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By Richard Pagliaro | Friday, February 19, 2016

Gigi Fernandez, Natasha Zvereva

"The emotional part of a partnership is a challenge," said Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez with partner Natasha Zvereva above.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Parting can be painful and parting can be empowering.

A sudden split forged the union that became one of the game's greatest doubles partnerships.

Dumped by their respective partners before the trophy ceremony at the 1991 Wimbledon, Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva came together quickly and complemented each other brilliantly.

Watch: Federer Rules Desert

"They were the best team I faced," former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport said of the Hall of Fame pair.

Together, the feisty Fernandez and more stoic Zvereva won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles during a five-year tear from 1992 to 1997. Fernandez, who won a total of 17 Grand Slam doubles crowns with four different partners, also paired with Mary Joe Fernandez to Olympic gold medals at the 1992 Barcelona and 1996 Atlanta Games.

The first pro to come from Puerto Rico also recognized the brilliance in a young Martina Hingis. Fernandez partnered a 14-year-old Hingis to her first career doubles title at the 1995 Hamurg tournament.

These days, Fernandez is a coach, devoted exclusively to doubles. She launched to focus on her passion and conducts doubles clinics around the country. In June, Fernandez will team with fitness expert Dr. Mark Kovacs to stage her first Doubles Boot Camp at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, Connecticut.

We caught up with Gigi for this interview where she discusses her doubles philosophy, the secrets to Hingis' doubles success, the key to a good partnership and how Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Deepak Chopra helped change her career.

Tennis Now: You launched a website devoted to doubles. What do you aim to achieve with Masters

Gigi Fernandez: I've been doing clinics for about the past three years where I go around and give clinics to bring my teaching knowledge to different areas, different clubs. It's been pretty successful. It's kind of like Wilander on Wheels, only it's focused on doubles. It's a lot of fun. I've been coaching recreational players for about the last four years and I really enjoy it.

Tennis Now: Court positioning is key to doubles, but how can you help players make that part of the game instinctual, especially in doubles where things happen so fast and reaction time is reduced?

Gigi Fernandez: Basically, you have two people covering three areas of the court. So there's one area that you kind of have to leave open. Some players make the mistake of leaving the wrong area open. What I teach is: You don't follow the ball. You leave the alley open and if the opponents want to thread the needle then let them have at it. Everybody has been taught to follow the ball so if the player in front of you moves to the alley then you're taught to move to the alley.

But that's backwards. That's not doubles. Look at the best pro players, they close the middle, they cut off the angles. And that positioning starts working at the 3.5 level, from the 3.5 level up, it works.

Tennis Now: When you were a pro player what did you value most in a coach? Was it technical, tactical, psychological, emotional guidance? Now that you're a coach what do you value most imparting to your players?

Gigi Fernandez: You have to consider the audience. When I was playing my coach was all of the above. My coach was my mentor, my companion, dinner-mate, my tennis coach who helped me with my strokes, scouted my opponents, made sure I was drinking enough water. My coach was my right-hand person. When I teach clinics now I really don't get involved in the players' technique. And technique is a funny thing because at every level there's a thousand different ways to hit a forehand, right? And at some levels players are not going to change their strokes all that much.

What I tell people is there are four different types of errors you can make in doubles. Positioning errors, execution errors, shot selection errors and then there's tactical errors that are strategy errors. I can't help you with execution—that's really up to you—but the other three I can help you. I can help you eliminate those errors. So if you eliminate those errors and just have to worry about execution, then you're going to improve and improve quickly. So that's what I focus on. I focus a great deal on positioning, movement, shot selection and strategy.

Tennis Now: Martina Hingis and Sania Mirza are riding a 40-match winning streak, they've won three straight majors. Where do you rate Hingis among doubles player and what makes her so exceptional after all these years?

Gigi Fernandez: When Martina was 12 I saw her win the French Open juniors. Natasha and I were warming up for the French Open final and she was playing next door. We saw her warm up and we were like "check that girl out!" (laughs). She was serving and volleying, hitting half volleys, lob-volleys, inside-out drop shot winners. Martina has all the shots. Really, what she does really well is she plays high-percentage doubles. She's in the right place at the right time. She doesn't go for the crowd-pleasing shots. People love crowd pleasers. I could try to hit a crowd-pleaser every time I hit a shot. So could Martina, but that doesn't win doubles. Winning doubles is steady crosscourt, setting up your partner, hitting the ball in front of you, hitting the middle, not going for the down the line shot.

Martina Hingis, Gigi Fernandez

Martina and Mirza are a great partnership because they complement each other really well. Martina's hard to read so you can't really poach on her because if you do she'll hit behind you. And Mirza's got all that power. It's really exciting for them going to the French trying to win four in a row and going for the non-calendar Grand Slam. I think they have a really, really good shot at that. However if any of the Grand Slams are going to give them trouble, I'd say it's the next one because the French is a slow surface. Right now, I don't see anyone who can beat them unless Venus and Serena began playing again, but Venus and Serena don't play doubles very much now.

Tennis Now: What's the concept behind the doubles boot camp you're conducting in June?

Gigi Fernandez: The boot camp is learning doubles from me for two straight days. Over the last four years, I created this way of teaching. For some reason it's different than what other people are teaching. What I tell people is that when Natasha I were playing together, Natasha and I were not the best players in the world at the time we were playing doubles and dominating doubles in the '90s. At that time the top singles players were playing doubles, you know Martina (Hingis), Arantxa (Sanchez-Vicario), Lindsay (Davenport). The year I retired (1997), Martina, Jana (Novotna) and Lindsay were one, two and three in singles and they each finished top five in doubles, too.

So how is it that Natasha and I could beat these players who were better than us? They had better forehands, better backhands, better serves, they were stronger, they were fitter, they hit the ball harder. They did a lot of things better than us. A big reason we were successful was because we understood doubles better. We played high-percentage tennis. We just knew where to hit the ball, we knew where to stand and it seemed we were always in the right place at the right time. Through modifying what I know about doubles and applying it to each level, I've come up with this way of teaching that makes sense to people. It makes people better right away. Teaching positioning and covering the right shot and leaving the low percentage shot open and giving the players shot selection options so they don't have to over-think out there.

I always tell people when I was playing I always knew there was one shot I should be hitting. And they don't believe me because in doubles, you usually have four shots you can hit, right? You can hit the middle, you can hit either alley or you can hit the lob. But I knew of all the options there was one shot that was the highest percentage shot. So if you can teach people what the highest percentage shot is and they don't have to think about it, that's a valuable tool in doubles.

When I go to my masters doubles clinics I try to jam-pack everything I know about doubles into 90 minutes so it's a lot of information. People love it and they always want more. So I thought the boot camp concept is a logical thing. We're there for two days, they get four hours of classroom instruction so they really learn the concepts of doubles off court and then we apply them on court. Dr. Mark Kovacs is, as you know, one of the greatest fitness experts in the tennis industry and he will deliver the fitness aspect of it. I'm really excited about it.

Tennis Now: Who do you like to watch now?

Gigi Fernandez: I love to watch Roger. I loved to watch Rafa too though he's been struggling a bit. I love to watch Roger because he's so classical. And every time I watch Roger I feel it's a privilege because he's not going to be around for too much longer.

Tennis Now: How were you and Natasha able to keep it together and have the success you had winning so many Grand Slam titles?

Gigi Fernandez: Surprisingly enough, we didn't play that long together. We played from '92 to '97. We won 14 Grand Slams in five years. Venus and Serena won 13 Slams in 17 years, they've been playing since '97, so I think that's what's so special. Then I retired. So that was that. It is a struggle and we did split up in '96. In '96 we won one Grand Slam so that was a bad year and Natasha didn't want to play with me anymore. So in '97 I was playing with Arantxa (Sanchez Vicario) and we didn't do well together because we both like the backhand and then I found out Arantxa agreed to play the French with Hingis. So I ended that partnership and I said to Natasha "Let's finish this year out and I'll retire at the end of this year" and so we played and we won the French and Wimbledon and we made the finals of the US Open. We were like four (majors) away from tying Martina (Navratilova) and Pam (Shriver) for most Grand Slams in history by a team and she didn't want to (keep playing). And I was like okay. She wanted to play with Lindsay and Lindsay is a great player, an amazing player, but she was not a good match for Natasha because neither one was a finisher. So they played together, made a lot of finals but didn't win actually win a Grand Slam. The emotional part of a partnership is a challenge. It will be interesting to see how Mirza and Hingis handle that because they will hit their bumps in the road, for sure.

Tennis Now: Two years ago, I watched you and Natasha practicing at the US Open and neither one of you were missing a ball. When you get together now is the chemistry still there? Is it like musicians who haven't seen each other and pick it right up again?

Gigi Fernandez: Yeah, yeah, yeah, totally. We're great friends now. There's no hard feelings. When Wimbledon did the millennial celebration in 2000 they had every past singles champion in the history of Wimbledon and everyone who had won the title four times. It was the first time Borg had been back. We were waiting to go into the stadium standing next to Connors, Borg and McEnroe, Margaret Court, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. And Natasha looks around and goes "What the hell are we doing with this group?" I was like "You should have figured that out three years ago." I think it kind of hit her then.

Gigi Fernandez, Natasha Zvereva

Tennis Now: Which team did you get up for most?

Gigi Fernandez: In 1991, Jana Novotna and I were playing the Wimbledon final against Natasha and Larisa Savchenko. We lost 6-4 in the third. Afterward, she told me "We have to talk now." She said she didn't want to play with me anymore. I was like "What are you talking about? We won the French, we just made the finals of Wimbledon." Well unbeknownst to me her and Larisa had made an agreement to play together the rest of the year. So Natasha and I were the abandoned ones. So we got together and every time we played them, we never lost to them in a Grand Slam. Ever. We used to get so up for it because they dumped us without us even knowing. How bad is that, right? We didn't really hate or fear playing anyone. I guess that's the luxury of being the best team in the world: You don't fear anyone because you believe you can beat anyone.

Tennis Now: You played some of the greatest players of all time on the biggest Grand Slam stages. The pressure is so intense. How did you cope with choking?

Gigi Fernandez: Great question. When I do clinics, I spend time on the mental game and how I overcame (nerves). I was not born with a steely mentality like Chris Evert or Monica Seles. I used to get angry, get mad, get emotional and lose matches. Everybody chokes. For me, it was learning to meditate that changed it all. I went to a Deepak Chopra lecture in April of '92. I was invited by Martina and Billie Jean King. I didn't know anything about transcendental meditation or Deepak Chopra, but I figured how bad could it be to hang out with Billie Jean and Martina for a week so off I went to learn how to meditate. I went from there to the French Open in May and Natasha and I won that. Then went to Wimbledon and won that, then went to Barcelona for Olympics and won that and then went to US Open and won that. Learning to meditate was a huge change in my life because it taught me to relax and calm my nerves.

Three things I tell myself. Number one, detach yourself from the outcome. That became my mantra. A lot of times the fear of losing can cause nerves so detach yourself from the outcome and you give yourself the opportunity of playing your best tennis.

Secondly, I used to reverse the score. Most people don't return as well on break points, so I would reverse the score and pretend it's not our ad.

The third thing was I had this little black box in my brain. Anything that upset me during the match went into the black box and at the end of the match I could deal with the black box. Anything that went into the black box, I would have no emotion about: A bad line call, something Natasha said or I hit a bad shot, I put it in the box. Anything in the box could not affect me.

Tennis Now: Is Serena the greatest player of all time?

Gigi Fernandez: If Serena isn't the greatest player to ever live, I don't know who is. There's certainly been great players in history. I just don't know how anyone can match Serena's steely determination and power. I think she would have picked Steffi's backhand apart. Even if Martina (Navratilova) had the equipment and power that Serena has there's just not enough time when you're coming to net for Martina to be hitting volleys off those shots. There's no time to react. Serena as a baseliner would beat Martina from the baseline because she's too powerful. Serena as a baseliner would still beat Martina as a serve-and-volleyer because there's just no time to react. I don't think Martina would have done well against her. I think Serena would have just crushed her. If Serena isn't the greatest player of all time, then I don't know who is.


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