Fernandez trades rackets for books

When professional athletes retire, many are content with just living off the millions they made. Gigi Fernandez, former Grand Slam doubles champion, decided that wasn’t enough and now attends USF.

“You can’t be retired at 33,” Fernandez said. “I’ve seen the world, I’ve traveled, I have a lot of interests that I pursued. I became a scratch golfer. I got my real estate license. I didn’t really have something that I could use the rest of my life, so I went back to school to find out.”

Fernandez, who is arguably one of the greatest doubles players of all time, has many accolades, including two Olympic gold medals and 17 Grand Slam titles in doubles.

Her pro career ran from 1983 until her retirement in 1997, with Olympic appearances in 1992 in Barcelona and 1994 in Atlanta. Of all her achievements, her first gold medal was her proudest moment. Even though the ’92 Olympics was in her own country, it was anti-climactic and somewhat stressful playing after the men’s singles with hardly anyone left to witness the women’s doubles match.

“In Barcelona we played against the Spanish team, and it was sold out with 13,000 people watching, and the King was there,” said Fernandez. “It was like this huge event because it was one of the few chances for the Spaniards to win a gold medal.”

Fernandez may have been so successful because of her hatred for losing and her willingness to intimidate her opponents.

“I was bad,” Fernandez said. “I would break rackets and stall and try to upset the opponent and break their rhythm. I was able to intimidate my opponent, which is a part of tennis.”

During the 1994 Wimbledon singles semifinals (a loss to Martina Navratilova), she learned a valuable lesson about tennis and competition – how to have fun while losing.

“It was the first time in my life I had fun while losing,” Fernandez said. “That’s a hard thing because if you hate to lose so bad that you can’t enjoy it, then when you get in a losing situation, you can’t play to your potential. If I could have had that experience when I was in my 20s, then I could have just enjoyed playing and not been so caught up with winning and losing.”

During her career she was often likened to the female version of John McEnroe because she said she was known to be very temperamental. During the ’90s, she was voted, along with McEnroe, the player to most likely intimidate another player.Her career led her to many places, but after her retirement she needed a new challenge – so she went back to school.

“When I retired, I was at a fortunate point in tennis where if you had a successful career you could retire and make enough money where you don’t have to work, as opposed to the generation before us. So, I really didn’t need to get a job when I retired,” Fernandez said.

Her educational path is still undecided, but she has thought of becoming a doctor.

“I have this desire to become a doctor all off a sudden,” Fernandez said. “My father’s a doctor. My grandmother was the first female doctor in Puerto Rico, where I’m from, so it’s kind of in my blood.”

While at USF, her only task may not be as just a student. She has met some women’s tennis players and has seen talent and potential in them. That may be one of the reasons why, when she was approached by coach Sherry Bedingfield to help out the team and possibly become an assistant coach, she responded, “I am considering it.”

One thing is for sure – tennis and competing are definitely in her blood. She ended her career partnered with Natasha Zvereva as the second most successful doubles team of all time in terms of Grand Slams with 14 titles, and now waits to hear from the tennis Hall of Fame.

“We won 14 Grand Slams together. In terms of Grand Slams, we’re the second best team in history. That’s pretty special I think,” Fernandez said. “To be in the Hall of Fame in anything is pretty amazing, it would mean a lot.”

  • Contact Bryan Fazio at oraclebryan@yahoo.com