Nervy Fernandez wrecks Sabatini silent Seles next

September 09, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Mary Joe Fernandez turned professional before she got her driver's license, missed her high school graduation to appear in a Grand Slam semifinal, and banked her first million at an age when most people are still angling for a first job.

So, you would expect Fernandez to be comfortable with the stress and strain of appearing at the U.S. Open.

Of course, you would be wrong.

For the past week, Fernandez has been a tennis anxiety attack, playing one nervous three-set match after another, barely advancing to the next round.

And then she got a house call from the psychotherapist to the stars, Dr. Jim Loehr. His prescription was simple: calm down and hit out.

Yesterday, Fernandez played like the most confident performer in tennis. The U.S. Open's No. 7 women's seed belted ground strokes, actually rushed the net for volleys, and won the toughest, tautest points in the third set to shock No. 4 Gabriela Sabatini, 6-2, 1-6, 6-4.

"At the beginning of the tournament, it didn't look like I would do much damage," said Fernandez, once the youngest woman to ever win a U.S. Open match and now a 21-year-old veteran of the tour.

"The first few matches were a little bit rough for me," she said. "So I think after I got through those, I felt a little bit lucky to still be here. And I am taking advantage of it now."

The victory pushed Fernandez into the Open semifinals, where she will meet reigning champion and No. 1 seed Monica Seles.

Seles, her grunts silenced by a sore throat and virus, ended the "Upset Special" run of unseeded Patricia Hy with a routine 6-1, 6-2 quarterfinal victory.

The other pairing for Friday's semifinals will be made today when No. 2 Steffi Graf meets No. 5 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and No. 9 Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere plays her younger sister, No. 15 Magdalena Maleeva.

Whatever the outcome of today's matches, Fernandez will likely remain the most surprising semifinalist of the 1992 Open.

Fernandez was clearly unnerved early in the tournament. For most of the touring players, Hurricane Andrew was simply a story on the nightly news. But the storm caused slight damage at Fernandez's South Miami home. Even more important, for a day and a half after the hurricane hit, she was unable to contact her parents.

Then she had to play a tennis match. In the opening round, Fernandez was awful, dropping a set, playing tentatively and coming from behind to defeat Donna Faber, 3-6, 6-0, 6-4.

After the match, she nearly packed her rackets and left New York. But a lecture from her coach, Harold Solomon, and a visit with Loehr gave her a new outlook.

"She was terrible," Solomon said. "She was nervous. I told her, 'You shouldn't be nervous and if you are, you'll be terrified when you get off the court and deal with me.' "

Fernandez's game improved and so did her chances of reaching her sixth career Grand Slam semifinal.

But first she had to overcome a familiar obstacle -- Sabatini. The players have known one another since they were children and even met twice at the Orange Bowl junior tournament. Fernandez usually won the junior events, but as pros Sabatini held a 10-6 advantage.

One of those Sabatini wins came in a three-set semifinal two years ago. After that match, Fernandez was dejected, while Sabatini went on to win her only Grand Slam title.

"She changed her tactics on me in that match and started coming in and I freaked out a little," Fernandez said. "I ended up losing in the third and it was an emotional match. And then she won the tournament and that made it worse for me."

But yesterday it was Fernandez's turn to pull out a third set, breaking Sabatini's serve at love to move into the semifinals.

Hy also talked tough before her match against Seles, vowing to continue on a roll that started with her third-round defeat of Jennifer Capriati and pushed her to a fourth-round victory over Helena Sukova.

But Seles is no Capriati, much less a Sukova. Seles needed only 55 minutes to run Hy off the court.

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