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Golden Gonzalez: Chile's Olympic hero keeps his medals hidden away

By Chris Murphy, CNN
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Sun August 19, 2012
Fernando Gonzalez, left, poses with his silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games after being beaten by Rafael Nadal, center, in the final. Novak Djokovic, right, took the bronze. Fernando Gonzalez, left, poses with his silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Games after being beaten by Rafael Nadal, center, in the final. Novak Djokovic, right, took the bronze.
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In good company
Pride of Chile
Gold rush
Melbourne despair
Emerging talent
Home comforts
Pain in the grass
Florida farewell
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fernando Gonzalez has won three Olympics medals out of Chile's total haul of 13
  • Veteran tennis player has a full set of Games medals, which he keeps in his closet
  • He won bronze in singles and gold in men's doubles in 2004, then silver in 2008
  • Gonzalez won a total of 11 ATP Tour titles during a 13-year professional career

(CNN) -- Chile has only ever won 13 medals in the history of the Olympics -- and three of them are tucked safely away in Fernando Gonzalez's closet.

The 32-year-old, who retired from tennis in March, was famed for his fearsome forehand during 13 years on the pro circuit, winning 11 ATP Tour titles. However, it is the full set of medals from the Games that he counts as his finest achievement in the sport.

The Athens Olympics of 2004 yielded gold in the men's doubles with partner Nicolas Massu, and a bronze in the singles as his compatriot won that competition too -- becoming the only man to claim both titles at the same Games.

Four years later, in Beijing, Gonzalez reached the showpiece singles final but was thwarted in his bid for a second gold by Rafael Nadal.

While the Spaniard was not able to defend his title at London 2012 due to injury, Gonzalez returned to the world's biggest sporting extravaganza in an ambassadorial role.

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"I always wanted to play the Olympics," he told CNN's Open Court. "I got there with Nicolas thinking that of course it will be a really tough competition, but the main thing in tennis is that you always have a chance to win even if you are fourth in the world going against number one. It is not like the other sports.

"It was something really special to us because we had been used to the tour and spending time with the other tennis players, but this time we were with other athletes and it was very exciting because you could see the different kinds of bodies in the same place."

Gonzalez and Massu's gold rush provoked a surge of pride and patriotism back in Chile, which the pair could only get a true taste of when they returned home as national heroes.

That they had to wait over a month to feel the country's full embrace, due to the U.S. Open coming swiftly after the Games, only made their homecoming more sweet.

"When we went back three or four weeks later it was huge," said the man dubbed "Gonzo" and "Stone Hand."

"The president received us at the government palace. We had breakfast with him and we went out unto the balcony, which is a very popular background where very few people walk out on.

"And there was a lot of people, a few thousand people. It was very exciting and I never dreamed that tennis could give me the chance to have that experience."

Tsonga makes Olympic tennis history after marathon match

After his heroics in 2004, Gonzalez had the ultimate honor bestowed upon him prior to the start of the Beijing Games when he was asked to carry Chile's flag for the opening ceremony.

"It was one of my best moments because you are an ambassador for your country in the world," he said. "For me it feels like to win something important. It is really huge."

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The only other tennis player to fulfill the same role for his nation in China was 17-time grand slam champion Roger Federer, who defeated Gonzalez in the only major final he ever made -- at the 2007 Australian Open.

Gonzalez turned professional in 1999 and took his first ATP Tour title the year after, his rapier-like forehand cementing his reputation as one of the hottest young players on the circuit.

He reached his first grand slam quarterfinal in 2005 at Wimbledon and made the season-ending ATP Tour Finals, contested by the world's top eight players.

He subsequently made the last eight of every major tournament, while the four titles he clinched on home soil, in Vina del Mar, also rank as a career highlight.

Venus Williams exits singles at London 2012

But it is the success Gonzalez has enjoyed on the international stage that has come to define his career, both in a litany of Davis Cup matches with Chile and at the Olympics.

Despite the country's fervent love of football, Gonzalez always had his heart set on a career on the baseline rather than the touchline.

"In the beginning I just wanted to see tennis. I went to go see some cups and I feel the passion of the sport and then I went to see the national team of football, but I always wanted to go and play tennis.

"Then one thing led to another and I wanted to play tennis and I wanted to represent my country and you know the passion that the people of Chile gave me was really important for my career."

It has been less than six months since Gonzalez called time on his career and, though he says he doesn't miss the grueling travels schedule and endless hotel pit-stops, the Chilean admits he will miss that feeling of being on court in front of thousands of fans.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga shouts for joy as he finds the shot that seals victory in the longest Olympic tennis match. The match lasted just under four hours and the final set ended 25-23 to the fifth-seeded Frenchman. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga shouts for joy as he finds the shot that seals victory in the longest Olympic tennis match. The match lasted just under four hours and the final set ended 25-23 to the fifth-seeded Frenchman.
Tsonga celebrates an Olympic record
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Longest match in Olympic tennis history Longest match in Olympic tennis history
Roger Federer first had the honor of carrying Switzerland's flag at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Roger Federer first had the honor of carrying Switzerland's flag at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Flying the flag
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Flying the Olympic flag for Switzerland Flying the Olympic flag for Switzerland

But his dual love for the game and his country will also dominate his future, as he plans to help promote tennis in Chile through his foundation and broaden access for those who haven't had the chance to play.

"In Chile there is a lot of talent but maybe the people do not know they have the talent. There are many good football players playing in Europe at a really good level and I think in tennis we can do something similar," he said.

"Not like them, but we can do really well. But also I want to be involved in tennis. I have a few offers to start to work with but I want to take my time.

"It is the first time in my life to have enough time for me, so I'm going to start next year. I love tennis and I will stay around."

And as for his most treasured possessions, where does he keep his hat-trick of Olympic medals?

"They are at my house in the closet," he replies. "Some people come to my house and say, 'Show me them,' but they don't care about the rest, they care about the medals."

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