Outside of the US Open, the back-to-back two-week hard court events in Indian Wells and Miami are the biggest tennis events in the United States. As a result, every year around this time, the same tedious debate arises between fans and pundits alike; is tennis ready for a “fifth slam” and if it is, where should it be held? Everyone has their own opinions about which tournament could be upgraded to the “fifth slam.” Is it Indian Wells because it has Hawkeye on every court? Or is it Miami because the presence of the Williams sisters completes the women’s field?
(For the record, I think that they should hold it in Bogota. I mean, Jelena Jankovic won there and it had live streams from two courts from the first day! Bogota sees your bet and raises you, Miami.)
This year, Miami’s status as the “fifth slam” has taken a hit, as the men’s event has been decimated by withdrawals; Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the marquee names skipping the event, along with notable top 50 names Radek Stepanek, Stanislas Wawrinka and Mardy Fish.
While that isn’t great, let’s focus on the players that are actually in Miami. One of those players in Juan Martin del Potro.
Del Potro was the only player not named Federer, Nadal or Djokovic to win a major title on the men’s side in the past six years until Andy Murray joined the club at the US Open in 2012. As Murray’s pushed his way to the top and expanded the “Big Three” to the “Big Four,” Del Potro has taken up the reigns as the most accomplished, and probably most dangerous, of the supporting cast of relevant characters on the ATP tour.
Despite being troubled by his wrist last week in Indian Wells, Del Potro put together one of his best runs since being sidelined for almost a year by that very wrist after winning the US Open. He defeated Murray in the quarterfinals and Novak Djokovic in the semifinals to reach the final against Nadal. Despite leading by a set and a break, Del Potro couldn’t seal the deal and Nadal won his third event out of the four he’s played since returning from injury. If anything, Indian Wells was a testament to the vice grip that the so-called “Big Four” have on the ATP; an accomplished player can beat two of them, only to run into another and come home with the runner-up plate.
In his post-final press conference, Del Potro said that despite the amount of tennis he played in Indian Wells, he would be going to Miami; despite the fast turnaround, he was “excited to play there.” Del Potro’s excitement, which he later elaborated on, stems from how many of his Argentinian fans, friends and family come to watch him in Miami.
Thus, we return to this illusive idea of the “fifth slam.” Butch Buchholz founded the Miami Masters in 1985 and helped develop it into what it is today; while he had hoped to turn the event into the fifth major, Miami has instead settled for title of “the grand slam of Latin America.” Latin American and Spanish-speaking players receive immense support in Key Biscayne, as it lies south of Miami Beach and east of Miami itself. It came as no surprise that Fernando Gonzalez, one of the biggest tennis stars from that part of the world, chose the Miami Masters as his farewell tournament when he retired in 2012.
With Gonzalez now out of the game, the pressure is squarely on the (very broad) shoulders of Juan Martin del Potro to be the big name of Latin American tennis. Having only been past the fourth round once in Miami, Del Potro appears to be rounding in to form, even showing glimpses of what made him the last man standing at Flushing Meadows in 2009, just in time for his “home slam.”
Not every story has fairy tale ending. The final match of Fernando Gonzalez’s career- a 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 loss to Nicolas Mahut in the first round of Miami- took place without a television camera in sight. It ended in the worst way possible- on a double fault.
“I was a little bit tired at the end.” Gonzalez admitted afterwards.
He had every right to be tired. In his thirteen year career the Chilean played 571 ATP singles matches and 207 ATP doubles matches. He won a combined 479 of them (370 in singles), earned 11 singles titles, and amassed over 8 million dollars of prize money. He made it to the finals of the Australian Open in 2007, the semis of the French Open in 2009, and won three Olympic medals- one of each color. He amassed all his accolades in signature style- with fun, flair, and a famously ferocious forehand.
You didn’t just see Fernando Gonzalez hit a forehand- you felt it.
I only had the pleasure of seeing him play live once, but it was the most memorable tennis match I have ever attended. It was a 4th Round clash at the 2009 U.S. Open. Fernando took on Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a late afternoon into the evening match on Louis Armstrong Stadium. It was a perfect storm of greatness- two of the most entertaining players on tour, a rowdy New York crowd (with Chilean and French fans to spare), and a beautiful sunset providing relief from the mid-day September sun.
The match was sensational (check out the highlights below), and Gonzalez was in rare form. Down a break in the first set- and naturally unhappy with his play- he nonchalantly handed his racket to an elated woman in the front row (1:54 in the video). Later in the same set, when Jo had a great look at an overhead smash, Gonzalez turned his back and ducked (3:30). At various points throughout the evening he smashed his racket, pumped up the crowd, and applauded his opponent’s crafty shots. I was so used to tennis players putting up a wall when they came out onto the court, but with Gonzalez it was the opposite. I felt like I knew what he was thinking and feeling at all times- almost to the point where I thought I was on the court running around right beside him. And every single time, without fail, that he unleashed the fury of his forehand I got chills– no small feat in the New York summer heat.
Eventually Gonzalez won that match 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(3), 6-4. He went on to face Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and I left Flushing Meadows that evening with a greater understanding and appreciation for what tennis could be. Tennis wasn’t merely a sport when Gonzalez was on his game- it was a theatrical experience that transcended country club stereotypes, pushed boundaries, and often defied logic.
Many pundits throughout his career wondered why he couldn’t- or wouldn’t- tone down the histrionics. It was often said that if he could stop with the outbursts and the racket smashes and learn to keep his composure that he would have had an even more decorated career. But that’s just not who Fernando Gonzalez was. He gave it his all- for better or for worse. There were no filters, no falseness, no reigning it in. It’s what made the forehands so chill-inducing and the dramatics so head-scratchingly entertaining. He held nothing back. It was exhilarating, maddening, and why he captured the hearts of so many tennis fans.
But at the end of the day- in his 571st ATP singles match- there was nothing left to give. His body had been breaking down often over the past year and a half, clearly paying the price for laying it all out there every single time. The endless cycle of pain and rehab had left him fatigued. Simply put, when he could no longer give his matches 100%, he decided to call it a day.
After he hugged Nicolas Mahut, flashed his trademark smile, and soaked in the applause from the crowd, Gonzalez turned his attention to the big screen. The ATP played a tribute video for him where Roger Federer, David Nalbandian, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal (among others) sang his praises. He was clearly moved by the video- these weren’t just his competitors, they were his friends. “I think (it) is much better to remember as a person than as a tennis player,” he told the press afterwards.
Of course, that’s the greatest thing about Gonzo- the person and the tennis player were always one in the same.