Gigi Fernandez is not a master of disguise, but the Bulls don’t care as long as she makes a fine coach.
The winner of 17 Grand Slams on the pro tennis circuit, Fernandez was introduced as USF’s new women’s tennis coach Wednesday. That was a far cry from 11 months ago when Fernandez was just another student on the USF campus.
“I was going to school incognito, minding my own business,” Fernandez said. “No one knew that Gigi Fernandez was at the university, which was fine with me. I was taking a geography class and a student recognized me. I was like, ‘Oh, here we go.’ He comes up to me and says, ‘I work with the athletic department and we’re having a fundraiser. We’d like to know if you could donate a tennis racket.’ And I said, ‘Sure I’ll donate a tennis racket; it’s no skin off my back.'”
Little did Fernandez know that that incident would be a turning point in her life.
“But then I started to think,” Fernandez said. “Maybe I could do better than donate a tennis racket – give a little more of myself. And there was something that I wanted in return. So, I started thinking about what I could do. I decided to donate a two-hour playing lesson, which in the past could raise anywhere between $2,000-$3,000. I thought I’ll donate an hour of my time, but I want early registration. Early registration is it. That’s how I met Phyllis LaBaw, associate director for athletics in charge of student-athletes. Immediately, I got the sense from her, about the commitment the school has for athletics. I felt like I was part of the team, even though I wasn’t a student-athlete.”
Those two encounters helped Fernandez meet women’s tennis coach Sherry Bedingfield. And when Bedingfield announced her retirement prior to the 2002 season after 23 years, Fernandez was a natural to fill her shoes.
“When Sherry announced her retirement, they approached me,” Fernandez said. “And having this experience with Phyllis, and everybody I’ve talked to in the process … there’s a great team spirit about this university. And there’s also a great commitment to athletics.
“I’m really excited about this challenge. I think for me it’s a great opportunity to be the head coach of a NCAA Division I women’s tennis program.”
Fernandez retired from the WTA Tour in 1997 at the age of 33 after cementing a reputation as one of the best doubles players in tennis history. Fernandez has 68 doubles victories on the WTA Tour, of which 17 are Grand Slams. In addition, Fernandez won two singles tournaments on the tour, and in 1994 she became the lowest-ranked player (No. 99) ever to reach the semifinals of Wimbledon. Fernandez also paired with Mary Jo Fernandez to claim two Olympic gold medals in doubles.
With all of Fernandez attributes, the choice was clear for the USF athletics department.
“She was our No. 1,” Assistant Athletic Director Barry Clements said. “(Gigi) fit every profile we were looking for. She’s a champion on the court and academically strong. She can create money because she’s a very good fundraiser. And she brings a lot of notoriety and can make interest in the program as big as it can be.”
While Fernandez was USF’s No. 1, she already has her sights set on her first goal.
“My first goal is to build a tennis center at the courts. A place that is conducive for top recruits to come to USF,” Fernandez said. “Obviously, without top recruits, you can’t have a top-10 team. Those are my immediate goals.”
With her short-term goals in focus, Fernandez said that doesn’t mean she’s going to forget her long-term plan. Majoring in psychology, Fernandez still intends to keep taking classes, although earning a 3.8 grade point average and taking 39 credits are probably out of the question now that she has to tend to mending a program that suffered its first back-to-back losing seasons.
“I still plan to get a degree,” Fernandez said. “It’s just going to take a little longer.”
Having to sit in class, possibly alongside some of her players, is just another factor that Fernandez figures will help her excel.
“I understand what the players are going through,” Fernandez said. “I understand deadlines and tests.”
Fernandez also has firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a student-athlete. She played at Clemson in 1982-83, advancing all the way to the NCAA singles final before turning pro later that year. With that experience in her past, Fernandez thinks she can lure players who have pro potential but still need some more seasoning.
“The goal is to get players coming here that are first of all interested in getting a degree,” Fernandez said. “That’s really important. But also those that have a desire to be a professional tennis player can use this as a stepping stone, much like I did in 1982 when I went to Clemson University. I had no idea that I was going to be a professional tennis player, but that one year at university kind of catapulted me. I feel I can do that for players who are maybe willing to make the transition – two or three years to develop their games before they’re ready for professionalism.”
Fernandez cited her accomplishments as her best asset in recruiting top-notch talent to USF.
“I’m going to sell me, my experiences, my knowledge of the tour,” Fernandez said. “There are a lot of good coaches at the collegiate level, but none have my professional experience. Where else can (recruits) go and get taught by an ex-pro?”