Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Hard-hitting style good for Gonzalez


No. 13 seed now 5-1 in Cincinnati

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY

Photos of Monday's play
MASON - Fernando Gonzalez plays smashmouth tennis, hitting perhaps the hardest forehand in history.

Line judges would be advised to stay on their toes.

"I play like I like," he said. "I like to hit it hard."

That's how the 23-year-old from Chile earned renown as the "Flayin' Chilean." That's how he ripped his way into the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters semifinals last year as an unseeded, unknown quantity.

He started down the same path Monday with a 7-5, 6-2 beating of Brian Vahaly. The 13th-seeded Gonzalez, who has become the most famous athlete in his country, is 5-1 in his short history here.

"Last year my play here gave me a lot of confidence," Gonzalez said.

And earned him some fast friends. Hitting without a conscience, he became a fan favorite here last year and nearly toppled then-No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the semis. Then he won over more fans in making the U.S. Open quarterfinals.

His biggest fans are back home. 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.

"I have my own style, and people like to watch that kind of tennis," he said. "It's fun."

The shots don't always fall. Numerous coaches and well-wishers tried to counsel Gonzalez to tone down his power.

He had a strong juniors career, finishing No. 4 in the world in 1998 and winning the boys' French Open title that year. But a hand injury in 2001 impeded his progress. He spent most of his time on the minor-league Challenger circuit and ended that year ranked No. 135.

He got hot last summer, finishing the year at No. 18. He's currently No. 17 - after holding a career-high No. 13 ranking last week.

Ivan Lendl once called Gonzalez's forehand the best he had ever seen. After Gonzalez ripped 44 winners in a 7-6, 7-6 quarterfinal victory over Andy Roddick here last year, Roddick described the match as "a blast."

How'd he decide on this style? Gonzalez grew up near a clay-court tennis club in Santiago and said club members often asked to hit with him. Many of them were older, and they tended to hit the ball high and slow.

"I wanted to finish the points every time, so I'd just hit it hard," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, 30-15 this year, will face Juan Ignacio Chela in a second-round match Wednesday.

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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