FOR THE RECORD; A Winning Drop Shot In the 50-and-Over Slot
By CHUCK SLATER
Published: January 13, 2002
WHEN Isabel Fernandez was 9 and playing at a tennis club in her native Cali, Colombia, she got some advice from a local teacher. It opened the door to her future.
''I am going to teach you the drop shot,'' the teacher, Heladio Calero, told the energetic young athlete back in 1959. The drop shot is hit seemingly hard but in a way that causes it to go just over the net softly and bounce little, a problem for an opponent near or behind the baseline.
''I said O.K.,'' Fernandez related recently, between giving lessons at the Saw Mill Club here. ''My coach -- he's 86 now and I still call him my coach -- told me that the drop shot would be my best weapon. He said, 'Girls are lazy. They don't like to run. They don't like to sweat. You have to learn the drop shot.' ''
A lot has changed since then. Women run and sweat. But Isabel Fernandez and her drop shot are still winning tennis tournaments. At the National Women's Clay Court Championships in Pensacola, Fla., in October, Fernandez won her first two United States national titles, taking both the singles and doubles in the 50-and-over category.
In the singles, she drop-shotted her way past Pat Keleman, 6-1, 6-1. In the doubles, she won with an old partner from her international playing days, Sue Bramlette, also in a 6-1, 6-1 final.
''The drop shot is super-efficient at all levels,'' said Fernandez, who springs to the net to put away the expected weak return after delivering it. ''It's equally effective at any level. Age is not a factor. It's who can get to it.''
Not many can.
Armed with her favorite shot, a versatile arsenal, energy and talent, Fernandez left Colombia at 19 to accept a tennis scholarship to the University of South Florida. A year later, she left college ''to follow my tennis dream.''
She became the first athlete from Colombia to play on the women's professional tennis tour.
Competing on the world stage from 1971 to 1979, she had her best year in 1973 when she reached the Round of 16 in singles at the United States Open and the doubles semifinals at Wimbledon with Bramlette. The next year, she and Martina Navratilova won the doubles at the Virginia Slims of Dallas.
In 1979, Fernandez began teaching in New York City and continued playing successfully in lesser tournaments.
She gradually drifted into full-time teaching and joined the Saw Mill staff eight years ago.
''But when I turned 50,'' she said, ''I decided to try for a ranking in the 50-and-overs.''
Playing in Naples, Italy, she tore the miniscus in her left knee, costing her a year of competition.
''By this summer I was able to move pretty well again,'' said Fernandez, who now plays with a thick bandage bracing her left knee. ''I won a couple of local tournaments in West Orange and Fairview, so I thought I'd try the nationals.''
Miguel Morales, the tennis director at the Saw Mill Club, can vouch for her teaching skills. ''With her credentials having her brought a lot of prestige,'' he said. ''But she quickly developed a reputation as a straightforward, honest pro who would give you the best possible coaching to improve your game. And she can work with anybody.''
Fernandez said: ''I like my pupils to have fun, and always play with a positive attitude. I have a bunch of 8 to 13-year-olds who are going to be very successful at the high school level.''
Her adult students are also enthusiasts. ''She can translate what you need to do into simple lessons,'' said MaryAn Plumeri of Pleasantville. ''If you're down, she can pick you up -- but she can deflate you, too, if it's needed. She's no pussycat.''
Fernandez remains fervent about her sport. ''Tennis has been everything to me,'' she said. ''If not for tennis, I'd probably be in Colombia raising a family.''
Photo: Isabel Fernandez, working with Spencer Ong at the Saw Mill Club. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times)