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Tennis

Gasquet serves up a lesson to three-time NCAA champ Johnson

NEW YORK -- Richard Gasquet gave Steve Johnson an education unlike any he received at USC, beating the American 7-6 (4), 6-2, 6-3 in the third round on Sunday in the Grandstand. Still, there were takeaways for everybody ...

1. Johnson's game is ready, but his intensity needs work. There's already so much to like about the way Johnson plays -- and not just the stuff that makes up your typical American musketeer (read: good for only one shot). Johnson has the big serve, the bigger forehand and more. But it's not his variety that stands out; for some players, an overabundance of shots to choose from can paralyze. (Remember how Andy Murray's career started out?) What sets Johnson apart is his decisiveness. He knows when to throw in a slice, when to charge the net -- and he has the wheels to get to just about everything. The net is where he scored his finest point, on a sliding half-volley pass up the line to go up 1-0 in the first-set tiebreak.

It was the first of four straight points by the American, whose level must've gone up 10 flights at that stage in the match. (Guess that's how he won those three NCAA titles with the Trojans, an accomplishment only the great Pancho Segura can also lay claim to.) But he couldn't sustain it and plummeted, conceding four of the next five points on errors. On the sixth, Gasquet crushed Johnson's second serve crosscourt to take the first frame.

"He could've won the first set today," Gasquet said. "If he had, the match would be different. When I did win, I knew mentally and physically he was a little bit down. My confidence was better."

That window was one of two that Gasquet bulled through to seize the match. The second was a break in the second set that gave Gasquet a 3-2 advantage and triggered a six-game winning streak. "At a point he gets rolling, and 10 minutes later he's up 6-2, 2-0," Johnson said. But with time and tour experience, Johnson will achieve the next-level focus it takes to slam those windows shut -- and keep them shut.

2. You might underachieve, too, if you had Gasquet's talent. The Frenchman has yet to fulfill the lofty expectations that were thrust upon him since he appeared on the cover of a national tennis magazine when he was still barely old enough to reach for it on a rack. You know this guy invests some sweat equity; he wouldn't have risen as high as seventh in the world otherwise. He wouldn't have advanced to the round of 16 for the fourth time in as many slams this year. He wouldn't have an undefeated record in his last five meetings with wild-card entrants at slams.

Maybe Gasquet doesn't put in as many hours on the practice court or the weight room as other top players, but he's certainly put in enough to lay claim to a game that seems to come as easily to him as his next breath. Its artistry was not lost on the Grandstand crowd, which even reserved a "What time is it? Break time!" chant for him -- which has to be a first for a foreign player. Gasquet's backhand in particular is less a weapon than an instructional tool. If it has a flaw, it's that it overshadows how cleanly he hits the ball from the other wing -- and, Mon Dieu, was he dialed in on Sunday. Case in point: he made 11 forced errors. Total.

The efficiency is one explanation for why the match ended in two hours. It's also an explanation for why Johnson started pressing. "In the end, if the guy's not missing much and hitting winners you've got to try something different," Johnson said. Yes, he paid for his high-risk approach with 38 unforced errors, but that doesn't mean it won't serve him well in the future. Just look at the big three.

Johnson's time in Queens might be over, but his self-belief is just beginning.

"I'm happy with the way I played this week," said the Orange, Calif., product, who will jump from 254 to the high-140s when the new rankings come out following the Open. "To be out there and have a chance to win the first set off of a guy who's No. 14 in the world, and then being able to compete with him in the next couple sets was definitely not discouraging."

3. Gasquet is not looking forward to facing David Ferrer. Talk about a guy who doesn't miss -- and works his tail off. Forget tennis. Ferrer might be the most self-made man in all of sports. What he has made himself into is the toughest out in this tournament not named Federer, Djokovic or Murray. And he has done it with a relentless, impregnable game that "makes you suffer," said Gasquet, adding that the fourth-seeded Spaniard gives him more trouble than any opponent. "I want to win this match," said Gasquet, who is 1-7 lifetime against Ferrer. "I will try to, but I have to play perfectly."

If he's successful, that underachiever label might require some rethinking.

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