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For the past six months, though, thanks to a new coach and an attitude adjustment, Gonzalez has been playing deep into the weekends instead of self-destructing in the middle rounds. He reached three consecutive ATP finals at the end of 2006 and played his first Grand Slam final at the 2007 Australian Open, where he lost to Roger Federer. Now Gonzalez rolls into Indian Wells and Miami with a career-best No. 5 ranking. "I used to have a big hole on my left side," he says, referring to his less-than-booming backhand. "No more. And I'm more fit. Now I'm trying to stay a little bit more calm, because maybe my game can get a bit crazy sometimes."
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Stefanki has a rep for pushing players hard and getting instant success (he helped Rios and Kafelnikov reach No. 1) right before the relationship sours. Gonzalez, who had hovered for years just outside the Top 10, hired Stefanki in May to overhaul his backhand and net game -- everything except the forehand and serve. The coach responded with a challenge: "Do you really want to work on those things, or do you want to talk about working on those things?"
The answer lies in the results. Improving the weaker parts of Gonzo's portfolio has loaded even more power into a forehand that Stefanki calls "the best in the game." Many tennis experts think Gonzalez, and not No.2 Rafael Nadal, has what it takes to slow the Federer Express (despite an 0--10 deficit so far). "I have to be ready when Roger goes down a little bit," Gonzalez says.
Toppling the king? Now that would be gonzo.
David Higdon, former Senior Writer at Tennis Magazine, has covered tennis and other sports for The New York Times, In Style and other outlets.