BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA: When it comes to South American tennis, Argentina are enjoying a golden period, despite last weekend’s narrow loss to Czech Republic in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas World Group semifinals.
Everyone knows of Juan Martin del Potro, a Grand Slam champion, an Olympic medallist and one of the best players in the world, along with Juan Monaco and David Nalbandian, but there is another star on the horizon for Argentine tennis and his name is Gustavo Fernandez.
Fernandez is 18 years old and in a wheelchair, but he doesn’t let that slow him down. In the ITF Wheelchair Tennis rankings, he’s No. 1 in the boys and, at the same time, No. 5 in the men.
His overall aim is to be the best player in the world, but for now Fernandez is happy to reflect on the past month of amazing achievements at London 2012 that have inspired him even more.
“The Paralympics was an unbelievable experience and a totally different tournament with all the sports, the village and so much more,” he said of his first experience of the Games. “I didn’t make my goals (he reached the quarterfinals losing to world No. 1 Stephane Houdet of France), but I did what I had to do so I’m very happy.”
A week later, he had another round of goose bumps when he and his compatriot and fellow 18 year old Agustin Ledesma, ranked right behind Fernandez at No. 2 in the wheelchair boys’ rankings, were asked to carry the flags on the second day of Argentina’s Davis Cup clash with the Czechs in Buenos Aires.
“It was very moving because it is the first time I have been here with the great players of Argentina and Czech Republic,” Fernandez said. “This is a dream for me with my family and I’m just happy to have been here.”
The teenager has been disabled since the age of 18 months when he suffered a spinal cord disease. He would watch his mother play tennis and he pestered her to let him, so at the age of six he started. By the age of 11, the Argentine tennis association was helping him with tournaments and by 15 he was playing men’s events.
In 2010, he played ten events in South America and won nine. His confidence grew enormously, but then there was a bit of a dip a year later as he was also developing physically. However, in 2012 he turned the corner, beating Maikel Scheffers, then ranked No. 1, in Japan before accounting for Houdet in the final.
He looks up to the great wheelchair player Shingo Kunieda, gold medallist at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, and of the able bodied players his favourites are del Potro, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. His short term goal is to do well at the US Open and then the Wheelchair Masters in Belgium, where has become the first junior to ever qualify.
“My dream is to be No. 1 like any player and to play the Grand Slams, it would be a dream come true,” he said. “I trust in my tennis and believe in what we can do to make things go forward.”
He has no main sponsors although Wilson provide him with rackets and his funding is provided by ENARD, a government authority in Argentina that gains its funding from 1% of every mobile phone bill. Those funds go towards assisting athletes from all sports, able-bodied and disabled. We can expect to hear a lot more from Gustavo Fernandez.