Can I call you Gonzo? I know it’s only your nickname, but no nickname has ever seemed so fitting. Have you enjoyed your off-season? I know it was short, but I think there was plenty of time to reflect on your career. Personally, I hope you spent a good portion of it watching video footage, but more on that later.
I can’t believe it’s been seven years since I first took notice of you on the ATP Tour. Back in 2002 in Miami, you had beaten Carlos Moya handily and were set to take on Pete Sampras. Forgive this North American’s prejudices, but the moment I heard the name Fernando Gonzalez, then coupled it with your South American heritage, I automatically imagined a speedy guy with loopy groundstrokes who’d be a rough customer on clay.
Sampras was not having a good year; his worst in more than a decade, in fact, but I still figured he could handle a clay court specialist in a Master’s Series event. As often happens, I was wrong about many things.
Despite falling behind early, you came back to take the first set in a tiebreaker, then ran away with the second set. AP stories detailing the match began referring to you as “perhaps the tour’s hardest hitter.” I was incredulous; how could they be sure that he hit harder than Andre Agassi, Marat Safin, or Mark Philippoussis?
Later in the year, I finally got a chance to watch you play, in your quarterfinal match against Sjeng Schalken at the U.S. Open. I watch how, even on the lanky Dutchman’s first serves, there were times when you ran around the backhand to crank the forehand, often smacking winners into Schalken’s corner.
“That’s what you call going for broke,” I remember the announcer saying after one such shot. Unfortunately, you tried the same thing on the next point and hit a forehand that was wide of the doubles lane. “That’s also what you call going for broke,” another commentator said.
You lost that match in a fifth-set tiebreaker against the steadier Dutchman. Soon your harder-is-always-better style of play had earned you the name “Gonzo,” or “The Flayin’ Chilean.” Jon Wertheim at Sports Illustrated later said watching you play was the tennis equivalent to a high-speed car chase. I was sure, however, that eventually you’d start to tone down the unforced errors and eventually become a major force in the game, possibly even win a major.
That never really came to pass. Do you know why I think that is?
Well, back to the footage: What I’d like you to do is to pick up some videos, first of all, of Agassi circa 1990 or 1991. The appropriate word in describing Agassi in those days would probably be “flashy.” Of course we know his clothes were brighter and hair longer, but his game was also full of color. He may have hit more outright winners with his groundstrokes in those days than we would see from him later in his career.
The problem was that steadier baseliners, like Ivan Lendl and Jim Courier, consistently got the better of him. He was more entertaining, but not winning as much.
Later in his career, he focused on using his groundies to move the other guy around until his opponent’s legs gave out. It lacked that streak-of-lightening quality that his earlier matches had, but he certainly won a lot more.
Another flashy player in his early days was Roger Federer. Born with hands, feet and a reaction time that very few people—even among tennis pros—possess, his matches through 2002, and even parts of 2003, were full of shots that many of his peers couldn’t even imagine trying, much less pulling off.
The problem was that other players, especially steady ones like Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian, limited his winners through their great defense and were canny enough to exploit his lack of patience.
By 2004, he had developed the tactics and the patience of a champion, and then he was unstoppable. You probably know that as well as anyone, having lost 11 of 12 matches against the Swiss.
It seems to me that you haven’t discovered what Federer and Agassi learned, so I’m here to tell you: Be more boring. The long rallies ending with a forced or unforced errors won’t make the highlight reels, but they’ll make you a lot more successful.
For every 108 mph forehand winner you hit, there need to be dozens of slice backhands. You can use your big forehand the way Courier and Lendl used to: to make the other guy run until he leaves a short ball, and then you can drop the hammer. So far, you’ve lacked the fitness and intensity of those guys, but your forehand and serve are even bigger than theirs.
With the 2009 Australian Open coming up, it is now two years since you played the best tennis of your career. At the 2007 AO, you rode a hot streak, crushing well-known commodities Hewitt, James Blake, Rafael Nadal and Tommy Haas in succession. The numbers in your match against Haas are especially mind-blowing: 45 winners against three unforced errors, a stat unheard of among baseliners.
When you lost in the final, it was to the Fed, who had guns as big as yours, but knew better when to use them. What would you have given to have faced the 2002 version of Federer on that day?
Now 28 years old, you’re pretty close to doing all you’ve ever done in pro tennis. But you can still have a pretty good career and add considerably to your haul of 10 career titles, provided you’re willing to grind day in and day out like those clay court specialists I once confused you with.
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray have probably cornered the Grand Slam market, but you can still make their lives very difficult, especially if you catch another hot streak like you did two years ago.
You have to decide soon: Rather than be a flashy player with limited success, you be a consistent performer—if you’ll dare to be boring.