The Greatness of Gonzo

Not every story has fairy tale ending.  The final match of Fernando Gonzalez’s career- a 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 loss to Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Miami- took place without a television camera in sight. It ended in the worst way possible- on a double fault.

“I was a little bit tired at the end.” Gonzalez admitted afterwards.

He had every right to be tired. In his thirteen year career the Chilean played 571 ATP singles matches and 207 ATP doubles matches. He won a combined 479 of them (370 in singles), earned 11 singles titles, and amassed over 8 million dollars of prize money. He made it to the finals of the Australian Open in 2007, the semis of the French Open in 2009, and won three Olympic medals- one of each color.  He amassed all his accolades in signature style- with fun, flair, and a famously ferocious forehand.

You didn’t just see Fernando Gonzalez hit a forehand- you felt it.

I only had the pleasure of seeing him play live once, but it was the most memorable tennis match I have ever attended. It was a 4th Round clash at the 2009 U.S. Open. Fernando took on Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a late afternoon into the evening match on Louis Armstrong Stadium.  It was a perfect storm of greatness- two of the most entertaining players on tour, a rowdy New York crowd (with Chilean and French fans to spare), and a beautiful sunset providing relief from the mid-day September sun.

The match was sensational (check out the highlights below), and Gonzalez was in rare form. Down a break in the first set- and naturally unhappy with his play- he nonchalantly handed his racket to an elated woman in the front row (1:54 in the video).  Later in the same set, when Jo had a great look at an overhead smash, Gonzalez turned his back and ducked (3:30).  At various points throughout the evening he smashed his racket, pumped up the crowd, and applauded his opponent’s crafty shots.  I was so used to tennis players putting up a wall when they came out onto the court, but with Gonzalez it was the opposite.  I felt like I knew what he was thinking and feeling at all times- almost to the point where I thought I was on the court running around right beside him. And every single time, without fail, that he unleashed the fury of his forehand I got chills– no small feat in the New York summer heat.

Eventually Gonzalez won that match 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-4.  He went on to face Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and I left Flushing Meadows that evening with a greater understanding and appreciation for what tennis could be.  Tennis wasn’t merely a sport when Gonzalez was on his game- it was a theatrical experience that transcended country club stereotypes, pushed boundaries, and often defied logic.

Many pundits throughout his career wondered why he couldn’t- or wouldn’t- tone down the histrionics. It was often said that if he could stop with the outbursts and the racket smashes and learn to keep his composure that he would have had an even more decorated career. But that’s just not who Fernando Gonzalez was. He gave it his all- for better or for worse. There were no filters, no falseness, no reigning it in. It’s what made the forehands so chill-inducing and the dramatics so head-scratchingly entertaining. He held nothing back. It was exhilarating, maddening, and why he captured the hearts of so many tennis fans.

But at the end of the day- in his 571st ATP singles match- there was nothing left to give.  His body had been breaking down often over the past year and a half, clearly paying the price for laying it all out there every single time.  The endless cycle of pain and rehab had left him fatigued. Simply put, when he could no longer give his matches 100%, he decided to call it a day.

After he hugged Nicolas Mahut, flashed his trademark smile, and soaked in the applause from the crowd, Gonzalez turned his attention to the big screen.  The ATP played a tribute video for him where Roger Federer, David Nalbandian, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal (among others) sang his praises.  He was clearly moved by the video- these weren’t just his competitors, they were his friends. “I think (it) is much better to remember as a person than as a tennis player,” he told the press afterwards.

Of course, that’s the greatest thing about Gonzo- the person and the tennis player were always one in the same.