Time right for Gonzo to say goodbye
March 21, 2012,
Ravi Ubha ESPN.com
Another of tennis' entertainers is saying goodbye.
Three years after Marat Safin bid adieu and two years removed from Fabrice Santoro's farewell, this week's Sony Ericsson Open in Miami marks the end of Fernando Gonzalez's career.
Gonzalez's supreme shot-making, most notably with his laser-like forehand, coupled with his penchant for breaking rackets -- a la Safin -- made him utterly watchable.
His success at the Olympics and 2007 Australian Open turned him into even more of a hero back home in Chile, the land of Marcelo Rios. He'll be missed.
But the 31-year-old couldn't continue. He always was the kind that planned ahead and thought about his life after tennis, even when he was in his early 20s and healthy. Hip surgery and aching knees, brought on by years of pounding, sped up the thinking process.
Gonzalez sought the counsel of his family and only his closest friends, which included former coach Larry Stefanki, as he contemplated retirement. Too many opinions, he said, would leave him confused.
Stefanki flew from California to Florida last fall to chat with Gonzalez about his future, and accompanied by a bottle of wine, they conversed well into the early hours of the morning.
"Maybe two or three years ago, I started to think one day I have to say bye," Gonzalez said in a phone interview from Miami last week. "It wasn't in my plans at the time, but I was always looking at when it was going to be the right time. You start to feel pain in your body, you don't have the same energy to practice, to travel, to compete, then you know maybe it's going to be my time now."
He went public with his intention to quit last month. "I think I did the right thing, because I wanted to stop with the good feeling of my tennis," Gonzalez said. "I think it's the right time to stop."
When Gonzalez made up his mind, he informed Stefanki.
"He said, 'I'm done,'" Stefanki said in a phone interview. "I said, 'I'm going to be there until the end. I'm going to be there at all your matches in Miami. I'm proud of everything you accomplished.'"
That Gonzalez and Stefanki grew close wasn't entirely a surprise; it was under Stefanki's tutelage that Gonzalez had most of his success. Gonzalez was able to shore up weaknesses in his game, develop a drive backhand, construct points better and not solely rely on the massive forehand. Never a keen jogger, Stefanki got Gonzalez moving.
They clicked as people, too, so much so that Gonzalez almost bought a place in San Diego, where Stefanki lives.
Gonzalez's willingness to improve when he could have coasted with the forehand, stayed in the top 30 and made a nice living, lured Stefanki when they discussed a possible partnership in 2006. At the time Stefanki was happy enough being at home with his family and working with juniors.
"He goes, 'Larry, I've got 2,500 hours of doing things the wrong way, but I'm willing to do it the way you tell me,' and that really got my attention," Stefanki said. "And I liked his energy. When I asked him a question, he was very thoughtful, very truthful. Fernando was one of the special ones, and I'm glad I said yes to him."
Their crowning accomplishment came in Melbourne in 2007, when Gonzalez downed a young Juan Martin del Potro, Aussie favorite Lleyton Hewitt and world No. 5 James Blake just to advance to the quarterfinals.
Once there, Gonzalez crushed Rafael Nadal, who hadn't yet won a major outside Roland Garros, before routing Tommy Haas in a 90-minute semifinal. He was in the groove.
"He was one of the few guys who could create offensive positioning on the court from a ball tailing away from him," Stefanki said. "His upper body strength, he was strong as an ox."
Roger Federer, though, was a different proposition in the final. The Swiss was at the height of his powers, winning five of the previous six majors and was 10-0 against Gonzalez.
Gonzalez held two set points at 5-4, 40-15 on his own serve, and had he converted on one of them, the momentum player he was, who knows what might have happened. Instead he was broken, lost the first set, and Federer cruised.
Gonzalez admits to, for a while, replaying the set points in his head over and over.
"Roger was playing really good, and it was my only final of a major, and he had many," Gonzalez said. "But I don't like to think of something that could have been, because it wasn't. I always try to think of what it was."
Gonzalez finally topped Federer in a classic three-set match at the year-end championships in Shanghai in 2007, striking his backhand better than ever.
But, oh, that forehand.
ESPN analyst Darren Cahill, who coached Hewitt and Andre Agassi, marveled at the shot when he first saw a 16-year-old Gonzalez during a junior Davis Cup event in Switzerland that also featured Hewitt and Federer. He was in charge of the Australian team.
"I remember hearing about this Chilean kid who was pretty good and never before seeing a young kid able to generate so much power on the forehand side as Fernando," Cahill said in a phone interview. "I knew he was going to be a very good player. Obviously, he was pretty wild back then. He played Lleyton, they had a great match, and Lleyton hit a few too many balls back at him, but Fernando was leaving dents on the back fence with the power he was generating on the forehand."
Cahill hasn't seen a junior hit the forehand as hard since.
"Even if I didn't play for a month, I could hit the forehand like I wished," Gonzalez said. "It's something that didn't happen with the rest of my game."
When asked who had the bigger forehand, him or del Potro, Gonzalez laughed.
"I think me, but Juan Martin has more things better than me," he said.
As for those rackets that died a quick, forceful death -- watch his demolition job at Indian Wells in 2009 against Federer -- Gonzalez wasn't proud of his behavior. At those moments, it was akin, he said, to having an out-of-body experience.
Outside the court Stefanki described Gonzalez, who once aided a dog hit by a car in Chile, as a "gentle soul who didn't have a mean bone in his body." Gonzalez visited different parts of Chile in the wake of the country's 8.8 magnitude earthquake in February 2010 and organized a charity doubles match in Miami that raised more than $100,000.
Cahill, who added that Gonzalez's smile and personality lit up a room, also said: "He's one of the nicest guys around."
Gonzalez, ranked as high as No. 5, said he "could have done more" in his career, yet he's hardly tormented. "Calm" is the word he used. Besides those two memorable weeks in Melbourne, he has fond memories of winning a gold in doubles with Nicolas Massu and bronze in singles at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, and a silver in singles in Beijing -- where he carried the flag at the opening ceremonies -- four years later.
Saving match points at the Olympics was commonplace. He fended off two against Taylor Dent in the bronze medal match in Athens that ended 16-14 in the third, and he and Massu survived four in the doubles final against Germany -- later the same day. Gonzalez fought off three match points in the 2008 semifinals against Dent's fellow American, James Blake, prevailing in another long one, 11-9 in the third.
What's next for Gonzalez?
He plans to do more charity work and play as many exhibitions as possible, both inside and outside of Chile.
"I'll start to work with my foundation to try to motivate people to play tennis in my country, especially where they don't have access," Gonzalez said. "I want to play many matches in Chile as exhibitions. We're a really long country; one side to another is far away. I want to be in many places.
"I still like tennis. The senior tour is more [entertainment], and I think it's going to be a great time for me."
Watching Gonzalez, more often than not, made for a great time.
Same country, different people
Larry Stefanki took the gifted, brooding Marcelo Rios to No. 1 in the world, but he said his time with Fernando Gonzalez, Rios' fellow Chilean, was more gratifying.
"Fernando and Marcelo were totally different, the way they challenged themselves, the way they looked at life," Stefanki said. "I had probably the most success with Rios. I'm very proud of how much improvement he made because the naysayers said he was too small, too slow, too this, too that, and he got to No. 1.
"But as a friend, person, athlete, and what he accomplished, I'm as proud of Fernando as I am of anybody."
Stefanki has also coached Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Tim Henman, an aging John McEnroe and, currently, Andy Roddick.
"None of the guys I've ever really coached had that sensitivity and that unselfishness like Fernando, always concerned about how my family was doing," Stefanki said. "That's what I think of [when thinking of Gonzalez], not one specific memory."