Gigi Fernandez carved her own path
Gigi Fernandez was 14 when she watched the 1978 Wimbledon women's singles final between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert from her home in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"It was the first time I became aware of this thing called professional tennis," Fernandez said.
Five years later, Fernandez became the first female athlete from her country to turn professional in any sport.
"We didn't have tennis coverage so it was probably the first time I ever saw tennis on TV, and it was so foreign to me that I could play with them someday," Fernandez said. "I was on this little island, and they were off in the world."
Fernandez, 49, voted the 10th-most-influential Hispanic female athlete in history by our blue-ribbon panel of voters, would go on to become a highly ranked singles player and one of the most successful doubles players in tennis history, winning 17 Grand Slam titles with four different partners and two Olympic gold medals with another in her 14-year Hall of Fame career.
"Gigi was extremely talented, very gifted and fun to watch," said Navratilova, who partnered with Fernandez for the 1990 US Open title. "She was very creative on court, had all the shots. I always thought she could have done better because she was so talented, but who's to say?
"When you have that much talent, you're always fighting that in a way. I went through that and many others."
Fernandez, a controversial figure in her homeland following her decision to represent the United States in the Olympics, reflects on a childhood in which her mother and father, a well-known physician in Puerto Rico, were able to provide her with lessons at their country club, and later, on a court built next to their home. But she also possessed a God-given talent recognized at a very early age.
"Apparently I had very good hand-eye coordination, and at 3, I was already rallying on court with a big racket," Fernandez said.
What she did not have in tennis, however, was anyone to emulate.
I always talk about that, that I really didn't have role models growing up," she said. "There wasn't a female athlete I knew about who was Hispanic in any sport."
She told herself that "a lot of things had to fall into place. I was recruited to go to college [at Clemson] with a really marginal junior career," she said. "They saw talent in me and gave me a scholarship, and it was the first time I ever practiced in an organized manner."
Fernandez repaid Clemson by reaching the NCAA singles final, where she lost to a player then ranked 27th in the world. Seven years and one Grand Slam title later, Fernandez remembers partnering with Navratilova at Wimbledon in 1990 and feeling overwhelmed.
"She and Pam [Shriver] had been established partners, and I knew if we lost, it would be my fault," Fernandez said. "We lost in the quarters, and it was a big shock. When we went to play the US Open, I had to vindicate myself because Wimbledon had been such a disaster. I thought if we didn't win, I'd be washed up at 26."
Navratilova remembered the Open that year, as well.
"At the time, I didn't appreciate enough the pressure players felt playing with me," she said. "I had played with Billie Jean King, who was a legend, and even though I was a better player at the time because she was at the end of her career, I was terrified of not playing up to her standards.
"Of course, Gigi was feeling the pressure, and I remember we were playing on one of those outside courts and she was as flat as a pancake. No matter what I did, she was staring into outer space and played like it, too. I thought, what am I going to do with her?"
On a changeover, Navratilova, appearing frustrated, smashed her racket to pieces.
"I just obliterated it," Navratilova said, "and Gigi just looked at me with these big eyes. The ref, of course, penalized me, and then I smashed it again. That's when Gigi's eyes got really big. She didn't say a word, we won the match and the US Open. We never really talked about it, and I had never done anything like that before in my life. But it worked."
Now the director of tennis for the Chelsea Piers club in Connecticut, married (to Jane Geddes) and the mother of 4-year-old twins, Fernandez has managed and mentored a number of young Puerto Rican players, including Vilmarie Castellvi and Monica Puig (who reached a high ranking of 44th in singles), and continues to find Hispanic youngsters worthy of tennis scholarships at her club.
"Because I was the first Puerto Rican female professional athlete in any sport, I realized early on I was blazing a trail for others to look up to," Fernandez said. "When I was playing, I was somewhat oblivious, but after retiring, I realized I had a responsibility to help others and continue what I had started."
Still beloved in her native country for her tennis exploits, there are also those who have never accepted that Fernandez won her Olympic gold medals (in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in '96, both with doubles partner Mary Joe Fernandez) while representing the United States.
"It was very controversial," she said. "It was a tough decision, but in end, if I put my career in front of my heart and my patriotism, then I made the right decision. The only chance I had to win a gold medal was for the U.S. since there was not another Puerto Rican to play with. It's still controversial. Sometimes I'm not credited with being the first Puerto Rican woman to win a gold medal."
Navratilova, who was granted political asylum by the United States when she was 18 and then stripped of her Czechoslovakian citizenship (she has since acquired dual citizenship), said Fernandez has defied the odds.
"Any time you succeed, you've defied odds," she said. "A lot of things have to go right for you, not the least of which is you have to be strong mentally in getting up every day and going to the practice court, doing what it takes to be a professional.
"And coming from a country with no history of that, you really are blazing a new trail, and that can't be underestimated."