- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 31, 2003

Fernando Gonzalez plays tennis the way Mike Tyson used to box. The way Donald Rumsfeld holds a news conference. The way Donald Trump wears his hair.

Which is to say, a tad aggressively.

Put simply, Gonzalez is not the sort of player who frets over missing a few shots. Or even a few dozen.

A hard-hitting Chilean and the No.4 seed at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, Gonzalez instead works the court like Pollock working a canvas, spraying outrageous winners — and equally outlandish errors — in every direction.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Ever since I was 6, 7 years old, I started to play like this,” Gonzalez said with a smile. “I try to enjoy the game. I like the way that I play. And I know that a lot of people will enjoy watching.”

For Gonzalez, enjoyment and success go racket in hand. Behind a grip-it-and-rip-it game to shame John Daly, Gonzalez has emerged as one of the Tour’s top talents, a crowd-pleasing 23-year-old ranked No.14 in the world.

Gonzalez notched a 6-2, 6-4 second-round victory over France’s Julien Beneteau yesterday on the grandstand court at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Northwest.

“I’m an aggressive player, so I feel that every point depends on me,” Gonzalez said. “I prefer that to letting the other guy do it.”

Indeed. To note that Gonzalez favors a high-risk style would be an understatement. In reality, it’s more like zero-sum. Or maybe just manic-depressive.

Watch his crackling game in action, and you half-expect his teutonic winners to buy the entire room a round of drinks — while his errant blasts sulk off to a dark corner.

Case in point: Gonzalez’s loss to Sjeng Schalken in last year’s U.S. Open quarterfinals. In a wild, five-set match that included three tiebreakers, Gonzalez had 12 aces, 12 double-faults, 73 winners and 73 unforced errors.

(And no, we’re not making that up. Frankly, who would believe us?)

“I thought I was in the middle of a hurricane,” Schalken said afterward. “I was a little depending on him, on his mood. Sometimes he was hitting winners, then all of a sudden he hits one ball in the stand. And then he hits three winners again.”

Needless to say, Gonzalez’s gasp-inducing game makes him wildly entertaining. In fact, he might be the most underrated draw in ATP, the kind of player who makes new fans at every stop on Tour.

Just ask Andy Roddick, who sounded less like a seasoned pro than a starstruck spectator after facing Gonzalez at a Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati last fall.

“It was a blast,” gushed Roddick, the Legg Mason’s No.2 seed. “It was so much fun and just such a challenge playing against someone who is hitting the kind of shots that he was hitting.”

Roddick, it should be noted, lost the match. In straight sets.

“That’s what makes Fernando special,” said his coach, former pro Horacio de la Pena. “That’s why I encourage him to keep playing that way. Tennis is not only what you do on the court. It’s also show business. And he does something different.”

Different has been good to Gonzalez. Very good. Ranked No.135 in the world at the end of 2001, he finished last season at No.18. Gonzalez won titles in Vina del Mar, Chile, and Palmero, Italy, and collected 40 match wins — 31 more than his previous year-end best.

Four of those victories came during a breakout run at the Cincinnati tournament as Gonzalez knocked off a murderer’s row of Roddick, Tim Henman, Richard Krajicek and Arnaud Clement before falling to then-No.1 Lleyton Hewitt in a thrilling three-set match.

“Cincinnati last year was the key,” Gonzalez said. “It made me a different player. I won good matches, a lot of matches, all in one week. That made me grow up as a player, and my confidence also.”

Gonzalez hardly lacks confidence. Or audacity. And that’s no small thing, given that he’s never met a run-around forehand he didn’t like.

At one point during his Open quarterfinal loss to Schalken, Gonzalez hammered a blistering return winner down the line — then popped his next shot some 30 feet into the air. Down 1-0 in the fifth set tiebreaker, he whacked four straight errors.

As Gonzalez admits, his style isn’t for everyone.

“If you’re having a good day, it’s easy,” he said with a laugh. “If you’re not having a good day, it’s really tough.”

Though Gonzalez often looks out of control, his aggression allows him to dictate points from start to finish, denying his opponents any semblance of rhythm. Hewitt said as much last fall, calling Gonzalez a “tough player to play” and admitting that he had “no idea” what Gonzalez was going to do next.

“He’s just letting go from the back of the court or wherever he is,” Hewitt said. “He hits the ball as hard as he can every time.”

Which is pretty darn hard. No stranger to punishing ground strokes, Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl once called Gonzalez’s forehand the best he had ever seen; if tennis balls could file assault and battery charges, the shot surely would be behind bars.

Gonzalez also packs a leaden serve and has worked diligently to make his backhand equally forceful.

“He has the power to decide which is the last ball you’re going to play,” De la Pena said. “He hits it so hard that there’s no way you’re going to return it. Not many guys can do that. But he can.”

Born in Santiago, Gonzalez picked up the game through his father, Fernando, a flour mill manager and a recreational player. His older sister, Patricia, played tennis at Miami-Dade Community College.

The Gonzalez family lived near a clay-court tennis club where the younger Fernando first developed his reckless, ball-blasting approach.

“Members would always knock on the door and ask me to come and hit with them,” Gonzalez said last fall. “Most of them were older people and tended to hit the ball high and slowly. I used to get impatient and just try and hit it as hard as I could to finish the rallies.”

Gonzalez enjoyed a distinguished junior career, finishing No.4 in the world and defeating current Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero for the boys’ French Open title in 1998.

Two years later, Gonzalez squeaked into the qualifying bracket for a tournament in Orlando — he was the last player in — and survived four match points to reach the main draw. He went on to win his first professional title, defeating Legg Mason No.3 seed Paradorn Srichaphan and countryman Nicolas Massu along the way.

Gonzalez injured his right hand that fall, however, and spent most of 2001 on the minor league Challenger circuit. Frustrated by a series of coaches who attempted to rein in his game, he began working with De la Pena, who nurtured his pupil’s freewheeling tendencies.

“De la Pena tried to improve my style,” Gonzalez said. “The other coaches tried to change my style. So when we practiced, I was happy. I wanted to play more. I enjoyed the tennis every day. In 2001, maybe I didn’t have fun.”

In May, Gonzalez led Chile to its first World Team Cup title, becoming the first man since John McEnroe to win all eight of his matches in the competition. By doing so, he cemented his status as the best-known athlete in Chile, surpassing Cup teammate and former world No.1 Marcelo Rios.

Like Rios, Gonzalez is viewed as a national hero; unlike his oft testy countryman, he is soft-spoken and quick to smile, patient and polite as he wades through English interviews. Gonzalez still makes his home in Santiago, living in the same apartment building as good friend Massu.

“He’s the most famous sports person in Chile right now, and that’s another thing I had to work on with him,” De la Pena said. “That’s a huge change. But he’s a great guy. He comes from a good family, good values.”

Sure enough, Gonzalez’s swashbuckling game masks the work ethic of a deck swabber. Currently beset by knee tendinitis and a stomach bug — he vomited on the court during a recent match — Gonzalez nevertheless spent Tuesday afternoon practicing under the sweltering midday sun on Stadium Court.

After stopping for an hour of treatment on his achy right knee, Gonzalez returned to a side court, where he continued to smack ground strokes with all the subtlety of a 10-car pileup.

Not that Gonzalez would have it any other way.

“You have to practice the way you play,” he said.


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