BEIJING – Next week thousands of screaming well-wishers and honking cars will clog the streets of Santiago to welcome home Fernando Gonzalez for a giant celebratory party.
Just like in 2004, when Nicolas Massu won singles gold in Athens, Gonzalez took bronze and the pair combined to win the doubles, Gonzalez is sure to hold his medal aloft in jubilation.
That medal, however, whether it turns out to be gold or silver, has already been tarnished.
It took two hours and 52 minutes Friday for Gonzalez to earn a guaranteed place on the medals podium, when he survived an epic semifinal battle with James Blake of the United States, winning 4-6, 7-5, 11-9.
Yet it took just a fraction of a second to undermine his achievement and create a storm of controversy at the Olympic Green Tennis Center. The moment came on the first point in the final set, with Gonzalez serving down 9-8.
Blake powered a forehand toward Gonzalez, who was standing close to the net. The ball flew long but Blake immediately claimed it had brushed his opponent’s racket.
Television replays backed up his assertion.
But umpire Yan Kuszak saw nothing, and Gonzalez remained mute at the back of the court instead of calling a point against himself.
While tennis continues to embrace technology, with HawkEye used to settle disputes on line calls, it is not used to settle disputes such as this one.
“Playing in the Olympics, in what's supposed to be considered a gentleman's sport, that's a time to call it on yourself,” said a fuming Blake in his post-match news conference. “Fernando looked me square in the eye and didn't call it.
"If that happened the other way, I never would have finished the match because my father would have pulled me off the court if I had acted that way.
“That's a disappointing way to exit the tournament when you not only lose the match, but you lose a little faith in your fellow competitor.”
Gonzalez, ranked No. 15 in the world, reached the final at the 2007 Australian Open. He loves his country as much as anybody and carried its flag at the Opening Ceremony last week.
Criticizing him for his actions is not picking on an underdog from a little nation. It is calling out a multi-millionaire, world-class athlete who showed sportsmanship from the gutter at the one event where it can never be tolerated.
“We know when it (the ball) touches us,” said Blake. “So that's where it comes into calling it on yourself because it's the right thing to do.
“Should I expect him to do that? Maybe not. Maybe I shouldn't expect people to hold themselves to high standards of sportsmanship. But yes, I did expect it a little more so in the Olympics when we're all competing under the banner of this event being to promote sportsmanship and goodwill among countries.
“Maybe I wouldn't have expected this at the U.S. Open. But if the roles were reversed, I'd call it on myself.
“Whatever he wants to say is fine. Whatever is going to get him to have some sleep tonight, then that's fine.”
Gonzalez took the “deny everything” approach and stuck to it. Yet his defensive manner and the guilty look on his face suggested he knew he was fooling nobody.
Shouldering the gold-medal hopes of a nation must surely be a huge responsibility. But so is being an Olympian and keeping with the long-cherished traditions of this festival of sport.
“I mean, there is an umpire,” the Chilean said. “It was after two and a half hours and I almost didn't feel my forehand. If I'm 100 percent sure about it, I mean, I will give it. But I'm not sure, you know.”
Aside from whatever tricks his conscience may play upon him, Gonzalez's result will stand.
“This is not an issue for the referee,” said an International Tennis Federation spokesman. “The umpire did not see the incident clearly, so it is a matter between the two players.”
The painful irony for Blake is that by the time the incident arose, he should have already been showered, changed and eating his dinner.
Blake held three match points at 0-40 on the Gonzalez serve at 6-5 up in the third, but he allowed Gonzalez to fight back.
For Blake, it was back to the village to blow off some steam, hang out with friend Jason Kidd and prepare for the bronze-medal playoff.
For Gonzalez, who claimed he had been unable to fall sleep until 5 o'clock on Friday morning, rest may again have been hard to come by as he looked at the Olympic rings embroidered upon his bedside towel and wondered if he had done them a disservice.