Of Tennis, Backhands, Henin and Gasquet
Tennis is a glorious sport, one in which two players maul, with ferocious vigour, at each other from the opposite sides of a small rectangular court. Add to that the mass of spectators engulfing the arena; a tennis match can easily be mistaken for a gladiatorial battle. John Winkler had noted in a 1926 New Yorker article, The Iconoclast of the Courts, that “under [Bill] Tilden’s transforming touch, tennis has become a smashing, dynamic test of speed and power where stamina and quickness of brain, courage and the closest psychological probing for the weaknesses of opponents must all be fused into the mental and physical makeup of a champion.” And this was a description of a pre-professional era, in which only amateurs were allowed to compete in Wimbledon and Davis Cup championships as only they could play for the true glory of the sport. With the escalation of pressures, the modern day game is unimaginably more searching than it was – players are under the constant public glare.
Yet for all its physical and psychological challenges, and for all the power hitting and vicious ground-strokes, the sport remains one of grand beauty. Its majesty does not lie merely in the format of the competition, but also in the sheer mechanics of its stroke-play. Within the myriad maze of wonderful strokes, though, some provide more joy than others. The single-handed backhand, which for periods in the last two decades had been relegated to the archaic, is perhaps more beautiful than any other stroke in the game. And nobody in recent times has played it more splendidly than two players who were ousted from the Australian Open today – Justine Henin and Richard Gasquet.
The Belgian, Henin bowed out to Svetlana Kuznetsova who played in a halcyon state almost unbecoming of a Russian, bar the two games where she served for the match and in parts of the second-set tiebreaker. Henin’s backhand was not on showing in all its magnificence and she often mistimed it, a rarity, which would have been startling if not for the news of her struggles with an injury to the right elbow. At most times, though, it remains a thing of entrancing brilliance. The bent knees, the right arm flowing in a perfect arc, the ball met at the sweetest of spots on the racquet and the resultant, prodigious angle have made Henin’s backhand one of the finest in the history of the sport. A petite girl, by tennis standards, it is quite remarkable that she gets the kind of pace off the racquet that she does. It does, though, make for spectacular viewing. The stroke helped her to seven Grand Slam titles, before she most unexpectedly retired from the sport at the age of just twenty five, days before the French Open in 2008. A return to the circuit last year, like most other such comebacks hasn’t quite gone to plan – an injury at Wimbledon saw her miss rest of the season. It will doubtless take her a while to get back to groove, but if she does stay injury-free, I’d expect her backhand to propel her towards greater deeds.
France’s Richard Gasquet is an enigma. He boasts some very obvious gifts, none more dazzling than his single-handed backhand. But he was found wanting, yet again, against Tomas Berdych, in the third round, losing in straight sets. A former Junior No.1, Gasquet appeared on the cover of French Tennis Magazine when he was only nine, but his talents have failed to translate into success, with mental frailties often the product of his downfall. Tennis, certainly probes more than just the talent and flair of its competitors. When it comes to natural flair, though, few can better Gasquet and no shot beguiles in the manner of his backhand. Stroked with pristine technique – looped backswing, eyes over his right shoulder, his upper half uncoiling as his knees bend and a transfer of his weight onto the front foot – the backhand makes for captivating showing. It is not, though, his only strength. He has an intrinsic understanding of the dynamics of a tennis court, able to find remarkable angles from both wings and his touch at the net can be quite sublime. If only he can find the perfect amalgam of ‘mental and physical’ factors that make a champion. The game would be the better for it.
 Cited in Marshall Jon Fisher’s book, ‘A Terrible Splendour’ – set in pre World War II times.