Fernandez, Gigi (1964—)

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Fernandez, Gigi (1964—)

Puerto Rican tennis player . Born Beatriz Fernandez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on February 24, 1964; one of four children, two girls and two boys, of Tuto Fernandez (a gynecologist) and Beatriz Fernandez; attended Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina.

A trailblazer in women's tennis doubles, Gigi Fernandez will be remembered as much for her on court antics as her substantial triumphs. Fernandez won two singles titles and 68 doubles titles, including two Olympic gold medals, before retiring from tennis in 1997 and taking up golf.

One of four children of Beatriz Fernandez and Tuto Fernandez, a gynecologist, Gigi was born in 1964 and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She received tennis lessons as a gift from her parents on her seventh birthday. Possessing a natural talent for the game, she won the Puerto Rico Open doubles at age 12, at which time she also engaged in her first shouting match with the umpire, whom she felt was favoring her American partner. After considering athletic scholarships from three American universities, she chose (sight unseen) Clemson University in South Carolina. In 1983, while still in her freshman year, she reached the finals of the NCAA championships and turned pro at year's end. At the conclusion of her first full season on the tour (1984), Fernandez was ranked No. 27 in singles and was named Tennis magazine's "player to watch."

Fernandez's career was uneven for years, probably due to what she later identified as a lack of discipline. Still, she won three doubles titles with Martina Navratilova in 1985, three titles with Lori McNeil in 1987, and her first major title, the U.S. Open doubles, with Robin White in 1988. That same year, with her game unsteady and 20 extra pounds on her 5'7" frame, she turned herself over to Julie Anthony , who became her long-time coach, mentor, and confidante. Fernandez later said that Anthony taught her the meaning of discipline. "I had no direction until I met Julie. She really helped me with everything: my nutrition, my approach to tennis, my professionalism, my dedication." In an unintentional act of reciprocity, Fernandez turned Anthony into a coach. "I never would have been a coach if it weren't for Gigi," says Anthony. "I saw this wonderful, open person who wanted to learn.…We connected because she saw someone she could learn from, whom she could be more of an adult with. She was a child before, careening through life with lots of talent, but no game plan."

Fernandez won another U.S. Open doubles title with Navratilova in 1990 and the 1991 French Open with Jana Novotna , before joining forces with Natasha Zvereva in 1992. Opposites in approach and personality, the two women complemented each other on the court. "Gigi's very fiery, while Natasha's more mellow, a more consistent player" said fellow pro Lindsay Davenport . "Together, they can do everything. They can dink, they can hit the ball hard, they can lob, they can hit sharp angles." The pair dominated women's doubles from 1993 to 1997, winning 20 grand slams, and ranking as Doubles Team of the Year in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997.

Fernandez was less successful with her singles game, although she won her first singles title in 1986 and another in 1991. In 1994, in addition to her doubles triumph, she reached the singles semifinals at Wimbledon, despite her No. 99 ranking. (Prior to Wimbledon, she had first-round losses in seven out of eight singles tournaments, prompting her to contemplate retiring from singles.) She lost to Martina Navratilova in the semifinals but gained some notoriety as the lowest-ranked women's semifinalist in Grand Slam history. "I always thought she was very talented and lived up to it in doubles but not singles," said Navratilova after the match. "This is definitely the best she has played."

Fernandez's candor and outbursts on the court made her one of the most enigmatic players on the pro circuit. "There's a real childish, narcissistic, selfish, controlling part of her," says coach Anthony, "but there's also a very sweet, bighearted, kind side to her." Fernandez maintained a love-hate relationship with some of her tennis peers as well as with the World Tennis Association (WTA), which on one hand deplored her behavior and on the other hand rejoiced over her contribution to popularizing the sport. But Fernandez topped herself at an event in Filderstadt, Germany in 1994, when, in a fit of pique, she turned away from her opponent, lifted up her skirt and started to bare her backside. She said later that she only pulled her panties down a few inches. "I was entertaining. The crowd loved it. They were laughing." The WTA was not amused, however, and fined her $2,000. In England, two weeks later, she repeated the panties episode and also destroyed a tennis racket, prompting a hefty fine of $4,000 that was later reduced to $250 after an appeal to the WTA Code of Conduct Committee. "I know the WTA is in financial trouble," commented Fernandez, "but they can't expect me to bail them out all by myself."

Fernandez won her first Olympic gold medal in 1992, competing for the United States and partnered with Mary Joe Fernandez (no relation). The decision to play for America was a difficult one for Gigi, who understood she would by criticized back home in Puerto Rico, but she felt that it was the only way she would advance into the medal rounds. The win over the Spanish team dissipated any ill feelings. "I'm very proud for Puerto Rico. I'm very proud for the U.S. I'm very proud," Fernandez said about the victory. Fernandez won a second Olympic gold medal in 1996, paired again with Mary Joe Fernandez.

In September 1997, after she and Zvereva lost the U.S. Open women's doubles to Lindsay Davenport and Jana Novotna, Fernandez announced her retirement from tennis. Since then, she has devoted a great deal of time "giving back," as she puts it. She is active with the children's programs of the U.S. Tennis Association and with the Gigi Fernandez Charitable Foundation, which she established in 1992 to raise money for various Puerto Rican charities. She also is a long-time supporter of the National Hispanic Scholarship Fund. But Fernandez's greatest contribution to the young people of her homeland may be by example. As the first Puerto Rican athlete to turn professional and the first to win an Olympic gold medal, she has made athletics more acceptable for the women of her country. "In a way, it's kind of neat," she remarked in Hispanic magazine. "Before, it was taboo for a female to make a living out of a sport. Girls are supposed to get married and have kids, so now maybe this opens the door." As for sports, Fernandez, who occasionally played golf during her tennis career, has now

taken it up in earnest. "You can have a very successful amateur golf career playing six to twelve tournaments a year, which is what I hope to do," she said. In June 1998, she played in her first event, the San Diego Women's Amateur Championships, finishing fifth.

sources:

Baccara, L. "An Interview with Gigi Fernandez," at www.dreamin.com.

Higdon, David. "Glamour," in Tennis. Vol. 31, no. 6. October 1995, pp. 50–53.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.

O'Keefe, Kevin. "A New Approach Shot," in Tennis. Vol. 34, no. 5. September 1998, pp. 14–16.

Rachal, Janella. "Then and Now—An Interview with Gigi Fernandez," at www.dreamin.com.

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