Fernández, Mary Joe: 1971—
Mary Joe Fernández: 1971—: Tennis player, television sports analyst
Mary Joe Fernández is an American Olympic tennis champion who has won two gold medals for doubles competition and a bronze medal for singles competition. She was a tennis sensation at the age of 13 and she turned professional at the age of 14. She was the youngest ever women's tennis player to win a match at the United States Open and the youngest player to reach the fourth round of a tournament. Throughout her career Fernández won seven singles titles and eight doubles titles, including two Grand Slam doubles titles. Fernández gained notoriety for becoming one of the few young tennis stars to stay in school and balance her tennis career with other healthy teenage activities. While Fernández no longer plays on the Women's Tennis Association tour, she still plays World Team Tennis and exhibition tennis and she works as a sports analyst for ESPN. Fernández is also involved in numerous charities.
Displayed an Early Interest in Tennis
Maria José Fernández, popularly known as Mary Joe, was born on August 19, 1971, in the Dominican Republic. Her father, José, was born in Spain and he met her mother, Sylvia, on a trip to Havana, Cuba. After the couple married they lived in Cuba. When Fidel Castro's Revolutionary Army took control of the country, the Fernández family moved to the Dominican Republic. When Mary Joe was three months old, the family moved again to Miami, Florida, when José took a job with an American investment company.
José Fernández played tennis with his older daughter, Mimi, to strengthen her back muscles. Little sister, Mary Joe, liked to tag along on these outings when she was only three years old. Her father cut down an old wooden racket to fit her small hands and he let her hit a ball against a wall while he played with Mimi. By the time Mary Joe was five years old, her father recognized her tennis talent and he signed her up for professional lessons.
In only five years Fernández became a junior tennis champion. At age ten she won the United States Tennis Association (USTA) national title for children under 12 years old. From ages 11 to 14, she won four consecutive junior singles titles at the Orange Bowl in Miami. In 1984, at age 13, Fernández won the USTA championship for ages 16 and under, and she won the United States Juniors Clay Court Championship. That same year Fernández played in her first professional tournament, the Lynda Carter-Maybelline Tennis Classic in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she defeated 33-year-old Pam Teeguarden. "I think Mary Joe has a tremendous future," former Australian tennis player Fred Stolle told the New York Times after this match. "She hits the ball very solidly off the ground. For a 13-year-old to beat someone with Pam's experience was a tremendous effort." Fernández became the youngest ever player to beat a professional. Later that year Fernández defeated Bonnie Gadusek, who was ranked number 11 in the world.
At a Glance . . .
Born Maria José Fernández on August 19, 1971, in the Dominican Republic; married Tony Godsick (a sports manager), April 8, 2000.
Career: Women's Tennis Association, professional tennis player, 1985-00; World Team Tennis, professional tennis player, 1999-00; ESPN, television sports analyst, 2000–.
Memberships: Women's Tennis Association.
Awards: WTA singles title, Tokyo, 1990; WTA singles title, Filderstadt, 1990; Australian Open doubles title (with Patti Fendwick), 1991; Gold medal, doubles competition, Olympics, 1992; Bronze medal, singles competition, Olympics, 1992; WTA singles title, Indian Wells, 1993; WTA singles title, Strasbourg, 1994; WTA singles title, Indian Wells, 1995; WTA singles title, Brighton, 1995; Gold medal, doubles competition, Olympics, 1996; French Open doubles title, 1996; WTA singles title, Berlin, 1997.
Address: Office— ESPN Television, ESPN Plaza, Bristol, CT 06010.
Balanced School and Tennis
In 1985, at age 14, Fernández decided to play tennis professionally. "Turning pro was always a dream of mine when I was little," Fernández told Erica Groton of Total Health magazine in April of 1992. "I watched everyone else on TV and dreamed of playing Wimbledon or one of those tournaments one day." In her first Grand Slam appearance, Fernández lost in the first round of the French Open. A few months later she won her first round match against Sara Gomer at the United States Open. She became the youngest ever player to win a match at that event. She also became the youngest ever player to reach the fourth round of a tournament, which she accomplished at the Lipton International.
Fernández was encouraged to drop out of school to play tennis full time because of her early successes in the game. Fernández, however, resisted this temptation and attended Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart in Miami full time. "I just decided that if I was going to go to school, I was going to do it right," Fernández told Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated in February of 1991. "And I wasn't ready to sacrifice being with my friends." Fernández graduated from high school in 1989, although she missed her graduation ceremony because she had reached the semifinals of the French Open, which was her best finish at a Grand Slam event at that time.
Fernández has received much praise from tennis professionals and the media for her decision to stay in school and to have a normal teenage life outside of tennis. Her contemporaries, such as Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger, and later tennis champion Jennifer Capriati, were examples of how easy it was for very young players to burn out on the professional tour. "People talk about how great her strokes are," teaching professional Don Petrine, Jr. told Sports Illustrated in January of 1986. "It's true, but it's her head that makes her great, and it's Sylvia and José who did that for her." While Fernández is proud that she put school before her career, she has been careful not to criticize her peers who also turned professional at a young age. "Everybody matures at a different time—mentally and physically. So it's hard to say at what age it's right or wrong for a person to turn pro," Fernández told Interview magazine in June of 1994. "What I would say, though, is that you should finish school first, because there's always time to play tennis afterward, and an education balances out your life."
Became Full-Time Tennis Professional
In 1990 Fernández began playing professional tennis full time. She won 40 of 50 singles matches that year as well as her first two professional titles at Tokyo and Filderstadt. She also did well at the Grand Slam tournaments that year. She reached the finals of the Australian Open, the quarterfinals of the French Open, and the semifinals of the United States Open. She lost the Australian Open final to tennis champion Steffi Graf, who had already won eight Grand Slam titles by this time. Although Fernández did not capture a Grand Slam title that year, she did end the season ranked number four in the world.
Fernández may have had an even better tennis season in 1990 if she had not suffered from numerous injuries. She experienced problems with her hamstring, back, and knee throughout the year because she did not exercise regularly, aside from playing tennis. Her coach, Tom Gullikson, started her on a consistent training and conditioning program to improve her endurance. He also encouraged her to change her game to become more aggressive. In particular, he wanted her to improve her serve and come to the net more. He also wanted her attitude to be more aggressive. "[Steffi] Graf and [Monica] Seles go into tournaments expecting to win. Mary Joe hopes she'll win," Gullikson told Austin Murphy of Sports Illustrated in February of 1991.
Fernández continued to do well in 1991. She reached the singles semifinals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the French Open. She also won her first Grand Slam title, capturing the doubles title of the Australian Open with Patti Fend-wick. In 1992 Fernández reached the singles finals of the Australian Open for a second time and she advanced to the semifinals of the United States Open. However, the Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain were the highlight of the year for Fernández. She not only won a gold medal in the doubles with Gigi Fernández of Puerto Rico, defeating Spaniards Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez, but she also won a bronze medal for the singles competition.
In 1993 Fernández captured her third professional women's singles title in Indian Wells, California. She also reached the finals of the French Open and the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Much like Gullickson, her new coach, Harold Solomon, encouraged her to be a more aggressive player and come to the net more in order to defeat the higher ranked players. Her game struggled some in 1994 due to more health problems. Fernández had surgery in 1993 to treat endometriosis and the medications she started taking after the operation had affected her health and her tennis game. She managed to win one title in 1994 in Strasbourg, although she did not do well at the Grand Slam tournaments. This was the first year she had dropped out of the top ten rankings since 1990. Fernández used her illness to educate other women about the problem of endometriosis. "At a time when so many professional athletes are boorish, arrogant and self-absorbed, how refreshing and gratifying it is to meet someone like Mary Joe Fernández—at or near the very pinnacle of her sport—who's willing to give of her time and energy for something larger," wrote Art Carey of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service in March of 1996.
Two-Time Olympic Champion
Fernández's health and tennis game improved in 1995 when she won two singles titles in Brighton and Berlin. She also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the United States Open. In 1996 Fernández reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon again and she made it to the finals of the Direct Line Championships at Eastbourne. However, she did not capture a singles title that year. She did much better at doubles. She won the French Open doubles title with her friend and fellow tennis champion, Lindsay Davenport. She also repeated her gold medal doubles performance at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, with Gigi Fernández. Mary Joe Fernández was not ranked high enough to make the American team, but she was called to fill in as a replacement for the injured Chanda Rubin. "It was more difficult this time, more nerve-wracking on your home court," Fernández told Amy Shipley of Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service in August of 1996. "It was tough, but I think more special to win at home."
In 1997 Fernández reached the semifinals of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the French Open, but she was not able to capture a Grand Slam title. She won her seventh, and final, women's singles title in Berlin that year. In 1998 Fernández had arthroscopic surgery on her wrist and missed much of the season. She returned late in the year and played all of the 1999 season, but she did not win any titles. She also did not do as well in the Grand Slam tournaments, perhaps because power players such as Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo were starting to dominate the women's game.
After the 1999 season Fernández limited her playing on the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) tour because she was still battling problems with her wrist. She participated in World Team Tennis in 1999 and 2000. She also began doing broadcast work occasionally and writing for Tennis magazine. On April 8, 2000, Fernández married Tony Godsick, a vice president of IMG sports management agency and the manager of tennis champion Monica Seles. In 2001 Fernández became a sports analyst for women's tennis for ESPN and ESPN2.
Throughout her career Fernández has been involved in numerous charities, including Big Brother/Big Sister, the Hunger Project, World Vision Projects, and the Special Olympics. In 1992 she organized a charity tennis event to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida. In 1993 she helped establish a women's tennis scholarship program at Florida International University in Miami. In 1994 Fernández served as the national spokesperson for the Cities in Schools/Burger King Academy program, which is a dropout prevention program. Since Fernández felt the pressure to drop out of high school to pursue tennis, she saw this program as an opportunity to encourage other kids to stay in school.
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Tennis Corner, http://www.tenniscorner.net (March 24, 2003).
—Janet P. Stamatel
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