- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2003

Suffering from a heart condition? Prone to sudden seizures? Shorter than the you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride plywood Mickey Mouse at Space Mountain?

No?

Good. Then pull up a chair. Have a seat. And please, buckle up. You’re about to read something so shocking, so revolutionary that it just might push you to the brink of madness. Well, mad enough to shell out nine bucks for a ticket to “Gigli.”

Ready? Here goes:

There are tennis players worth watching — gulp — who aren’t from the United States.

Take a deep breath. Draw it in. Let it out. Don’t rush. Go slow.

Still lucid? OK. Let’s continue. If the just-concluded Legg Mason Tennis Classic taught us anything — beyond the fact that rain delays aren’t confined to Wimbledon — it’s that captivating tennis doesn’t begin and end with Andy, Andre and James.

To the contrary, the rest of the globe — you know, the dark, unenlightened place that still calls them “French” fries — has plenty to offer, starting with Legg Mason runner-up Fernando Gonzalez. A hard-hitting Chilean with panache to spare, Gonzalez is a role model for every amateur hack who ever sent an ill-advised uppercut backhand clear over the park fence. Which is to say, just about all of us.

Gonzalez swears he doesn’t try to hit a winner on every shot. You wouldn’t know by watching him. He plays a grip-it-and-rip-it game to rival golfer John Daly, all guts and gusto. His forehand is the place where the other guy’s winners go to die, a weapon that surely would trigger an international incident if it were subjected to U.N. inspection.

And if that’s not enough, Gonzalez has presence. Soft-spoken and disarming in person, he’s anything but on the court. Never mind his sometimes shaky English; Gonzalez’s passion translates. During his thrilling semifinal upset of top-seeded Andre Agassi, Gonzalez pumped his fist. Fell to his knees. Screamed to the heavens. And generally looked like a man having fun.

Fun, of course, being the whole point of the exercise.

Simply put, Gonzalez is the kind of player American fans would be happy to embrace — if only they knew a thing about him.

As it stands, most of the spectators at yesterday’s final would have an easier time humming a few bars from ABBA’s “Fernando” than picking Gonzalez out of a lineup composed of him and the Swedish pop group. And that’s if you spotted them Bjorn and Benny.

Granted, it’s hard to blame people for not knowing, let alone caring, about the likes of Gonzalez. In an international sport like tennis, Americans naturally gravitate toward native stars like Agassi and Pete Sampras. Tournaments like the Legg Mason know this — and don’t do a whole lot to promote the Yevgeny Kafelnikovs of the Tour. Meanwhile, networks would rather broadcast a second-round snoozer between Agassi and some qualifier than a competitive match featuring two exciting-but-unknown talents like Gonzalez and Croatia’s Mario Ancic.

Still, the folks who only follow the top American players are missing out. As are the columnists and radio hosts who routinely proclaim men’s tennis “dead.” To the contrary, most of the common complaints leveled against the sport don’t hold up. Not when you move beyond the Red, White and Blue. And not if the past week is any indication.

Starved for stylistic variety in an era of baseline bashing? Look no further than Legg Mason champion Tim Henman, a Brit who owns the softest hands in the sport and plays a serve-and-volley game so classic, so timeless that you half-expect him to favor long-sleeve sweaters and a wooden racket. Or check out quarterfinalist Max Mirnyi, an imposing Belorussian who combines old-school net play with new-school service bombs.

Hungry for McEnroe-like flavor? Britain’s Greg Rusedski, who lost to Andy Roddick in the third round, didn’t let loose with a profanity-strewn rant to rival his meltdown at Wimbledon. But you got the feeling he could have. Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan, last year’s Legg Mason runner-up, played to the crowd this year like a seasoned stage actor; better still, the crowd played back, many of them part of a large group that waved Thai flags and blew whistles, lending a World Cup feel to the proceedings.

Likewise, Gonzalez drew a rowdy band of Chilean partisans to his matches on Stadium Court. Just before the third-set tiebreak in his nighttime victory over Agassi, they let out a boisterous cry: “Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-le-le! Viva Chile!” And when Gonzalez subsequently drilled a massive forehand winner, they weren’t the only ones caught up in the moment.

Down in the box seats, a sandy-haired kid in a Michael Jordan T-shirt jumped out of his seat. Pumped his fist. Cupped his hands to his mouth. And let out a delighted yelp — the sound of a fan who knew good tennis when he saw it, regardless of the country it hailed from. Talk about a radical thought.

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