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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Tennis Lessons From A Pro: Gigi Fernandez

By Charles Bricker

February 22, 2003
Copyright © 2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

There was a mischievous smile on Gigi Fernandez's face as she recalled the first time she sailed a racket in anger.

"Three years old," she announced. "I was hitting against the wall, and I couldn't beat it."

By the time she had won her 17th, and final, Grand Slam doubles title, with a particularly satisfying semifinal win over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Martina Hingis at the 1997 French Open, only the tennis gods could total up the number of rackets Fernandez had flipped and flung on the women's tennis tour.

Today, five years into retirement and hardly slowing down, coach Fernandez brings her South Florida women's team to the University of Miami (1 p.m.), where she'll be writing out a lineup card instead of a check to cover her latest round of fines.

"I've got to be a role model now," she says.

This is not going to be a wildly successful rookie year for Fernandez, whose 2-4 team butts up against the 4-2 Hurricanes and 2-5 Florida International on Sunday at 11 a.m.

But her persistent smile says she's having a good time in this second tennis life, and there is a confidence there that things will improve after a couple of good recruiting years.

"Coaching is a way of giving back to the game, and I love the relationships you establish with young players. A lot of what I'm doing here is not just teaching tennis, but teaching life lessons," she said. "You're building these young women as people, and that's very rewarding."

She's not coaching for the paycheck. "You wouldn't believe how little I'm making in this job. It's ridiculous," Fernandez said.

Not that she needs it. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico, the privileged daughter of a well-known doctor, and learned to play tennis at a country club before going on to earn $4.6 million on the WTA Tour, primarily in doubles.

Through six French Open, five U.S. Open, four Wimbledon and two Australian Open titles she established herself as one of the more complex personalities in women's tennis -- deadly serious and quick-tempered on the court and antic, witty and fun-loving everywhere else.

Not every racket was hurled in anger. In 1988, after five years on the pro tour,

Fernandez and Robin White, her original doubles partner, won their first Slam at the U.S. Open but had to get past Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver in the semis.

"We were seeded eighth and they, of course, were No. 1," Fernandez said. "They were just about unbeatable at that time, and we won 6-3 in the third. I hit a backhand return up the middle for a winner on match point, and Martina was frozen. The grandstand was packed, and everyone was rooting for us because we were the underdogs. I threw my racket." This time in joy.

There were, however, unpleasant moments as well. After Fernandez and Jana Novotna lost a three-set Wimbledon final to Larisa Neiland and Natasha Zvereva in 1991, Novotna dumped her.

"It was about 9:15 at night. We had just come off the court and Jana said, We have to talk.' We went to the members balcony and she told me, `I'm not playing with you anymore.' I was like, Oh, Ok, thank you.'"

Surprisingly, Neiland also split with Zvereva after that championship match and teamed with Novotna. Meanwhile, what could be more perfect than two dumped partners forming an alliance as well.

It was the best thing to happen to Fernandez and Zvereva, who won 14 Slams together, including their first Wimbledon crown a year later. Guess who they beat in the final.

Eleven years later, Fernandez still beams over the payback.

"We played Jana and Larisa in six more finals and never lost to them again," she said. And no hard feelings. "It's funny," Fernandez said. "When you've retired, you're friends with everyone."

Taking the USF job was an easy choice. She had gone back to school in 2002 to get a degree in psychology from USF, with an eye toward a master's in sports psychology.

"I knew a number of people in the athletic department, and I thought I'd love coaching," she said. "I've always been team-oriented. I've got an analytical brain and a good eye. I can look at strokes and fix them, and I have the ability to get my players to buy into what I say because I've been on the tour. I've been there."

The last time she was "there" was the 1997 French, two months after she had been dumped a second time -- this time by Sanchez Vicario.

"Arantxa and I had decided to play the whole year, and then I was going to retire. But I found out on the side at Hilton Head [in April] that she was planning to play the French with [Martina] Hingis," she said.

That threw Fernandez and Zvereva back together for one more go-around and, as fate would have it, they whipped Sanchez Vicario and Hingis in the French semis.

Then they defeated Mary Joe Fernandez/Lisa Raymond in the final for Fernandez Slam No. 16, won Wimbledon for No. 17 and finished runner-up at the U.S. Open.

It was a grand finish to a 15-year career that produced 68 doubles titles -- including the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games.

She could have fished out every racket in her bag and flipped them the length of the court after the final point of her final match and gotten a standing ovation.

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