Gigi the Great
“Game, set, match” is one of those phrases that are all too common for women’s tennis coach Gigi Fernandez. Now entering her third season as head coach of the Bulls, there is no doubt that Fernandez is the woman for the job.
Fernandez started playing tennis when she was just eight years old, in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico At the age of 17, she turned to the professional arena, becoming Puerto Rico’s first professional female athlete. But, while some little girls grow up aspiring to be the first woman president, Fernandez says that she never expected to be Puerto Rico’s first professional female athlete.
“I’m (kind of) proud of it. And, you know, I have responsibilities to that,” Fernandez said. “I do what I can down there, even though I don’t live there.”
Fernandez was recognized as Puerto Rico’s Coach of the Year in 2003 for her progress in working with the Puerto Rican National team. She also went on to coach the Puerto Rican tennis team in the 2004 Olympics.
Having completed only one year at Clemson before turning pro, Fernandez was a student at USF before being named head coach of women’s tennis. After accepting the head coaching position, Fernandez budgeted her time between school and tennis and finished over 100 credits in just two and a half years to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
“It gave me a really good understanding of what (the team) goes through. I was a student in the morning (and) on the courts in the afternoon, just like they are. Then I would have to go home and study, just like they do,” Fernandez said. “I think I’m probably one of the most understanding coaches out there because I have that experience.”
In addition to her experience as a student and as a coach, Fernandez had a prominent professional career for over 14 years. Before she retired in 1997, Fernandez competed professionally in both doubles and singles matches. As a doubles competitor, Fernandez captured five U.S. Open championships, four Wimbledon titles, six French Open titles and two Australian Open Championships.
Fernandez and her doubles partner, Natasha Zvereva, are ranked second for doubles wins in the history of women’s tennis. Together they won 14 out of the 17 titles. Fernandez also won two Olympic gold medals in 1992 in Barcelona and in 1996 in Atlanta.
Her success didn’t stop at doubles competition. Fernandez reached the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1994 and played in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open twice. Throughout the majority of her career, she was ranked No. 17 out of the top 30 players in the world.
Of all the titles and championships she has won, Fernandez says that among her biggest accomplishments are the first of her two gold medals and the first of her 17 Grand Slam championships.
“The second one you’re supposed to win, right?” Fernandez joked.
Putting her impressive resume aside, Fernandez expects great things to come from the Bulls this year. She definitely foresees the team being ranked, but she says that how high they are ranked depends on whom they beat. She is also greatly relived that junior Neyssa Etienne, who takes over the role of the No. 1 seed on the team, has been declared able to play by the NCAA.
“If we can beat (a high-ranking team like Florida, Miami, or Georgia), then we’ll be ranked pretty high. If not, we’ll be somewhere in the 25 to 50 range.”
The Bulls travel this weekend to Ole Miss for a Saturday game against the Rebels and to Memphis on Sunday.