Legendary coach Paul Annacone, he of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer fame, talks about tennis players as “mechanics” and “magicians”.
Mechanics are your ultra-consistent, grinding players, clocking countless hours on the practice court and thriving on repetition; at the opposite end of the spectrum, magicians play with flair, creativity, artistry and feel, yet perhaps too with a greater volatility.
Wednesday’s first match on Show Court 2 at Australian Open 2014 exemplified those distinctive styles when ninth seed Richard Gasquet came up against Russian Nikolay Davydenko.
And it was magician winning over mechanic, with the French flamboyance and flair of Gasquet seeing off the spirited challenge of the workman-like Davydenko in an entertaining match, 7-6(3) 6-4 6-4.
A few years ago, such a bout could have been a quarterfinal at Rod Laver Arena, rather than a second round match-up on an outer show court.
Gasquet and Davydenko were simultaneously ranked within the top 10 during 2007 and 2008, and the Russian indeed showed everyone why he’d been a top 10 force for five years – ranked as high as No.3 in 2006 – when he stormed to a 5-2 lead in the opening set.
Playing up on the baseline and dictating with flat powerful drives, it harkened back to the player who won the 2009 ATP World Tour Finals and reached four quarterfinals at Melbourne Park.
History, and current form, then provided a reality check.
In a three-month span from October 2010 to January 2011, Davydenko plummeted from world No.6 to No.35, failing to defend his Tour Finals and Australian Open quarterfinal points from 12 months prior. He’s mostly languished outside the top 30 ever since, coming into this year’s Australian Open ranked 61st.
As Davydenko has faded, Gasquet has sparkled, finishing the past two seasons inside the top 10 after finishing 2009 ranked outside the top 50.
Plus, Gasquet owns Davydenko in their head-to-head series, winning five of their seven matches and their two meetings in Grand Slam tournaments, both without dropping a set.
And the Frenchman ensured that record remained intact on Wednesday.
It was a little puzzling why Gasquet up until that point had played so far behind the baseline and run himself ragged retrieving on such a sweltering day.
Yet faced with a set point, he calmly drove a backhand return winner down the line, and soon broke serve to stay alive at 5-3.
A renewed commitment to aggression paid dividends, and was particularly notable on his patented backhand wing. Two more winners flowed in the ninth game and soon Davydenko was pressing, and missing. Gasquet would ultimately win four games on the trot to lead 6-5, and although Davydenko forced the set into a tiebreak, Gasquet was never threatened.
It was a pattern that played out for the remainder of the match; Gasquet’s ability to rip winners at crucial junctures dovetailed perfectly with Davydenko’s tendency to err whenever he had chances to re-establish himself.
The Russian did almost pull off the shot of the tournament in the second set when, chasing down a ball with his back to the net, he played a wristy, tweener-esque forehand – only not between his legs – for what would have been a blinding winner up the line. But even then Gasquet had an answer, lunging to reach the unexpected shot and picking off an incredible angled backhand volley winner.
After claiming the second set with a delightful volley winner into the corner, the No.9 seed broke serve to love in the seventh game, and three games later, belted a backhand winner and an ace on his way to sealing victory in two hours and 20 minutes.