Tennis fans have long had a soft spot for Fernando Gonzalez, and why not? It's easy to love a go-for-broke style that offers highlights and gaffes worthy of a Best and Worst Hits DVD. The 26-year-old Chilean has spent a decade on the ATP circuit, alternately painting lines and threatening ball kids with his howitzer of a forehand. Gonzo? Few nicknames fit more perfectly.
For the past six months, though, thanks to a new coach and an attitude adjustment, Gonzalez has been playing deep into the weekends instead of self-destructing in the middle rounds. He reached three consecutive ATP finals at the end of 2006 and played his first Grand Slam final at the 2007 Australian Open, where he lost to Roger Federer. Now Gonzalez rolls into Indian Wells and Miami with a career-best No. 5 ranking.
"I used to have a big hole on my left side," he says, referring to his less-than-booming backhand. "No more. And I'm more fit. Now I'm trying to stay a little bit more calm, because maybe my game can get a bit crazy sometimes."
Maybe? Sometimes? The guy might as well have invented the term "unforced errors." He used to punish mistake-prone rackets by smashing them. When, after a close loss to No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in 2002, he was asked why he refused to harness his game, Gonzo said, "I prefer to be great one week and then three not so good."
But that was before his makeover, which was directed by 49-year-old Larry Stefanki, a former tour player who coached Marcelo Rios, Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Tim Henman to career rankings. "Larry's 20-year record with players with different styles, personalities and cultures speaks volumes about his coaching pedigree," says Todd Martin, another player-turned-coach.
Stefanki has a rep for pushing players hard and getting instant success (he helped Rios and Kafelnikov reach No. 1) right before the relationship sours. Gonzalez, who had hovered for years just outside the Top 10, hired Stefanki in May to overhaul his backhand and net game -- everything except the forehand and serve. The coach responded with a challenge: "Do you really want to work on those things, or do you want to talk about working on those things?"
The answer lies in the results. Improving the weaker parts of Gonzo's portfolio has loaded even more power into a forehand that Stefanki calls "the best in the game." Many tennis experts think Gonzalez, and not No.2 Rafael Nadal, has what it takes to slow the Federer Express (despite an 0--10 deficit so far). "I have to be ready when Roger goes down a little bit," Gonzalez says.
Toppling the king? Now that would be gonzo.
David Higdon, former Senior Writer at Tennis Magazine, has covered tennis and other sports for The New York Times, In Style and other outlets.