PostHeaderIcon Saying Goodbye To Fernando Gonzales

Fernando Gonzales retired from professional tennis this week at the Sony Ericsson Open. It’s often difficult for an athlete to move on, but not for Fernando. After a tough 2011 season following surgery on his right hip, he knew that it was time to stop. And after a closely-contested loss to Nicolas Mahut in the first round, his career was joyously celebrated with all in attendance.

It’s against the backdrop of his retirement and subsequent celebration that I find myself conflicted regarding the fanfare and sentimentality surrounding Fernando’s retirement. He had a great career with numerous achievements, combined with moments that even his most ardent fans would have difficulty defending. How do you celebrate the achievements without a tacit acknowledgment of the lesser moments?

Fernando’s achievements are certainly worth noting. He garnered glory at two Olympic games: Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008). In Athens he won gold in doubles and bronze in singles. In Beijing, he won the silver in singles. Fernando’s lone Grand Slam highlight was his 2007 Australian Open finals appearance opposite Roger Federer. In total, he won 11 ATP Tour titles and rose to a personal high of number five in the rankings: a successful career by any definition.

Listing only Fernando’s tennis achievements doesn’t take into account what he also did for his home country of Chile. His Olympic successes were, I’m sure, a source of great national pride. But his greatest moment, in my opinion, was how he stepped up to help his country in their time of need after an 8.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the Chilean coast. The scope of the damage was vast, with estimates ranging between 4-7 billion dollars in damage claims.

A heartbroken Fernando organized a “Champions for Chile” exhibition, enlisting a lineup of his ATP peers that raised $125,000 for the relief effort. Afterwards, he took time off from the tour to travel his country and personally assist the effort in whatever capacity he was able. Fernando put national tragedy over his personal ambitions; an admirable feat.

It’s clear that Fernando’s successes on the court, as well as his humanitarian works off of it, are more than worthy of celebration. Yet, there is another side to Fernando that I have a hard time reconciling with his more honorable achievements. It was a side of him that manifested when he let his emotions take over, causing him to act (for lack of a better term) like a jerk.

Two particularly pointed incidents come to mind. The first is a moment of incredibly bad sportsmanship (some might call it cheating) that occurred in his semifinal match with James Blake at the Beijing Olympics. James hit a shot that appeared to make contact with Fernando as it went by. Video replays confirmed the touch, and the slightly altered trajectory of the ball.

The chair umpire missed the moment, and Fernando denied any contact. He went on to win the match, assuring himself of a medal. Blake went on to lose against Novak Djokovic in the bronze medal round. He returned home empty-handed, and rightfully questioning Fernando’s integrity.

The second incident happened during a match against Robin Soderling at the 2009 French Open. A close call on a Soderling backhand went against Fernando. The chair umpire made his way to the mark and determined that the call of “in” was correct. Fernando was livid. “Shot Spot” showed that the ball was “out”. But since the challenge system wasn’t in use at that time, so he had no recourse for overturning the call. After vigorously arguing his point to no avail, Fernando walked back to the mark, sat down on the court, and then scooted his butt across the line to remove it.

Soderling dismissed the “butt scooch” as emotions in the heat of battle, but it felt a little classless as I watched it on TV. There are times when, as a celebrity athlete, you need to represent the best of yourself and your sport. Fernando did a great job of that in responding to the Chilean earthquake efforts. He was not as successful doing the same for himself.

This is the reason for my conflicted feelings about the celebration of his career and retirement. I would be similarly conflicted regarding Lleyton Hewitt, a fierce competitor who can quickly transform into a first-class jackass. Fans want to root for their star athletes with a clear conscience. Players like Fernando and Lleyton make that difficult, which is a shame, because there’s so much to like and respect about their careers.

Pete Sampras’ retirement was one we could celebrate without conflict. He left on a high note, capping his career by winning the title in 2002 then returning to officially retire one year later. It was a great moment that I envision for both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal when the time comes.

As for Fernando, I appreciate all that he achieved and hope he has a great post-tennis career. I only wish that he would have made this moment easier for all of us.

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