STAMFORD, Conn. – Stamford’s Gigi Fernandez enjoyed playing at the U.S. Open. But the director of tennis at Chelsea Piers Connecticut in Stamford does not harbor any thoughts of returning to the big stage as a player.
“When I first retired, yes,’’ said Fernandez, who won five doubles titles at the U.S. Open and 17 major doubles titles. “It’s been 16 years now, and I enjoy going there a spectator.”
Fernandez says the game has changed tremendously since her career, which spanned from 1985 to 1997.
“The players hitting the ball harder and they’re more complete players,’’ she said. “You can’t wing it any more if one aspect of your game isn’t as strong as everything else. If you’re not a complete player, you’re noting going to make it.”
The power game in women’s tennis evolved a little bit later than on the men’s side, but has been changing for the last 15 or 20 years, Fernandez said.
“In my era we still had a few that could serve and volley, but we were the last guard of that. Now you have to be fast. The ball comes at you so much faster. It did away with the serve and volley game.”
She believes the power players of her era, such as Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, did not hit as hard as the current stars. “Steffi didn’t hit the backhand that hard. Now every girl hits the ball as hard as Monica, maybe harder, from both sides.”
Fernandez believes even tennis legend Martina Navratilova, with whom she won a U.S. Open doubles title in 1990, would struggle in today’s game.
“No disrespect to Martina, but she’d get crushed,’’ Fernandez said of the woman generally regarded as the sport’s best serve-and-volley player. “Unless she could generate that kind of power that is available with today’s technology, and she probably could.”
Fernandez won two singles titles, but was known best for her doubles success. She won three mixed doubles titles in majors, and six French Opens, four Wimbledons and two Australian Opens in women's doubles. Her longtime partner was Natasha Zvereva, with whom she won 14 grand slams.
Fernandez also won two Olympic gold medals for the United States. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame with Zvereva in 2012 and was honored as Puerto Rico’s Female Athlete of the Century in 1999. Fernandez, who attended Clemson and later earned degrees from the University of South Florida and Rollins College, finished her career with 68 women’s doubles titles.
She coached some professional doubles players before coming to Chelsea Piers Connecticut last year.
“Someone told me to interview for the job,’’ Fernandez said. “I didn’t think they’d give it to me. But they did. Now my kids go to preschool here, and it’s great. Every day they’re exposed to a different sport. For someone who was involved in athletics for a long time, I think it’s great.”
Fernandez especially enjoys seeing the success of players 10-and-under as they learn the game with modified equipment. “We’re teaching it the way the United States Tennis Association wants it taught,’’ Fernandez said. “I think we’ll see the benefit from this way of learning.”
Fernandez lives in Stamford with partner Jane Geddes, a former professional golfer and now an executive at World Wrestling Entertainment.
“It’s fun working here,’’ Fernandez said. “I believe I have the best teaching staff in Fairfield County.”