Before this week, the Frenchman Richard Gasquet had never been past the fourth round of the US Open. He had only gotten past a Grand Slam fourth round once previously, in 2007 when he reached the Wimbledon semifinals. Gasquet has always been a crowd-pleaser, long in shot-making but much like his countrymen Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga better known for fun than fire, perhaps not realizing the full measure of his talent.
Such adventures in underachievement always seem to play out against exhausting, relentless players like David Ferrer, guys who compensate for their natural shortcomings by outworking and outfighting their more talented opponents with metronomic repetition and terrier-like will. When this matchup materialized, the expectation was that in the end, the joke would be on Gasquet, deliciously entertaining until it was time to shovel the chips off the table.
Entering this quarterfinal, Gasquet hadn't beaten Ferrer since 2008, in Toronto. Ferrer had beaten Gasquet eight out of nine times, including five straight, the last being a tough straight-sets win in the fourth round here last year.
In the rematch, the shotmaker dominated the metronome over the first two sets and then over the final three withstood Ferrer's charge with commodities not usually associated with Gasquet: heart and toughness. There was some speculation that Gasquet would likely be exhausted by his five-set marathon against Milos Raonic in the fourth round, but it was Gasquet who was the quicker and fresher of the two, Gasquet who survived the inevitable Ferrer comeback from two sets down, Gasquet who found the necessary reserve.
Throughout the match, but especially in the second set, he treated the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium to blistering, elegant one-handed down-line backhands, and innate racquet mastery. Early in the second set, Gasquet delivered a backhand volley with so much backspin that it nearly spun back over to his side of the net before Ferrer could reach the ball. Tactically, the challenge between he and Ferrer has always been a battle of control: Gasquet's ability to use his backhand to finish points and exploit the court openings Ferrer exposes by running around his backhand versus Ferrer's ability to control the court with his forehand. Gasquet hit 21 backhand winners to Ferrer's 16 on the forehand.
Gasquet in a major semifinal for the first time in six years served as a tribute to his shotmaking, certainly, but the reason he is in his first-ever US Open semifinal is because he did not fold, even when he lost the third and fourth sets, including a marathon 12-minute game in the fourth on Ferrer's serve that finished him for the set.
A year ago when he reached the semis here, Ferrer was virtually unbeatable against anyone not named Djokovic, Federer, Murray or Nadal. This year, he has slowed slightly, perhaps the strain of his grinding style beginning to wear on him.
Still, entering the fifth set, with Gasquet, known for wilting, it appeared Ferrer would once again break a heart that was starting to look just fragile enough to lose. But it was Ferrer came unglued in the sixth game, double faulting at 15-40 to give Gasquet a 4-2 lead. The finish line was near. All Gasquet had to do was hold serve and run through the tape.
Serving 5-3, 40-15, double match point, Gasquet ran up to a short return and buried it in the left corner. To reach his first US Open semifinal, he had won grueling consecutive five-set matches, withstanding a 39-ace barrage from Raonic and overcoming one of the game's most determined fighters in Ferrer. Maybe the jokes need a new punchline.
In the past, Gasquet may have competed at such a level in consecutive matches at a major, but never with these results. Rafael Nadal likely awaits, but Gasquet combined flash with toughness, and received the outcome he deserved.