Tennis star

Sun sets on Chile’s Golden Condor of tennis, Fernando González

Born, raised—and now retired—in Santiago, one of Chile’s most famous sporting sons ended his tennis career last week where it began 12 years ago, in Florida.  

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 Category: Daily life - Sport
Fernando González in Rome, 2009. (Photo by Marianne Bevis) Fernando González in Rome, 2009. (Photo by Marianne Bevis)

Fernando González’s last tournament was a sentimental and entirely appropriate choice. For it was to Miami that he came with his family at just 12 years old to develop a talent for tennis that would take him to No. 5 in the world, to Olympic medals and to 11 professional titles.

It was a bold step for the González family—a father who was a keen tennis player but managed a flour mill in Santiago, a mother raised in Italy, and his two sisters—but by 17 years old, Fernando was the French Open junior champion and the US Open doubles champion with fellow Chilean Nicolás Massú.

A year later, he was a professional on the senior tour and won his first title—against the same Massú—in Florida. But it was back in Chile that González won his second title, in 2002, on the golden clay of Viña del Mar, the first of what would become four trophies on home soil and the launch pad for his career.

After his maiden title in Chile, he beat Pete Sampras to reach the fourth round of his first Miami Masters, beat Andy Roddick to reach his first Masters semi-final in Cincinnati and then played his first Grand Slam quarterfinal at the US Open. He would go on to reach at least the quarters of all four Slams. He ended the year with another title in Palermo and a final finish at the prestigious Basel tournament.

And gold became González’s color again in 2004. Once more paired with Massú, he won the doubles Olympic gold—Chile’s first ever gold medal—and, not content with that, took the bronze in singles, too. In recognition of his achievement, he was awarded his country’s top sporting award, the Condor de Oro.

Jump forward three years, and again González was Chile’s “golden condor,” reaching the Australian Open final and beating Lleyton Hewitt and Rafael Nadal in the process. He also reached his second Masters final in Rome, ending 2007 at a career high ranking of No. 5 in the world.

The following year was to be even better. He carried the Chilean flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, and went on to win a silver medal in the singles and his third Condor de Oro.

However, González’s high-impact, high-energy style of tennis—muscular, big-hitting and with a blood-on-the-court commitment to every point—was beginning to take its toll.

In 2009, he won his last title in Viña del Mar and made the semis of the French Open. But in early 2010, though still ranked No. 10 in the world, González took three months out to rest a knee problem. He tried to make a tentative return on the North American hard courts, but was forced to retire in his opening match at the US Open and, soon after, he had hip surgery.

He made it back to full-time training within five months but, ahead of his April 2011 comeback tournament in Belgrade, he had to acknowledge that things had changed: “It will be symbolic, because I feel it will be the beginning of the end of my career.”

That beginning was less than a year ago, and he managed only a handful of events during 2011. Three of them ended with the sinister signal “ret,” his knee forcing retirement even from the Davis Cup playoffs for Chile in September.

This year, he managed six matches in the South American “Golden Swing,” including a last win in Viña del Mar before losing in the second round. And so the announcement came.

The end would be in Florida, the place where the victories began, and his choice was simple: “I came to this tournament many times when I was a teenager, as a fan. Then I had a chance to play here many times as a player, and there were a lot of people from Chile and Latin America here, so I feel at home here.”

The Miami Masters repaid the loyalty by offering him a wild card and asking him to make the men’s draw. He drew Frenchman Nicolas Mahut in the first round, and he lost—typically in a gutsy, all-or-nothing, two-and-a-half hour three-setter. Few will ever question the will to win of González, any more than they will dispute that his forehand was one of the most revered in tennis.

It was, in the end, the famous fighting spirit as much as the body that gave in:

“I realized that I did not have the same energy. I could not get up in the morning and give the same kind of intensity that’s needed to be at the top.”

He admitted, on the ATP website, that the physical and mental exertion as well as the constant traveling were contributing factors, something that long-time colleague Roger Federer explained:

“I think he’s had too much trouble, too much injury, and maybe now he’s too comfortable living back home. The roads to the rest of the world are far from Chile, so I can understand also maybe the travel had an impact.”

Federer, owner of another infamous forehand, also had words of praise for the man he deprived of that Australian Open title back in 2007:

“I know him from the junior days. He’s always been a great person. He never changed. I think that’s why he gets so much respect right now from all his fellow players, because he’s really well liked; and probably one of the most incredible forehands we've ever seen.”

So the dark, handsome, fiery González will be missed by tennis fans around the world, but their loss is Chile’s gain. He has, over the years, given time and money to charities in his home country; organized fund-raisers in the aftermath of earthquakes; worked with underprivileged children; and sees the need to involve more youngsters in the sport he loves.

“We need to have more people playing tennis in Chile. I think they need more motivation in many of the cities. It’s a big responsibility for me and Nicolás [Massú] to do something to improve that.”

For a man with three Golden Condors, it should be no problem.

By Marianne Bevis