When Gustavo Fernandez rolls on to court at Eton Manor on 1 September he will begin a campaign that could see him achieve two pieces of history, as the 18-year-old Argentinean bids to become the first world No. 1 ranked junior and the first South American player to win a Paralympic Tennis Event medal.
Fernandez’s route into wheelchair tennis is testimony to the sport's inclusivity.
“I used to play tennis in my wheelchair when I was young with able-bodied people, but when I was 11 or 11 and a half I discovered the Argentinean wheelchair tennis association and in 2006 I went to play my first tournament. From then on I trained a lot more for wheelchair tennis,” said Fernandez.
Since 2006 Fernandez has followed a route that includes Cruyff Foundation ITF Junior Wheelchair Tennis Camps and he has gone on to become the world No. 1 ranked junior player, while his senior men’s singles ranking has improved year-on-year to the extent that he has now reached a career best world No. 5 men’s singles ranking.
“In 2010 I lost just two NEC Tour matches in the whole year, playing in ITF 3 and in ITF Futures tournaments and in 2011, when I started playing ITF 1s, it was totally different. It was hard. But with my coach we worked hard and we knew the results were going to come, so we kept working and kept working in the same way.”
The 2010 season saw Fernandez play the majority of his tennis in South America. He started the season in France, winning the first of two Cruyff Foundation Junior Masters boys’ singles titles, and then represented Argentina in the World Team Cup in Turkey before returning to South America, where he notched up seven singles titles during the year,. including his last win of the season in his home city, at the Ro Tercero Open in the Province of Córdoba.
“It’s two years since I started to compete with the best players in ITF 1, ITF 2 and ITF Super Series events, and at the start it was hard because I wasn’t getting the results I was expecting,” Fernandez reflects.
However, Fernandez’s hard worked started to pay off and he claimed a series of wins over top 10 ranked players towards the end of 2011 before gaining his first ITF 2 Series victory at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, which earned him qualification for the London 2012 Paralympics.
“The Parapans were great, the people in Mexico were tremendous and it was great experience for what I’m to face in London,” said Fernandez. “I got some great results, it was unbelievable, it was like a dream come true and of course I got my qualification for the Paralympics, so my delight was double.
“The crowds were unbelievable; they made us feel like stars. All the time they were shouting and the stadiums were full and everything was really great. Of course I’m hoping for more of the same in London.”
With tickets for wheelchair tennis at London 2012 having sold out, Fernandez can expect more big crowds and he has again shown himself to be a player for the big occasion this season after winning his first ITF Super Series title at May’s Japan Open, a result that subsequently saw him debut inside the world’s top 10.
“In Japan I had the wish to win, but I didn’t know it was going to become a reality,” said Fernandez, who won the prestigious tournament after beating three of the world’s top four players. “It was more like something I could do.... I think everything changed when I beat Maikel (Scheffers, who was then world No. 1). It gave me a lot of confidence and made me believe a lot more in my tennis and what I could do.”
“It was great, I beat Maikel, I beat Ronald (Vink), I beat Stephane (Houdet) all for the first time, it was unbelievable. I didn’t know l could do that so early. It was really early for me. I was hoping to go on and win those kind of matches, but not at 18. So when I remembered all the losses and all the work over the last few years by me and my coach it made me very proud.”
The only top four ranked player Fernandez didn’t meet in Japan was four-time ITF World Champion Shingo Kunieda, who made his seasonal debut at the Japan Open after elbow surgery.
“I watched him at the Japan Open and I knew wheelchair tennis had a new star,” said Kunieda, who has since beaten Fernandez 60 60 in the quarterfinals of July’s British Open, as the two players met for the first time at the last Super Series tournament before the London 2012 Paralympics.
So now it’s on to London and after his countryman Juan Martin del Potro won bronze in the Olympic Tennis Event at Wimbledon, Fernandez is excited by his own chance to make his mark at Eton Manor
“I’m very excited, and it feels more exciting than anything else just because it is the Paralympics. Besides the results or anything else that is going to happen, I am hoping the Paralympics is going to be one of the best experiences of my life.
“Of course he (del Potro) inspired me, the passion that he played with was amazing and to see him get a medal makes me want to get the same. The Olympic and Paralympic Games are amazing and I’m going to do my best to get what I want.”