NEW YORK -- Fourteen years ago Rafael Nadal met Richard Gasquet for the first time in a tiny French town just across the Pyrenees from Spain called Tarbes. They were only 13.
Nadal was emerging as a tennis virtuoso with an under-12 regional championship already in his trophy case at age eight, and added Spanish and European titles by age 12. And yet he was just another dirtballer compared to Gasquet, heralded in his home country as the Mozart of the sport; he was so universally marveled at in France that Tennis magazine featured him on their cover, at age 9, under the headline "The Champion That France Is Waiting For?"
The country was counting down the seconds by the third set of the quarterfinals of Les Petits As, a hardcourt under-14 tournament that is more or less the western European version of the USTA boys national championship. Nadal was down 7-6, 3-6, 4-5 and serving to stay in a match that had all the trappings of a major event: a capacity crowd, advertisements all over the court, and two kids swinging from their shoe tops. The only thing missing was the bass in the grunts.
Even their signature shots -- Nadal's lassoing lefty forehand (a stroke he switched from the right side at the insistence of his uncle, Toni, who still coaches him) and Gasquet's full extension one-handed backhand -- peeked through.
"He was already running so much," Gasquet recalled. "I told my father after, 'He's a big fighter.'"
In the end, though, it was Gasquet's forehand that did Nadal in. At 15-40, he ripped one down the line and then ripped another to take the title as the crowd roared. The jubilation was not to last, though, not if Nadal had anything to say about it. He vowed to come back and avenge his quarterfinals lost. The next year he won the whole tournament.
Since the toothpick figures turned pro, the rivalry between the two 27-year-olds has been more of the nail-hammer variety. Nadal hasn't just held the upper hand on Gasquet; he hasn't stopped squeezing. The Spaniard enters their semifinal matchup with the Frenchman, which goes down on Friday, on a 10-0 lifetime streak. He is also on a serious hardcourt warpath. His 6-0, 6-2, 6-2 dismantling of countryman Tommy Robredo in his quarterfinal match on Wednesday marked his 20th-straight victory on the surface. As disappointing as it was not seeing Federer on the other side of the net, really, Robredo did him a favor by vanquishing the five-time U.S. Open champ a round earlier. Nadal was in such a zone -- especially at net, where won 15 of 16 points, that Robredo could barely hold a service game. In fact, he held just four.
When Nadal's playing this well, it's tough to imagine Gasquet hanging around Queens past Saturday. But if he has to go down, again, he's going down swinging. He declared as much with his 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3 victory over David Ferrer in the other men's quarterfinal on Wednesday. The victory was not just a breakthrough for Gasquet, whose last Grand Slam semifinal appearance came at Wimbledon in 2007, but for France, which hasn't had a U.S. Open semifinalist in 20 years.
Meanwhile, the second-seeded Nadal last won here in 2010 and is playing like a man on a collision course for this year's final. He's only dropped a set through five games. If he dipped into his reserves at all while rallying from a set down in his previous match against Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber -- which lasted three hours and 12 minutes -- his tank was plenty topped off by the time he faced Robredo, whom he dismissed in an hour and 40 minutes.
His grudge match with Gasquet could fly by just as quickly -- but not because he'll takes any extra satisfaction in beating him. Quite the contrary.
"He's a very nice person," Nadal said. "One of the players on tour that I feel closer [to] because we are the same age. We always had a good feeling."
That is, when Nadal's not on the court beating Gasquet numb. In their last clash, which came in the first round of the 2009 U.S. Open, Nadal dealt Gasquet a 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 loss in an hour and 41 minutes. Gasquet undermined a strong service game (he won 65% of his points on serve) with four double faults. Nadal's serve, while still in its beta phase (almost half of his 62 attempts came on a second try) was never broken. The Spaniard's command performance sent a message that his maiden hardcourt slam victory eight months earlier at the Australian Open, where he beat Roger Federer to the point of tears, was no fluke. He was going for more. The pressure mounted with each round -- and then it fizzled with a loss to Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro, the tournament's eventual champion.
Still, the heat on the Spaniard felt like a steam bath compared to the scrutiny Gasquet was under that year. A lot of that had to do with him bringing the phrase "cocaine kiss" into the sports vernacular; the phrase's etymology stems from two-and-a-half-month, ITF-mandated suspension for testing positive for the white stuff. This is after he was able to prove on appeal that he had consumed no more than a grain of salt's worth, inadvertently, during a wee-hours lip-locking session a waitress at a Miami nightclub. "He kissed her at least seven times, each kiss lasting about five to 10 seconds," according to the appeals tribunal, oblivious (and rightly so) to another piece of vernacular -- TMI. The woman's name? Pamela. Just Pamela. Breaks in tennis don't come bigger than this.
Consolidating it, though, took a toll on Gasquet, who barely picked up a racquet during his timeout. Boy, did that show in the Nadal match. The '09 US Open was just his 10th tourney back from suspension. He went 17-9 in the matches leading up to it, with just four victories against top-10 players -- three of them courtesy of countrymen Gilles Simon (in Sydney) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (in Brisbane and Rome). His ranking, once as high as seventh, plummeted to 46.
Four years later he's squarely back in the ranking's upper reaches, in ninth place and rising after a U.S. Open run that is officially one round longer than last year's. The tone was set with a strong year that saw Gasquet win his season-opener at Doha in January and an indoor event in Montpellier a month later. Both of those victories came on hardcourts, no mean feat for a player who claims clay as his signature surface.
Another Gasquet trait: folding like a starched serviette when the pressure's on. Entering this year's U.S. Open draw he was 5-12 lifetime in five-set matches. On Monday Gasquet seemed doomed to fall to 5-13 in his fourth-round match against Canada's Milos Raonic, the fastest server north of the Mason-Dixon. Raonic came on strong -- firing 36 of his 39 aces in the first four sets -- but fell apart in a fourth-set tiebreak; he conceded seven points on groundstroke errors and another on a double-fault at 9-all on the way to gifting Gasquet an 11-9 victory. Another double fault and two more baseline errors -- a byproduct of a new wrinkle in Gasquet's game: an attack that moves forward -- allowed the Frenchman to break for 6-5 in the fifth set. From there followed a 6-7, 7-6, 2-6, 7-6, 7-5 victory after 4 hours and 40 minutes of fighting.
Most figured he wouldn't have any energy left to fend off Ferrer -- tennis' resident ironman, a 2013 French Open finalist, and the player who ended Gasquet's U.S. Open run a year ago. Especially after the Spaniard rallied from a two-set deficit to force a fourth set. Ferrer was a career 19-9 in five-setters, after all. Five of those wins came while he was 0-2 down.
But a dip in the New York humidity and the light but persistent wind that blew across Arthur Ashe Stadium helped Gasquet keep his cool. What's more, after outlasting Raonic two days earlier, "the confidence is there," he said during his post-match news conference with the French media. There was no missing it in the third game of the fifth set, as Gasquet, after forfeiting a 40-15 lead, dug deep to save a break point and hold serve at 2-1; and then dug even deeper in the sixth game to break for a 4-2 lead.
As upsets go this was Usain Bolt beating Mo Farah at his own game. And now Gasquet not only has a chance to make his deepest run ever at a Slam, but rewrite his reputation as an underachiever who coasts on talent. That meeting in Tarbes half a lifetime ago, preserved for eternity in a YouTube clip that Gasquet still checks out from time to time, promised so much for the Frenchmen. He seemed destined to do great things. If not now, when?