, and that’s what I got.
Gasquet came out nervy, and was broken to love immediately, dumping a volley into the net. Almagro was outhitting him more and more, the longer the rallies got. It was one-way traffic as Gasquet was broken again at 1-3. He angrily hit a ball into the backboard after dropping serve, frustrated with his poor start.
But suddenly, Almagro seemed to relax too much. A couple of loose shots into the net handed Gasquet back one of the breaks, and the match was on.
Gasquet held for 3-4, and got into Almagro’s next service game, trying to level the match. Frustrated at missing, he angrily gestured at a ballkid for not reading his mind and knowing that he wanted his towel. Surprisingly, given the fact that Gasquet spends so much time hanging around the area where the ballkids stand at the back of the court, he’s not very kind to them, particularly after losing a point.
Gasquet pushed Almagro to deuce, then groaned as he lunged futilely toward a ball that was long gone as Almagro struck a timely ace. Almagro dumped a volley into the net to get back to deuce. A few deuces later, Gasquet finally ventured up into his forbidden zone – in front of the baseline – and hit a lovely volley to earn a break point. Almagro made another error and it was level at 4-all.
It was as if Gasquet was a different player now. Suddenly relaxed, he held to 15, and was no longer snapping at ballkids. He had won four straight games, and suddenly Almagro was down two set points. He saved one with an ace, and Gasquet lost the next point on a backhand error, gesturing angrily at the crowd. Almagro finally held on a highlight reel backhand passing shot, stopping the bleeding.
A couple of easy holds later, and the first set went to a tiebreak. Gasquet took a 2-1 lead on a well-struck lob, but Almagro won five straight points, letting out a loud shout as Gasquet dumped a volley into the net to give him set points. Almagro hit an unreturnable serve to close out the set, turning around and yelling in the direction of the crowd, where a section of fans had unfurled four Spanish flags.
In the second set, Almagro saved early break points, and aside from that first game, each man held serve easily up until 4-all. At that point, Almagro managed to fend off two break points to hold for 5-4. However, he was broken two games later on a nervy double fault on break point. Gasquet was able to serve out the second set to force a decider.
In the third set, it was Gasquet’s turn to save early break points. Both men held three times apiece to get to 3-all. At 15-30, Almagro stepped into the court to hit an inside out forehand that he probably expected not to come back. At that point, Gasquet hit the shot of the match, managing to hit a defensive slice backhand passing shot winner down the line to set up double break point. At 15-40, Almagro stopped play to challenge a call on Gasquet’s return, but it was smack on the line and he was broken.
The Spaniard wasn’t ready to go away easily. He immediately broke back, channeling his earlier success in the longer rallies. Gasquet threw his arms up in frustration as the match was leveled.
Both men held their nerve to get to a tiebreak, but Gasquet steamrolled through a suddenly tight Almagro who double faulted to start the tiebreak. At the changeover as Gasquet led 4-2, there were dueling cheers of “Nico! Nico!” and “Richard! Richard!” But the steadier Gasquet wouldn’t be denied, and he took the match, 6-7(3), 7-5, 7-6(3).
Gasquet will face Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
Pictures from the match:
Amy Fetherolf is covering the Sony Open as media for Tennis Panorama News. Follow her live updates on twitter @TennisNewsTPN. She is a co-founder of The Changeover. Follow her personal Twitter at @AmyFetherolf.