May 15, 2020
Gigi Fernandez: 'I had to blaze my own trail' in tennis
Puerto Rican-American Gigi Fernandez discussed how she turned a non-traditional tennis upbringing in Puerto Rico into one of the most legendary careers on the doubles circuit in an online interview with the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Hall of Famer and WTA legend Gigi Fernandez opened up in an expansive online interview for the International Tennis Hall of Fame on Thursday, in which she discussed how she turned a non-traditional tennis upbringing in Puerto Rico into one of the most legendary careers on the doubles circuit.
In the question-and-answer session with host Blair Henley, Fernandez opened up about her beginnings in tennis, which began when she followed in the footsteps of her older brothers as a toddler in Puerto Rico.
"I was 3 when I first started playing. My big brothers were all playing tennis and I wanted to be like them. I would go to the club after school when they would take lessons, but I was too young, so all I could do was get a racquet and hit against the wall," she said.
"I kept asking for tennis lessons and finally when I was 7, I took my first tennis lesson. I played my first match when I was 8, and I lost 6-0, 6-0 -- so there's hope for everybody out there -- if you don't have a good start, you can always have a better finish.
"I was playing junior tennis in Puerto Rico, and because the Puerto Rican tennis association was part of the United States Tennis Association, I was lucky that I could travel to the United States and play in the junior circuit in the summer.
"That's where I was discovered by a couple of college coaches who offered me a scholarship, and that's when my game really took off."
Born in the capital of San Juan, Fernandez also discussed some of the adversity that she faced as a young female Puerto Rican athlete in a sport that, at the time, had little pedigree in the island territory at the time.
"There was really no one that I could look up and say I want to be like them. There was not another Hispanic, female, Puerto Rican athlete that I could say, 'She's a professional athlete and I could do what she did,' so I had to blaze my own trail," she said.
"Puerto Rico in the 1960s was also a little bit behind the times [in tennis]. Coaches were not willing to teach girls topspin, because they thought that girls were too weak to hit topspin. I learned to play with a slice forehand and a slice backhand. When I went to college, that's what I had, and when I turned pro, that's what I had. It was a challenge.
"It was really a race to get married and have kids. That's what I was supposed to do, so the fact that I went off and became a professional athlete was very unusual and very random.
"I didn't have the groundstroke base, the solid groundstrokes that I needed to be able to sustain rallies with the better groundstrokers to give me enough time to get to the net. I serve and volleyed and came in, and that was very natural to me and I was very good at doing that, but when I played someone with very good groundstrokes, I couldn't hand for four, five six groundstrokes to then get to the net.
"I was actually learning to hit topspin while I was already a pro, and that's impossible to do nowadays. If you go on tour with a weakness, you'll get picked apart."
Fernandez played one season of college tennis at Clemson University in South Carolina from 1982–83, was a singles and doubles All-American and runner-up at the NCAA Championships. Turning professional in November of 1983 and competing for the United States, Fernandez won the first of her 17 career Grand Slam doubles title at the 1988 US Open, first ascended to doubles World No.1 in 1991, and completed the career Grand Slam in the discipline.
None of that would've been possible, however, had she followed through on her decision to walk away from the sport before she even hoisted her first major trophy.
"Back then, the Australian Open was on grass in November, and coming back from Australia, I was ranked No.85 in the world in singles, so I figured it was time to turn pro," she said.
"My dad ended up making the decision for me, because I had a scholarship and free education, and we don't take that lightly in my family. No one should ever take that lightly... the first thing I did when I retired was go back and finish my degree [at the University of South Florida], and then I went on to get my MBA.
"I went into the [1988 US Open], and I was going to quit tennis. I was miserable, I was losing every week. When you have a good junior career and a good college career, I lost a handful of times in my life. When you turn pro, you lose every single week unless you win the tournament, and only one person does.
"You can even lose twice a week, in singles and doubles, so I didn't really know how to lose. I had a really hard time, and I wasn't mature enough to understand that losing is a learning experience and that you can learn more from losses than from wins.
"I literally was going to quit, and I ended up winning it, so I really had to figure out what was going on up here [mentally] so I could continue doing this. The next Grand Slam I won was the 1990 US Open with Martina [Navratilova] and I was no longer a one-Slam wonder.
"I knew that it wasn't a fluke, and from there, Natasha Zvereva and I got together in 1992... and we went on this amazing run. When it was going on, it seemed kind of normal, but now you understand that it's highly unusual. It was a pretty unique and a pretty special partnership that we had."
Taking fan-submitted questions on her tennis career and recreational doubles as well, Fernandez picked another living legend, and a teenage sensation, as the standard-bearers in the active group of WTA starts for whom she'd like to play doubles with.
"Other than being obvious and saying Serena, I would say Coco Gauff. I think she has true talent and true potential," Fernandez said.
"She's a pretty smart doubles player, and she could probably use some help from someone who's been there and done that to help her get to the next level and win some Grand Slams in doubles, which I think she will some day."
Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. in 2010, Fernandez has spent much of the last decade running tennis camps and clinics around the country that focus specifically on doubles. All of her scheduled activities for the spring and early summer have been put on hold due to the global coronavirus pandemic, which has allowed the WTA legend to spend more time at home with her family, including twin children Karson and Madison.
"I had a camp with Martina Navratilova that was supposed to be last week, and we had to postpone that until October," Fernandez said.
"I'm actually enjoying being home and not being so much on the go. It's not like I couldn't be home before, but I always felt like I had to go to work, to travel, to do my camps and clinics and all that. I'm actually enjoying the hiatus, believe it or not."