Gigi Fernandez won three grand slam doubles titles playing separately with Robin White, Martina Navratilova and Jana Novotna. In 1991, Fernandez and Novotna reached the final of the Australian Open and won the French Open. But after the next Grand Slam, Wimbledon, Jana ended the partnership.
“In the 1991 Wimbledon final I was playing with Jana Novotna at the time,” Gigi recalled on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast. “And Natasha and Larisa Neiland were playing with each other. And we lost in the final 6-4 in the third set. Jana double faulted on match point. I was not too happy about that.”
“After that she pulled me aside and she said that she didn’t want to play with me anymore. And I was like ‘wait a second, you double faulted!’ Unbeknownst to Natasha and I, Larisa and Jana had agreed to play together for the rest of the year. So then they got together and Natasha and I, we didn’t get together right away but the following spring, in March, our coaches wanted to have a meeting with us. So our coaches were the ones who thought we should give it a try and we did. We started playing together in April and it was magic right away. We won six Grand Slams in a row from the time we started.”
The victories kept on coming for Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva. There was a feeling of invincibility according to Fernandez.
“Yeah we were. We won 14 grand slams in 5 years. That’s how many grand slams Venus and Serena (Williams) have won in their career. In a twenty year career. It was rather fast. Rather intense.”
“We were on such a roll. If we were not winning 2-3 Grand Slams a year then that was a bad year. We were so dominating. We would win 10 tournaments a year and we would win these matches which we probably should have lost, coming back from match points.”
Gigi was raised in Puerto Rico and won two Olympic gold medals for the United States at the 1992 and 1996 games playing alongside Mary Joe Fernandez (no relation). Natasha Zvereva was born in Belarus and up until 1991 represented the Soviet Union. So what made the Fernandez-Zvereva partnership so successful?
“I think Natasha and I had something really special,” says Fernandez. “I didn’t feel that with any of the other girls. Just felt so comfortable on the court with her, so supported. It didn’t matter if we were having a good day or a bad day. We were really well jelled. No one ever blamed the other for a win or a loss, or took credit for the win and the blame for the loss.”
It was a team formed of two players with contrasting styles.
“From the pure game perspective we had strengths and weaknesses that complemented each other. I’m a firm believer that in doubles opposites attract. I was the emotional, sort of extrovert. She was the introvert, sort of ice maiden, if you will. She had better returns, I had better volleys. I had a better serve, she had better ground strokes. My strengths were her weaknesses and my weaknesses were her strengths.”
The longer the pair played together the more their confidence grew.
“We had this mental edge over everybody that people would think that we would come back before we even started to come back. I remember playing the championships at Madison Square Garden, just a year-end tournament, being down 6-2, 5-1 to Meredith McGrath and Patty Fendick. I think it was 11.50pm and we still thought we had a chance to win and we did. We saved 8 or 9 match points, I don’t remember how many. They served for the match 3 times. They were up 6-1 in the tiebreaker but we always thought we would find a way. And the majority of the time we did.”
Unsurprisingly Gigi’s favourite victory of her career was against their former partners.
“In the 1992 Wimbledon final, guess what happened? Now Natasha and I are playing Jana and Larisa in the finals. We were playing on old court number one because of the weather and we were down 4-1, two breaks, and then it started to rain and I came into the locker room and my coach came to me and he said ‘Gigi, you need to detach yourself from the outcome.’ And I said ‘how is that even possible? It’s a Wimbledon final. I can’t detach.’ I wanted to win that match more than anything. Not just because it’s Wimbledon but because we were playing with the two players that dumped us at the previous final and I’d never won Wimbledon. Once I started playing that was always my dream. He said ‘you have to have no emotion. Whether you win or lose it’s the same and try to do that because right now you are not playing really well. If you don’t do something you are going to lose.’ So somehow I was able to follow his advice and detach myself from the thrill of winning or the agony of losing. And we ended up winning 11 of the next 12 games and ended up winning 6-4 6-1. That was pretty sweet.”
Often on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast I ask my guests if they have a favourite book. While I didn’t ask Gigi this question, I did find out the type of genre that helped her and Natasha achieve their success.
“We had fun. We would somehow find away to smile and laugh through the most intense pressure. We just always found that when we were relaxed we would play our best. We even had a joke book in our racquet bags. If things were ever really bad or really intense or we were just having a really bad day, we would just pull the joke book and tell each other jokes.”
As a singles player Gigi Fernandez won two titles and reached a career high ranking of 17. Her best grand slam performance came at the 1994 Wimbledon Championships where she reached the semi-finals. The Puerto Rican didn’t make a deliberate decision to concentrate on doubles, after a while it just came naturally.
“What happens is when you are a really good doubles player, like my partner and I were, we started playing on the weekends, like Saturday/Sunday finals. Then we would have to travel Monday and play a singles match Tuesday. So a lot of times I was just not prepared for my singles matches. So over time it really became I am making most of my money in doubles so I just started to focus more on that. It was really until my last year that I stopped playing singles and focused strictly on doubles.”
Fernandez and Zvereva lasted six years together as a team. When the partnership ended in 1997, Gigi’s professional tennis career followed shortly afterwards.
“The first few years were really hard because I probably could’ve kept playing. I retired because Natasha didn’t want to continue playing. And we actually stopped playing at the end of 1996. Then we both had dreadful years. So when 1997 started I was actually like ‘Natasha come on.’ So I started the year playing with Arantxa. Arantxa and I again were both outside players so we did not do well. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, great doubles player but we were not good for each other. So I found myself without a partner in April coming up to the summer season so I said to Natasha, and she didn’t have a partner either, ‘let’s just get back together. We’re still good. Let’s just give it a try. Let’s just play the rest of the year and then I’ll retire at the end of the year.’ So we played that year and we won the French, we won Wimbledon and we made the finals of the U.S. Open. We lost to (Lindsay) Davenport and Novotna. So I thought ‘let’s just keep playing’ because we are four grand slams away from tying Martina (Navratilova) and Pam (Shriver) for most Grand Slams as a team in history and she didn’t want to. She wanted to go play with Lindsay Davenport, who is a great player, was a great player, still is a great player. But they did not mesh well together because there was no finisher, they were both setters and Natasha was trying to be the finisher but I was the finisher in our team and she was more the setter. So the two of them went off and they made a lot of Grand Slam finals but they never won one together. So that was kind of a shame. I didn’t want to start again playing with a new person. So I thought it was time. I had been playing for 15 years, I had won 17 Grand Slams. I was pretty much thinking ‘what would it matter if I won another one really?’ It would only mean something if I won three more with Natasha and then we became the best team in the history of tennis. I think I was ready but when I quit and I didn’t really have anything solid to do and I kind of floundered a little bit. I wanted nothing to do with tennis. Then it took a while to come back to tennis, almost 13 years before I actually came back.”
“Why didn’t you want anything to do with tennis?” I asked Gigi.
“Tennis players, we get burned out. It’s something you do your whole life and it’s very sacrificed. It’s very intense and hard. I didn’t want to go near a gym. I didn’t want to go near a tennis court. It’s work and pain and a lot of negative feelings associated. Because what you see is the cool things, you see us on tv winning grand slams but you don’t see the other 40 weeks of the year where you are just struggling and working your ‘you know what’ off. People who could do the gym think they work hard and they don’t. I don’t care how hard you work in the gym it will never compare to what a professional athlete goes through with their body. It’s seven days a week, constant grinding. Just pushing yourself, four hours a day. It’s hard. It’s really hard. Unless you’ve been there it’s really hard to understand it. So when you are done with it you are like ‘I am done with that!’ I wanted something else that is not that.”
So what was the toughest training session Gigi would go through while training as a pro?
“I lived in Aspen which was at 8,000 feet. So we had a third of the oxygen up there. Whenever I would do plyometrics, jumping on boxes, any footwork drills, you are just sucking wind, for like an hour and you can’t get your heart rate down. You are just miserable. Any one of those was just dreadful.”
After retiring from the sport, Gigi earned her MBA, started businesses and helped raise funds for Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017. She is now back involved with the game with her company Gigi Fernandez Tennis. Her mission to share her extensive doubles knowledge to enthusiasts began after an eye-opening experience as Director of Tennis at a club in Connecticut.
“I was just shocked at how bad doubles instruction was. Not only at the club level but when I started travelling to conventions.”
“At a certain age your body can’t play singles any more. So everybody ends up playing doubles. The problem is we don’t teach our juniors how to play doubles. No country does. We’re all taught to play singles and doubles is the after thought, it has always been, the after thought at the majors, the after thought at all of the tournaments. Then if you are an adult tennis player that is what you play. So I found it kind of upsetting that there wasn’t better instruction out there so I just decided to put something together and I did and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, coaching players of the beginner-intermediate, intermediate-advance, some advanced but we’re not talking high performance players, we are talking adults.”
Through her company, Gigi developed a method and an online platform to change this situation.
“So I created this way of teaching doubles that has really resonated with people. It’s called the Gigi Method. All of my doubles knowledge is available at doubles.tv. I created that website to store all of my knowledge.”
“The way I broke up the game of doubles was by really thinking about what was important in doubles and what do people really have to understand? The five steps are: positioning, you’ve got to be standing the right place; court coverage, you’ve got to know what to cover; you need serve strategies to hold your serve; you need return strategies to break; and once you’ve hit a serve and a return, shot selection comes into play. I find that players make four kinds of errors when they play doubles. Break positioning errors, they make execution errors, they make shot selection errors, and they make tactical errors. Three of those you can control. The only one you can’t control is execution. So if you can really teach players to position themselves, what high percentage shot selection, what tactics to play against an opponent, they immediately improve. Without making your forehand or your backhand better you can improve in doubles just by understanding it.”
Gigi Fernandez was speaking on the Best in the World with Richard Parr podcast.