NEW YORK -- Can you hear the drums, Fernando? We didn't think so.
With the attention placed on Thursday night's just-add-water classic between Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick -- a "popcorn match," to use the tennis vernacular -- it was with little fanfare that Chile's Fernando Gonzalez and Holland's Sjeng Schalken took the court Thursday afternoon. The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd eventually swelled to respectable proportions, but the atmosphere was worthy of the Quogue doubles mixer, not a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Fans could be forgiven for overlooking the pair. Schalken is a classic close-but-no-cigar veteran who reached the Wimbledon quarters earlier this summer but previously had never been beyond Round 3 of a Slam in nearly a decade on tour. Gonzalez, too, walked through the grounds unrecognized Wednesday, a player so little-known that, before Thursday he hadn't conducted an interview with the English-speaking press.
Want to learn more about Gonzalez in the 2002 ATP 2002 media guide? No luck. The players are listed alphabetically and Jerome Golmard is followed by Sebastian Grosjean. Gonzalez gets a quarter of a page -- a "quad squadder" as they say in PVB -- in the back of the book, not surprising given that his 2001 year-end ranking was No. 135.
This year he has had his star turn. Gonzalez won the first title of his career at Vina del Mar in Chile. "It was so special to me," he said, "because I was going to that tournament as a fan ever since I was a little kid." He's beaten players like Sampras and Roddick, and last month took a set off Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals of Cincinnati. After the U.S. Open he will be firmly ensconced among the top 20 players in the Champions Race and will have earned in excess of $500,000 this year.
Still, he's something of an unknown quantity. Aside from looking like a young Benicio del Toro and sharing a name with perhaps the greatest pop song of all time, what should we know about Fernando? "I'm from Chile, near Santiago, I'm 22, just a normal guy," he said Wednesday as he walked off the practice court. Anything else? "My father is in the flour business and I started playing when I was five."
Among the new breed of South American players who is as comfortable -- and adept -- on hard courts as he is on clay, Gonzalez is one of the game's heaviest hitters. Though he only stands 6 feet, he plays smashmouth tennis, smacking everything with devil-may-care abandon. When he's on, you won't find a better shotmaker; when he's off, it ain't pretty. Flat forehands that appear springloaded either scream into the corners or into the stands. Backhands either lick the lines or the courtside placards. Gonzalez's game is high risk/high reward, and also highly entertaining.
"I was always playing like that," he said. "People were always saying, 'Calm down and play more carefully.' But when I met my coach [former South American pro Horacio de la Pena], he told me to play my game. That's what I do."
Not surprisingly, even in this breakout season, Gonzalez's results, like his shots, have been wildly erratic. He has beaten the best in the business, but he has fallen to also-rans like Nikolay Davydenko, the famous expectorant Michael Tabara, and (Who the Hell Is) Juan Balcells. Likewise, here at the Open, he was down two sets to one in his first match to France's Paul-Henri Mathieu before rallying to win. Yet he breezed past No.7 seed Juan Carlos Ferrero and veteran Arnaud Clément without surrendering a set.
Thursday against the steady Schalken, Gonzalez's go-for-broke style was particularly pronounced. In the first set he tagged shots violently, hit a half-dozen no-way-in-the-world winners, and prevailed in a tiebreaker that, fittingly enough, ended with a let-cord winner. In the second and third sets he missed more than he made. He regrouped to win another tiebreaker in the fourth. With the match on the line in a fifth-set breaker, Gonzalez's game went by way of Tierra del Fuego. Nearly four hours after their match began, he belted a return wide and Schalken rejoiced.
Gonzalez looked like the picture of dejection as he walked off the court. But it won't be long before one of tennis' more talented young players turns another stadium court into Fernando's hideaway.