Sunday, May 10, 2009

To be young, rich, and disciplined

It is difficult to manage money at any age but it is probably far more so when one is very young and very rich. Think of all of the temptations available to you when you were Richard Gasquet’s age. Now imagine being able to afford them all. Would you resist?

It is easy for me to say that I have never done cocaine. That is the truth. It is also the truth that at age 22, I could not afford to experiment with drugs. I had grad school to pay for, with no family assistance. Drugs were the furthest thing from my mind. I think that part of the reason why I still own every single psychology book I ever bought is because I remember how hard it was for me to afford them.

But if I were 22 and rich, could I honestly say that a lot of my money would not have ended up going into partying, or even up my nose? For young players like Richard Gasquet, the temptation must be unbearable. Some time ago I saw a photo (left) of Gasquet and Tsonga dancing up a storm in a club. They looked like young people everywhere, slightly drunk (to my eyes), and having a grand old time.

Compare them with players like Sébastien Grosjean who, by age 20, was already married and had his first child. Today, he is the father of three. A completely different path, a totally different life. Grosjean chose responsibility over recreation, solidity over squander. A much more difficult path, in my opinion. It is so much easier to party and put things up your nose.

Of the group of young male French players, Gasquet was always the one signaled for glory. Ever since he was very young, predictions were being made that he would be “The One”. At age 15, he made his much lauded grand slam debut on his home turf at Roland Garros. But today he is ranked behind fellow country-men Gilles Simon, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gaël Monfils. Who woulda thunk it?

There is no doubting Gasquet’s talent. He can play on any surface. He is a breath-taking shot-maker. His down-the-line backhand is not something one can teach -- you have to be born with that shot. On a good day, he can challenge anyone on the tour. On a bad day, he looks like a junior still trying to figure it all out. And with his admitted positive drug test, it’s clear that he’s still trying to figure it out.

I feel more sympathetic towards Gasquet than I did towards Hingis when she was thrown out of tennis for allegedly using cocaine. I say allegedly because Ms. Thang denied it. At a teary news conference in Zurich, Switzerland, Hingis insisted on her innocence: “I am frustrated and angry. I believe that I am absolutely, 100 percent innocent…They say that cocaine increases self-confidence and creates a type of euphoria. I don't know. I only know that if I were to try to hit the ball while in any state of euphoria, it simply wouldn't work. I would think that it would be impossible for anyone to maintain the coordination required to play top class tennis while under the influence of drugs.” I agree with Hingis; you can’t play tennis while high. But no one ever accused her of taking a bump just before she came on the court. Doping experts say that cocaine can be detected for up to five or six days after use.

Am I being unfair to Hingis? Should I have been as compassionate about her dilemma as I am being with Gasquet? I think not. The difference in part is their ages and experience. At the time Hingis was 27 and a seasoned performer. She had already delivered on the promise also noted in her as a child. She won the girls singles at the French Open at age 12, the youngest to ever do so. She went on to win every slam on the WTA tour, and made it to the finals of the French (which she squandered to friend and then fellow party animal, Iva Majoli.)

The other difference is that Hingis always seemed to enjoy a measure of freedom. One never got the sense of her being boxed in by tennis. Her mother has been quoted as saying that she only coached Hingis for about six hours a week. The rest of the time was spent in pursuit of other interests including horse-back riding, skiing, and swimming. I remember a commentator once wondering why Hingis’ mother allowed her to continue riding horses after she had gone pro. He could not imagine why she would take the risk. I could not comprehend his inability to understand the idea of having a balanced life.

Gasquet, on the other hand, has always seemed bottled, controlled, repressed. Some called him a head case. News reports criticized the omnipresence of his parents. Unsubstantiated rumors questioned his sexuality. About the latter, I really don’t care. My point only is that where I found myself wanting to slap Hingis, I find that I want to hold Gasquet close and remind him that he is still young, that the time off can be spent learning how to acquire true discipline, of the kind that Agassi learned late in his career, of the kind that Grosjean role models. I want to urge him to spend the time off working with a trainer to strengthen his body, and with a psychologist to fix his mind. Because it’s not over ‘til its over, and it’s entirely up to him if the fat lady sings.

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