PARIS (AP) – One has become one of tennis’ biggest stars, the other a perennial underachiever.
When Rafael Nadal takes on Richard Gasquet in the third round of the French Open, it will be a meeting between two old friends at Roland Garros.
Both players are the same age – 31 – and have known each other since their pre-teen years.
Spain’s Rafael Nadal waves after defeating Argentina’s Guido Pella during their second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium, Thursday, May 31, 2018 in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
“I have a great relationship with him, always,” Nadal said after dispatching Guido Pella of Argentina 6-2, 6-1, 6-1 on Court Suzanne Lenglen on Thursday, setting up an encounter with his French rival. “Since we were kids. We met each other first time when we were 12.”
At the time, many observers believed Gasquet headed for a great career. In a country deprived of a male French Open winner since Yannick Noah back in 1983, Gasquet raised immense expectations with his pristine shots and precocity.
A French magazine put him on its front page when he was just 9, with the headline: “The Champion that France has been waiting for?”
Later in his career, Gasquet admitted that he struggled to cope with that pressure. Although he beat Nadal at the Les Petits As tournament – an event for players from 12 to 14 – the Frenchman never did it again after turning pro, losing all of their 15 previous meetings on the Tour.
Gasquet came close at the Monte Carlo Masters in 2005 when they met in the semifinals, only to lose a tough three-set battle.
“It was a special match. We both represented the new generation at the time,” Nadal said. “He was doing a bit better than I was. He was a future French star. That’s why there were a lot of expectations from the match.”
Nowadays, there is no question anymore about who’s the best player. On Thursday, Nadal completed another straight-set win to extend his Roland Garros record to 81-2. He hasn’t lost a set at the French Open since 2015, when he was beaten in the quarterfinals by Novak Djokovic. In 2016, he withdrew with an injured left wrist after a pair of easy victories, then claimed every set he played last year en route to the trophy.
This season, he has lost just one match on clay and claimed titles at Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome.
Against Pella, the top-ranked Spaniard saved all four break points he faced and hit 37 winners.
Still, he believed there is room for improvement.
“To be honest, I always try to improve the important things,” he said, “Tomorrow, I’m going to practice, for example, with the idea that today my backhand didn’t open the court sufficiently.”
Gasquet advanced to the third round for the eighth straight year by defeating Malek Jaziri 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 6-0. A tougher test now awaits in Nadal.
“At least I can still say that I was compared to him at a time,” Gasquet said, referring to their early matches. “I’m going to enjoy the moment, even though I know it’s going to be a bit complicated”.
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