After a Hall of Fame career, Gigi Fernandez has discovered a new love of tennis

PALM HARBOR — Fierce was not an option; it was a requirement.

Single-minded probably was, too. Athletic, dedicated and talented, for sure.

But fierce, definitely.

You don’t win Grand Slam titles or Olympic gold without a killer instinct. They certainly didn’t elect you to the International Tennis Hall of Fame just because you had a million-dollar smile.

So for the better part of her early life, Gigi Fernandez treated tennis courts as the battleground they were meant to be. Losses may have been inevitable, but that didn’t mean they were acceptable. Why were you playing if you weren’t on your way to winning?

Now, all these years later, Fernandez understands why.

The newly hired touring pro at Innisbrook Resort has discovered a kinder, gentler, more social world that exists within the baselines. Years of coaching children and adults in clinics around the world has shown Fernandez the game’s joy in different ways than winning always had.

“I had the misconception that adults couldn’t improve in tennis, but when I got on the court with them and watched them get better, it became a lot of fun for me,” Fernandez said. “That’s when I started learning the social side of tennis. Tennis is supposed to be social, right? I never knew that.

“To me, tennis was cutthroat, competitive, dog-eat-dog. That was my only experience. I have made some amazing friends through tennis — all of my best friends have been through tennis — after retiring. Not while playing. So this, to me, is great. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have this second career.”

That second career is getting new roots this month. Fernandez, 58, has been doing camps and clinics for years — and spent a few seasons as the tennis coach at the University of South Florida — as well as coaching doubles players on the WTA Tour.

Fernandez had family living in Tampa Bay in the 1990s, and she often trained here during her playing days at Bardmoor or Saddlebrook. Although she had been working out of a tennis club in Connecticut in recent years, she was familiar with Innisbrook from clinics she had done previously.

With an eye toward moving back to the area with her wife, former LPGA major winner Jane Geddes, and two children, Fernandez worked out a deal to expand the tennis program at Innisbrook.

“The goal is to get more people here, to get more people playing tennis. We have a beautiful facility and resort that’s been underutilized,” she said. “So we’re hoping to attract players in the area, adults who want to get better or junior players who want to hopefully play college tennis one day, or even further.”

Fernandez is particularly interested in expanding interest in doubles play, where she obviously excelled as a pro. Fernandez won 17 Grand Slam doubles titles, mostly with Natasha Zverera but also with Jana Novotna and Martina Navratilova.

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“I’ve had this gripe with tennis instruction in this country for many, many years. We don’t teach people how to play doubles, we just teach you to play singles as a junior,” Fernandez said. “But when we become adults, we all play doubles. And the instruction for doubles is not up to standard in this country. And when you look at clubs, that’s what a lot of people are playing.”

Innisbrook will be making its first big push in the tennis community with a junior tryout and adult festival on Dec. 10 at the resort.

Fernandez, meanwhile, is not limiting her time on the court to lessons and clinics. She recently got into pickleball and has been playing internationally. She recently moved into the top 10 world rankings for doubles for senior women.

So, that competitive streak that propelled her to the Hall of Fame? Yeah, still there.

“I’m competitive to a fault,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know how to get rid of it.”

John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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