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He's Got the Gun 01/24/2007 - 10:52 PM

When Fernando Gonzalez first called Larry Stefanki to explore the idea of establishing a coaching relationship, Stefanki first question, essentially, was: Dude. Are you sure you've got the right number?

This wasn't because Stefanki had a low opinion of Gonzalez's game; quite the contrary. He was aware of the whiplash backhand and service bomb, and felt that Gonzo had the best forehand in tennis. But he had no history to call upon. Yesterday, after Gonzo played three sets - afterburners all the way - and bounced Rafael Nadal out of the Australian Open, a couple of us tracked Stefanki down in the bowels of Rod Laver Arena. We got the skinny on how he came to work with Gonzalez, and how he's helped shape his game.

"The first time he called, I asked him:' Fernando. Do you know who I am?' I mean, I had maybe encountered him twice, going in and out of a locker room when I was working with Henners (Tim Henman). You know, I said, "Hi Fernando, what's up?" And he'd just said, "Hi" and that was the extent of it."

Gonzalez replied that he certainly knew who Stefanki was; he had observed him from afar for quite some time and liked what he saw. It probably helped that Stefanki had brought another Chilean, Marcelo Rios, to his brief, brilliant apotheosis in the game; as Stefanki put it, "I think Fernando knew I had some familiarity with his culture." It undoubtedly helped that, in addition to Rios, Stefanki had worked, often without a great deal of fanfare, with some serious heavyweights. Players familiar with the thin air of the high peaks in the game: John McEnroe, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Henman.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Stefanki's CV, he was a hard-working journeyman on the tour in the 1980s, known primarily for his intensity and combative appetite. If he had a shortfall, it was in the department of raw talent. He absorbed a lot of his coaching philosophy from his father-in-law, the NFL Hall-of-Fame candidate for former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, John Brodie. Stefanki is a distinctly American character: he's intense and business-like, and while he's an astute technician and fine-tuner of both strokes and strategy, he's always stressed the metaphysical ingredients in success: attitude, attitude, attitude. Seize the (warrior) moment.

When Gonzalez first called he told Stefanki, in so many words, that he was tired of being Gonzo, the Greatest Sideshow in Tennis. An antic rider on the roller-coaster of his own talent and undisciplined game. He was tired of being ranked in the 15-25 category,and wanted to develop a better return, backhand, and volley. More importantly, he wanted to commit to the game, and maximize his shot at winning a Grand Slam event.

Stefanki didn't exactly drop the phone and run to the airport.  As he put it, "I was reluctant to leave the couch." In Stefanki's case, this was a metaphorical construction, for he had been working with juniors near his home in San Diego, and he had three kids of his own to keep him busy. "But," he admitted, "I still had that competitive itch."

So Stefanki told Gonzalez: "I'm not going to tell you you're great. You have a lot of flaws. You've been ranked high, but you've never really done anything. So let's talk about this to make sure we both know what we're getting into here."

As it turned out, that conversation lasted a good two months, most of it transpiring during the clay-court season.  And, as Stefanki said, "Fernando was saying all the right things. I wasn't interested in going back on the tour just to be there, but he convinced me. I thought, this is a good kid who wants to do all the right things." They began working together in May of last year, aided by Gonzo's fitness trainer, Carlos Burgos.

"One of the things I discovered," Stefanki said, "is that Fernando is a really smart guy. Everyone thinks he's a real wild man, but he's not really like that. He goes home and thinks about things. And that thoughtfulness is showing up in his game now."

Stefanki knew better than to screw around with Gonazlez's forehand. "He's got the gun," Stefanki said. "That's a given." But the backhand was another story. "He looked at a lot of tape, and how he hit the backhand. I'm very into body control and balance, and limiting upper body movement. You know how his forehand spins, and he's got so much release on it? You can't do that with the backhand. It's impossible. He had a great attitude about changing it. He said, 'Larry, i want to do it, just tell me how to do it.'"

Gonzalez also worked on using his serve more effectively if less forcefully, and he honed his volleying skills. He also embraced a more rigorous fitness regimen. When Stefanki went to Chile to work out with Gonzalez over the Christmas break, he introduced Gonzo to the mysteries of two-on-one workouts. Gonzalez shed 12 pounds.

The chief mission, though, was to modulate the Gonzo game, if not the Gonzo spirit - impress upon him the importance of playing solid defense and waiting for the inevitable short ball, even on the forehand side. "In the past, Fernando would get very excited on the court, and I told him not to get like that unless the moment really calls for it. Like after a set. But he doesn't need to do that after every point, or go "vamos!" every time he hits a big forehand. You kind of lose your plan that way. He's a lot calmer on the court now, and it helps."

Gonzo has a reputation for blowing hot and cold; typically, he would win a big match (like his battle last night with Jet Boy), and then perform indifferently in the next round.  "We talked about that," Stefanki said. "I told him, 'It''s not a one-day wonder deal.'"

Gonzalez took the advice to heart, and by the end of the year he was crowing about having made three consecutive finals.  "Before," he told his coach, "I would maybe win a tournament and then lose in the first round for a few weeks. It's different now."

Stefanki is especially proud of the way Gonzalez has learned to dig himself out of any holes into which his still explosive and occasionally unreliable game dumps him. In his third-round match with Juan Martin Del Portro, Gonzo had 41 unforced errors.  At which point, Stefanki was thinking: "Oh my God, we're back in May!" But Gonzalez hung in there, and satisfied his coach in one critical aspect of the game: "He didn't start beating  himself up over his poor play.

He elaborated, with a vintage Stefanki mission statement : "I see guys out here, they're up a set and a break, and they start beating themselves up, verbally. I don't like that. I'm a positive guy. So that's always like old news to me."

So Gonzo rolls along, beating up other guys, rather than himself. And it explains Gonzalez's 100-plus winner-to-error ratio. That's a number of glaring and obvious significance. As Chip Le Grand wrote the other day in The Australian: "To his own credit and tennis's grievous loss, Fernando Gonzalez is not the player he once was."

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Posted by Dunlop Maxply 01/24/2007 at 11:17 PM

Brilliant post Pete.

Posted by ptenisnet 01/24/2007 at 11:24 PM

Nice Pete. Fena rules and other such exhortations.

Posted by cc 01/24/2007 at 11:25 PM

Awesome post Pete!!

Posted by abbey 01/24/2007 at 11:26 PM

pete, roger talking about his relationship with roche, now gonzalez and stefanki. me, likey. thanks.

Posted by Tari 01/24/2007 at 11:33 PM

Oh, yeah. This was sweet. So nice that this guy seems to really be the nice guy we think we see out there. And smart, thoughtful on top of that? Love to hear that. :)

Larry Stefanki is a genius. Go Larry!

Posted by D-Wiz 01/24/2007 at 11:49 PM

Great stuff, Pete! Man-oh-man, I couldn't be happier for Gonzo. AND, big ups to both Gonzo & Stefanki for such fantastic results from their efforts.

It's funny b/c as Gonzo's progressed through this AO, I've thought back to the summer and the USO. He'd already made GREAT strides in his approach to the game at that point and I recalled that there was some concern here at TW over the apparent return to the old Gonzo in his 3rd round USO loss (since a lot of TWers seem to be big Gonzo supporters). I guess I, too, was worried then, but hopeful. It made me laugh to re-read my own concerned comment about that loss just after it happened -- it seems so silly now, given Gonzo's great going since (3 consecutive finals and this AO).

Gonzo's so not the same player he once was and it's just fantastic to see a player maximizing his potential like this. Hope he keeps it up! Thanks again, Pete, for a great entry!

Posted by Lucy 01/24/2007 at 11:49 PM

Pete, GREAT piece.

I've been DYING to hear about the Gonzo/Stefanki dynamic - it's one of the most interesting stories on the ATP right now, for my money. From his pressers and his on-court interviews it really does seem like Feña is a sweet, thoughtful guy. And from what I've seen, his backhand has been rock-solid this tournament. Which in its own way is nearly as impressive as his winner-heavy forehand.

Go Feña!
Go Pete!

Posted by Lisa 01/25/2007 at 12:18 AM

Yayyyyy, I've been saying Gonzo's going to get into the finals for more than a week now. There were noticeable changes in his game in the indoor season. I'm sticking by my finals prediction.

Posted by John C 01/25/2007 at 12:53 AM

Fernando's game is scary... I saw him live beating Agassi in Washington 2003, amazing pace. It's great to see how a good coach can make it come together.

If Stefanki ever gets dumped by Fernando, I'd be interested to see what he could do with the other Fernando (Verdasco), who also has a ridiculously monsterous forehand and an apparent brain deficiency.

Posted by AmyLu 01/25/2007 at 12:54 AM

Great piece Pete! It's really nice to see how a player, with all the talent, works hard to refine his game and maximize his talent - and it speaks to how a coach can help make all the difference. Kudos to Gonzalez; I think he's been the story of the AO on the men's side so far.

Posted by Sam 01/25/2007 at 01:13 AM

Great job Pete! It's nice to see Gonzo doing well. Larry Stefanki has done a heck of a job with him.

Posted by cyrill 01/25/2007 at 01:23 AM


Posted by Cyrill 01/25/2007 at 01:35 AM

Just watching Sharapova-Clijster, after Nadal-Gonsales
Is anybody is still into talking about equal pay ?

Posted by CB 01/25/2007 at 01:53 AM

Thanks for this great post Pete!

As someone who has seen Gonzo live in the old go for broke days, I admired his frankly amazing forehand but scratched my head at some of his choices. Still- I was a big fan, in no small part because he was a nice guy to the fans to the practice sessions and my sister-in-law reported the same at Wimbles.

I really enjoyed you talking about the dymaics between coach/player and it is interesting to read Stefanki's take on things. His checklist of things for Fena to improve have beared fruit this Oz Open. In addition to the new layers added to Gonzo's game- I have really been struck by how he is not getting rattled for too long. Yes- he had a chat with the ump during the Hewitt match after confusion over an overule, but he let it go. Against Nadal- he smiled at a shot hit into the net that he may have brooded over a year ago.

And it is really nice to hear that Gonzo wanted to put in the work necessary for him to be able to play the tennis he has the last three matches. I just hope it continues for at least two more. :)

Posted by cyandream 01/25/2007 at 02:04 AM

Thanks Pete, I've always like Gonzo, and I really like players who will change their games in order to win. This should be an exciting year for a Gonzo fan.

Posted by Danielle 01/25/2007 at 03:06 AM

Catching up on several posts tonight...loved 'em all but this one's a highlight. As my #2 fav, behind TMF, it's been such a delight to see the fabulous Fernando make the decision and the effort to turn all that potential into a reality.

But with all his cool-headedness on court now, does this mean we can't call him Gonzo anymore??

Posted by yogi 01/25/2007 at 03:33 AM

Thank you for a very nice post, Pete!
One may only regret that FG has become sufficiently mature so late. He is hard to control, so that only his own desire may keep him in the right frame.

Posted by jb 01/25/2007 at 03:44 AM

Hey Pete - Great post about Stefanki and Gonzo. The difference in his game was so apparent last year; its great to see that Fena's been able to keep it up. Loved the insight into what they had worked on; fascinating to see Larry tick off what they worked on, and to be able to see it put to such glaringly obvious effect. Also illustrates what the right coach can do, as well as that 'older' players can in fact retool their games to improve.

The only bummer may be not being able to call Gonzo 'Gonzo'...

Posted by mmy 01/25/2007 at 04:21 AM

Great post Pete

When I saw Gonzo playing in Madrid it really hit me that he was almost a different player. Your post does much to explain (or clarify to me) notions that I had then.

You know, Gonzo hasn't stopped being Gonzo -- he has controlled it. Taken all that craziness, taken that energy and turned it into structured aggression and brilliance.

One of the most remarkable 'after coaches' changes I have seen in my life.

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 05:46 AM

hi tribe, i've been waking up the past two weeks at 1 or 2 am to wwatch live grand slam tennis and have found ways to get internet live streaming on other pc's.

allow me to speak from the heart, pete and tribe. my eyes were watery (oh haas!) while catching up on pete's articles i've missed reading owing to my crqzy sleep-watch schedule. this article made me want to cry and i'll tell you why.

i'm a rafa fan through and through. i've wished for him to do well on other surfaces than clay since he won his maiden french in 2005. i also watched how his game was dismantled by blake, berdych,a nd federer in the latter part of 2006 on hard courts. some nights ago i watched him dig in his heels, twitch his famous ass and win heart and shoulders over the exciting and talented mr murray (whose tennis i have always liked, even when he was only ranked 95 at wimbledon), and felt my heart sink when i knew he would face gonzo.

i watched gonzo write out a convincing victory memoir over the clay court king.

and here's the rub: i like gonzo. when i started to follow the masters series last year, he caught my attention. now, reading about his determination to finally make a dent in a slam, i don't know what happened (and it's happening again as i write this), it touched off something within. something akin to wonder and deeply rooted warmth for the man. even when he beat rafa, i was applauding him for the efficient win. watching his hot coach in the player's box made it pleasurable (uncle toni is cute too).

to cut this rambling meandering short, let me just say, gonzo is no serena, but what he's bringing to the game is inspiring and worthy of my admiration and respect. i don't mean to betray rafa (hahaha as if he'd notice!) but there are other players out on tour who want to win and make a meaningful go of their lives.

lastly, thank you, pete et al, for tracking down stefanki and bringing this piece to us, your dogged rabid readers. much much appreciated. truly.

from the bottom of me hearty, sr

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 05:54 AM

i would like to add: even if he loses in the final to the genius known as roger (i will write something about roger later in my blog, a moment of empathy from me for the great man), i will be rooting for him. i'm assuming he'll win in tomorrow's semi against haas, another player who "breaks" my heart.

but then pete, your previous article about kolya tugged at my flimsy heartstrings once more. that kolya is so under the radar calls forth so much speculation and not enough pathos, just pity for the very nice and evidently funny guy on the davis cup team. but haas' comment about finally winning over a russian on the big stage really hit home how crucial that match was for the rattling german. (i still haven't gotten over him beating marat at the USO though hehehe)

ok ok enough tears for now!

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 05:59 AM

CYRILL: i'm glad you mentioned equal pay, esp in light of the debacle that was the anti-climactic and frustrating to watch second women's semifinal. i kept thinkinh, on my walk to work this morning, that those two obviously very fit women should play five sets, the way the men do (again, i remember haas commenting on the beauty of five-setters --- etienne, yoohoo, hope you're list'nin' --- and how fortunes can change dramatically in the course of such matches).

i can't substantiate my argument in light of andy "i'm flawless" roddick's embarrassing loss to roger today (go roger! walk over them all!), but considering how fit women today are, i think they can handle five setters... i wouldn't go into the garden of having someone paid more (it's always a thorny place to go), so i'd rather throw in a somewhat loose argument that there should be equal pay for equal work. in this AO, the men have more than proven their worth.

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 06:00 AM

ok, off to dairy queen post now.

before doing so, serena rocks! (i admired nicole's inspired comeback in the second set, albeit too late an effort to take the match to a decider)

Posted by daylily 01/25/2007 at 06:15 AM

if you didn't write another word until you return to new yawk, pete, you'd still have outdone yourself for insight and sweet prose at this slam. if someone had to beat rafa, i'm glad it was fernando. period.

Posted by chloe02 01/25/2007 at 06:24 AM

Enjoyed reading about Stefanki and Gonzalez (should we stop the playful Gonzo now he's a serious contender???) -this is the great part of you being on site to track down the big game for us.

That statement of Stefanki "I see guys out here, they're up a set and a break, and they start beating themselves up, verbally." is exactly how I saw the loss of Murray to Nadal. It was Murray's inexperience that lost him that match. Yet it speaks volumes about Gonzalez's appetite for the upper echelons of the game that he has controlled his emotions to focus his energy into his matches. Stefanki has obviously given Gonzalez the confidence to play out his game plan and keep onto the task to the end.

Just a shame that if comes into the final, it will be against TMF GOAT!

Posted by Gonzalo 01/25/2007 at 07:27 AM

Come on Feña. Come on Chile!!!!!!!

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 07:39 AM

yeah i'm with you there, gonzalez, vamos fernando!

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 07:40 AM

er, gonzalO. sowee

Posted by highpockets 01/25/2007 at 07:47 AM

Terrific post, Pete! I so admire the way you put words together.

I really think Gonzo is capable of beating TMF right now ... he's got the tools, the guts and the heart. I just hope he doesn't beat himself if he makes it to the final against "Mr. Almost-but not-quite-yet GOAT" in a HUGE slam final ... he's adorable ... I love his pleasant face and his laughter at himself when he played Rafael ... I'm a Rafa fan too, and although I was skeptical about his most recent "arse" injury (I'm not now), I think Gonzo would have done him in at that quarterfinal ... injury or not.

I also love to see a player struggle and then do something with that struggle ... like Gonzo ... I only hope Rafa can do that, and I keep reminding myself that he's only 20 years old and won so much so early that expectations and fame were bound to be a factor in '06 and '07.

God, I'm such a girl! As much as I love to debate the "sport" of tennis, nothing impresses me more than heart in a player ... and a nice tush ... Gonzo's isn't bad either and is on the way to being "famoz" too.

BTW, I love the OZ open and how we get these terrific stories and surprise players in the final rounds ... life is good when you're a tennis fan ...

Posted by svelterogue 01/25/2007 at 07:55 AM

hey-a highpockets, nothing indecent about being a girl and appreciating some great arse around here :)

elsewhere in the internet, i described fernando as having so much sex appeal, and yes, that ability to smile at himself during a potentially lovely winner was endearing indeed :)

all throughout that match i heard vamoses and arriba's. the better man won in that match.

Posted by Andrew 01/25/2007 at 08:02 AM

Nice post, Pete.

What you write about Fernando's backhand takes me back to a brief conversation with Dunlop Maxply, where he wrote (paraphrasing) that at this level, players hardly ever successfully change how they hit a tennis ball - grip, shot mechanics. I think DM is right on this, but Gonzalez may be the 1 in a 100 exception.

Also great to see him play smarter, without losing his personal style. He's definitely one of the good news stories.

Posted by highpockets 01/25/2007 at 08:04 AM

Thanks, Svelterogue ... I need a Chilean flag!

I haven't watched Fed v Andy yet, but it sounds like Andy got roasted ... if Fed wins this OZ open, I may be cheering him on to get a true Grand Slam this year ... I don't want him to beat Rafa at Roland Garros, but if he does, what can you say????? JUST TOOOOOOOO GOOD!

Posted by skip1515 01/25/2007 at 08:24 AM

This is a great peek into the life of a pro whose decision to invest in himself is a) admirable, and b) paying off. As Andrew pointed out from Dunlop's post, not too many players go back to the books once they're established. The view into Stefanki is something special, too. Thanks, Pete.

At The Wrap I wrote:

"We live in interesting times.

How fab is it that we get to watch a nice-sized handful of players actually (and publicly) work on their games? Pretty fab, says I.

Federer improves his backhand, perhaps now the best in the men's game. Roddick hires Connors, learns about court positioning, standing in, coming in, and relearns swagger. Gonzalez creates tension when he plays by making us bite our nails, wondering how long he can hold off pulling the trigger on *any* shot, but especially that forehand. Blake works on the same things as Gonzalez, although less effectively this tournament. Fish cleans up his forehand, and Murray remakes his physique and refines his match savvy."

Following matches to see how this all plays out is just fascinating.

Not since Tilden took a whole winter off to improve his backhand has there been so much effort being put into the rebuilding of players' games. At least not publicly.

And No, I'm not old enough to have been there for that episode.

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