Fernandez makes climb, now looks to top it off

June 26, 1993|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

WIMBLEDON, England -- Mary Joe Fernandez won't admit to anything.

Yes, she was the runner-up at the French Open, overcoming huge deficits to advance to the final.

Yes, she is more mature, more at home on grass courts. And, yes, she was simply too good for Ruxandra Dragomir on Court 3 Thursday. If not for the brilliant sunshine, Fernandez would not have had to break a sweat in her 6-3, 6-3 victory.

But please, don't translate any of that into positives for Mary Joe.

"The French already seems like a long time ago," she said. "The Open definitely gave me confidence, but it dissipates pretty fast. And that was clay and this is grass, and it doesn't carry over. This is like starting all over again."

To listen to this wisp of a woman, with the dark tan and long curling dark hair, the impression is she has never done well here. Her 1991 semifinals appearance seems so long ago it might as well have never happened.

She seems stuck somehow. A rung on the ladder below Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini.

It was a rung Sabatini teetered on before breaking through at the U.S. Open in 1990. Sabatini hasn't won a Grand Slam event since, but that she has won one puts her a step above.

Fernandez knows it would be an upset for her to win Wimbledon. She played poorly in the second round at Eastbourne, a warm-up grass court tournament for this major.

And her opponent today will be Zina Garrison-Jackson, her doubles partner and a past finalist here.

"It's going to be pretty tough," Fernandez said. "We know how each other plays. We know how we each like to play the big points. We know how we think."

It is risky business playing on grass. The bounce on the chewed-up court is not to be trusted, but Fernandez is becoming a risk-taker.

That's what she did at the French, resolutely crushing her forehand with full force, stepping into returns, charging the net and hitting for the lines. It brought her back from a 6-1, 5-1 deficit to beat Sabatini, and it carried her past Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-2, 6-2, and into the French final, where she lost to Graf for the 11th straight time.

"Harold [her coach Harold Solomon] always whips and screams at me to go to the net," she said. "But I am doing my best at it. I know I win the majority of the points when I'm aggressive. I'm serving and volleying more and taking some chances and you can see it is paying off."

Solomon told Fernandez when he began coaching her in 1991 that it would take three years to develop a new game that would make her capable of winning Grand Slam events.

Three years have passed. The French showed she is on the verge. At Wimbledon, she is contending. But to win, Fernandez must get past Garrison-Jackson today, and then get through the rest of the draw that might include No. 2 seed Navratilova, who says she is determined to win a 10th title here, in the semifinals. If Fernandez is successful, her reward could be a 12th meeting with Graf in the championship match.

"I have played a defensive game all my life," said Fernandez, 21. "I was taught to hit the ball back and not to make any mistakes. It takes awhile to change that. I think I'm finally doing it. Getting passed [by shots] is getting easier to take. But it has taken a long time to stop thinking that if I had stayed back, that I wouldn't have been passed at all."

Fernandez is learning getting passed isn't the worst thing that can happen to her. It's getting left behind that would hurt most of all.

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