At 21, Fernandez stands on the verge of greatness Floridian rises to No. 6 in world

November 23, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Name this tennis player:

She turned pro at 14, was the only American woman to reach the 1992 U.S. Open semifinals, won an Olympic gold medal and finished the year No. 6 on the ranking computer.

Did you guess Jennifer Capriati?

Guess again.

Try Mary Joe Fernandez.

At 21, Fernandez is operating on the fringe that separates a lucrative livelihood from tennis greatness.

No Grand Slam triumphs and more than $2 million into her career, Fernandez remains the best-kept secret in American tennis.

But she doesn't mind.

"I've never been one to be in the spotlight," she said. "That's fine for me."

Tomorrow night, Fernandez is coming to the Baltimore Arena to join Gabriela Sabatini, Martina Navratilova and event host Pam Shriver in the First National Bank Tennis Festival.

For Fernandez, the event marks the end of what in many ways has been her strangest season.

Fernandez solidified her ranking against a horde of younger, more aggressive players. She reached the Australian Open final, losing to Monica Seles. She combined with Gigi Fernandez to win the women's doubles gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Still, the year was not without its disappointments and distractions.

A third-round loser at both the French Open and Wimbledon. No weekly tournament titles.

And then, there was the U.S. Open, the tournament she may never forget.

It wasn't how she played, it was what she endured that mattered. Her home in South Miami, the first one she purchased, was caught near the eye of Hurricane Andrew. So was her family.

Her first inclination was to rush home. But she stayed in New York. Watched CNN. Finally reached her parents to discover all was fine.

Despite jitters, Fernandez won two early-round matches and then rolled through to the semifinals.

Once again, though, she came up against Seles and lost.

"That was symbolic of the whole year," she said. "It took a lot of courage to play more aggressive and take more chances."

But still, another Grand Slam passed, and Fernandez was unable to claim a title.

"It's hard," she said. "You want to break through to the top. Yet at the same time you have people behind you coming after you to take your place. You try to shoot forward. You try not to worry about people in the back."

Once, Fernandez was one of those rising young stars. She started playing at age 3 by tagging along with her father and younger sister at the neighborhood tennis court. She was certified a tennis sensation, when, at 14 years, 1 month, she became the youngest player to win a U.S. Open match, defeating Sara Gomer, 6-1, 6-4, in 1985. She even missed her high school graduation by reaching the semifinals of the 1989 French Open.

In her teens, Fernandez simply played from the baseline, another Chris Evert clone determined to hit one ground stroke after another.

A year ago, Fernandez decided her career needed a new direction. She teamed with a new coach, Harold Solomon, and they began refashioning her style.

Solomon describes Fernandez as "warm and genteel, a nice person without an ego." Yet Solomon is adding bits of power and fire to her game.

Their three-year plan is simple: incorporate serve-and-volley electricity with her steady baseline play.

"We're making slow progress," Solomon said while overseeing Fernandez's often unsteady journey through the 1992 U.S. Open. "But she has matured a lot."

The maturity comes across in many ways.

Off the court, Fernandez is learning to make the best of a relentless travel schedule, fitting in sightseeing, trips to art museums and nights at the opera. It beats the arena-to-hotel-to-airport existence that usually grinds down even the most enthusiastic of globe-trotting athletes.

On the court, she is rarely flustered in critical moments of a match. She is stronger, too, refusing to cave in to fatigue in the final set.

"I still have frustrating moments when I play," Fernandez said. "I'm good at keeping them in perspective. When you lose, it's not the end of the world."

Give her time. Fernandez is trying for one breakthrough to greatness.

xTC "I'm trying to have faith in myself," she said. "I'm trying to believe that I can achieve more."


Tennis festival

What: First National Bank Tennis Festival, presented by The Baltimore Sun

When: Tomorrow, 6:30 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Arena

Tickets: $9, $20, $35, $75, available at Baltimore Arena box office, TicketMaster outlets and by calling (410) 481-SEAT

Participants: Martina Navratilova, Gabriela Sabatini, Mary Joe Fernandez and Pam Shriver

Format: Modified Davis Cup. Shriver and Navratilova will be paired against Fernandez and Sabatini in four sets of singles and one set of doubles. Each singles victory counts one point and each doubles victory two. If the teams are tied after five sets, a 12-point doubles tiebreaker will determine the winner.

Schedule: Shriver vs. Fernandez; Navratilova vs. Sabatini; Navratilova vs. Fernandez; Shriver vs. Sabatini; Shriver-Navratilova vs. Fernandez-Sabatini.

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