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Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Gonzo playing with heavy heart


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For South American players like Chile's Fernando Gonzalez, the Sony Ericsson Open is the next best thing to playing at home. Miami's numerous ethnic communities from that part of the world turn out in force, converting Stadium Court into tennis's version of a World Cup soccer match with raucous cheering and flag-waving.

This week, however, Gonzalez will be playing with his real home on his mind. The magnitude 8.8 earthquake that struck the most densely populated part of Chile on Feb. 27 didn't take as many lives as the one in Haiti, but it caused widespread devastation to hospitals, homes and the infrastructure that will take billions of dollars to rebuild. The poor, as usual, were especially hard-hit as flimsy structures were most likely to crumble, and coastal areas were inundated by an ensuing tsunami.

The quake was so immense that it resulted in a micro-shift of the earth's axis, shortened the day and shifted the Chilean capital of Santiago 10 inches west. It also had a profound impact on the heart of a player most of us know merely for his fearsome forehand, 2007 Australian Open final appearance and two Olympic medals.

Gonzalez, 29, had just lost in the semifinals of a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico, when the first damage reports began to trickle in. His thoughts turned to his family in Santiago, particularly his older sister, Patricia, who is pregnant and lives with her husband on the 20th floor of a high-rise apartment building. He couldn't reach them for one panicked hour, but eventually learned they were safe.

That wasn't enough for the world No. 11, who said one of his first childhood memories is feeling the earth roiling beneath him when a lesser but still powerful earthquake hit Chile 25 years ago. He traveled home as soon as he could to visit ravaged areas and see what he could do to help. Aftershocks were still rumbling, unnerving already terrified people.

Gonzalez brought his racket wherever he went. Residents of a fishing village stopped salvaging their belongings from their swamped homes for a few minutes to hit with him. He conducted a clinic for kids in the sodden port city of Talcahuano, where lawlessness in the wake of the disaster was nearly as much of a threat as the earthquake itself. Watching people run after a tennis ball so soon after they'd had to run for their lives as the waters rose clearly affected Gonzalez.

"I told them, 'The only reason I come here is to give a signal that the country is united for you,''' Gonzalez said, his voice still slightly shaky with emotion even now. " 'These kinds of things happen; today we have to do something for you and perhaps tomorrow you have to do something for us.'''

Gonzalez has been a spokesman and fundraiser for several years for a foundation called Hogar de Cristo, which serves poor, elderly, abused, mentally ill, homeless and drug-addicted populations throughout the country. Monday night, Gonzalez hosted a benefit for the organization's post-earthquake relief effort, sponsored by Florida-based SOBeFit Magazine, which included a silent auction of sports memorabilia. Fellow ATP stars Carlos Moya, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez of Spain showed up to provide moral support and celebrity glitz.

"Fernando is one of our biggest public figures, and the time he's spent with us has been very important for the last five years, not just the last month,'' said Hogar de Cristo project manager Cristian Urzua, who attended the event in Miami. "But he traveled to Chile when it wasn't easy or safe. Just giving a word of comfort to people meant a lot.''

Interested in the organization's work? Check out www.hogardecristousa.org.