- Joel Drucker
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It's a quick two-hour flight from Gigi Fernandez's current base in Orlando to her homeland of Puerto Rico. Of late, it's a flight she's taken with increasingly frequency.
More than a decade after retiring from professional tennis, Fernandez is devoting the bulk of her time to opening a health and wellness center in Puerto Rico. The 44-year-old Fernandez can't say much about the new venture now, but as was the case with her tennis, she's approaching it with trademark zeal. After leaving Clemson University after one year to play pro tennis in 1983, Fernandez earned a B.A. in psychology from the University of South Florida in 2003 and is currently halfway toward an MBA at Rollins College.
"I'm not the smartest person in my class, but I am the most competitive," said Fernandez just prior to starting her daily one-hour bike ride. "Somehow, I turn everything into a competition. Recently we were studying operations management where you play this game online as a team. I had to be the leader. I have to win. I've never found a situation where being competitive is a detriment."
Certainly competition has marked much of Fernandez's life. Over the course of a 15-year playing career, Fernandez earned 17 Grand Slam doubles titles (14 with Natasha Zvereva). In singles, Fernandez reached as high as 17th in the world rankings, including runs to the semis of Wimbledon and quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. She also holds a pair of Olympic gold medals: doubles titles earned in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996 with current ESPN and CBS analyst Mary Joe Fernandez. The two medals are front and center on Gigi's desk, along with a car license plate that reads "DBL GLD." By far the most successful tennis player in the history of Puerto Rico, Fernandez was named Puerto Rico's "Female Athlete of the Century" in 1999.
"Winning that first Olympic gold was the most special moment," said Fernandez. "We're in Barcelona, playing the Spanish team, Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario. Thousands of fans are screaming. We're up a set and a break and then the King and Queen show up. We lose six games in a row. But we won it."
Much as Fernandez came to relish the cauldron of competition, that wasn't always the case. Through her teens and even into her pro career, she was a moody and undisciplined, prone to erratic habits in diet, training and competition. Very early on the likes of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver had been struck by her skills. But harnessing such assets as sharp volleys and keen court sense was another matter.
Then came Julie Anthony. A former pro with a doctorate in psychology, Anthony dared wake Fernandez up to what she might accomplish. "I was going to go one way or another and she raised my game and took it to the next level," said Fernandez. "If not for her, I don't know where I'd be."
The pairing with Zvereva rocketed Fernandez even further. The two were an inspired duo, thoroughly nimble at the net, adroit with service returns and often able to raise their playing level at crunch time. Added to this was more than a hint of emotion, propelled to some degree by each player's frustration and fragility in singles. Truly, Fernandez-Zvereva was a case of one plus one equaling three.
These days Fernandez hardly plays tennis, only occasionally joining forces with ex-pro Kathy Rinaldi to conduct clinics and special events for recreational players. But since retiring she has also coached the Puerto Rican Fed Cup team, pro players Lisa Raymond and Samantha Stosur and the women's team at the University of South Florida. "I don't want to be on the court three hours a day anymore," said Fernandez. "I would play tennis more in Orlando if there was someone to play with. I don't want to play with someone who's playing now, or some hotshot junior who's going to just slap balls around."
Instead, these days Fernandez wakes up at five in the morning and finds herself immersed in schoolwork and her new business venture. Said Fernandez, "I'm running around like a chicken with my head cut off." It's a distant cry from the days of life as a pro. Said Fernandez, "I miss waking up in the morning and not having anything to do but sit around all day, watching TV, thinking it was stressful that I had a match to play at night. But then again, I don't miss having to work so hard that I feel like sucking wind. And I really don't miss traveling constantly. I've got eleven nephews and nieces, so I'm catching up for lost time by spending more time with my family."
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.
From a moody, undisciplined player, to one of the most zealous competitors to ever step foot on the court, Gigi Fernandez became the pride of Puerto Rican sports and relished every moment of it.