In October 2014, espnW voted Gigi Fernández the 10th-most-influencial Hispanic athlete in history. The big-serving and hard-hitting native of San Juan, Puerto Rico was the first female athlete from her country to become a professional in any sport, and she carved out a legacy, largely based on astounding doubles success, a scant few in the sport have ever achieved.
Fernández, who was fiery, tenacious, exuberant, and displayed her emotions on the court freely – both a blessing and a curse at times – won 17 major doubles titles with four different partners. Fourteen of those titles were shared with Natasha Zverera, who complemented her spirited partner perfectly. While the duo weren’t complete opposites, Zvereva’s all-court game balanced her partner’s aggressive mantra and while Fernández was fire, Zvereva was ice. Appropriately, the pair entered the Hall of Fame together in 2010.
Fernández and Zvereva have the second-longest major doubles title streak in the Open Era, winning six in a row from the French Open in 1992 through Wimbledon in 1993. That mark ranks just two behind the eight earned by Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. “Gigi was extremely talented, very gifted and fun to watch,” Navratilova told espnW. The two collaborated to win the 1990 US Open title. “She was very creative on the court, had all the shots.”
Fernández came close to winning a major title in singles, but never reached a major final. She advanced to the 1994 Wimbledon semifinal (falling to Navratilova 6-4, 7-6), the US Open quarterfinals in 1991 and 1994, the fourth round of the Australian Open in 1990 and 1993, and into the second round of the French Open in 1986, 1987, and 1991. She won two singles titles, both coming on hard courts where her power could shine. She won at Singapore in 1986 and at Albuquerque in 1991.
Doubles earned Fernández her place in history and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Alongside Zvereva, the duo dominated the doubles category, winning a non-calendar year Grand Slam, running from the 1992 French Open to the 1993 Australian Open. Together, they won the Australian (1993, 1994), French (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997), Wimbledon (1992, 1993, 1994, 1997), and US Open (1992, 1995, 1996). She won at least one major title ever year from 1988 to 1997, minus 1989, and slugged her way into this remarkable statistic: She won three of the four doubles majors in the same year four times (1992, 1994, 1997) and won four non-calendar year major doubles titles in 1992-1993 and 1996-97. She compiled a 664-184 doubles record, amassing 69 career titles on tour. In major tournaments, where the stakes are higher and the pressure intensifies, Fernández won 86 percent of her matches (193-91). She credits that lofty mark in part to relaxation and meditation techniques learned after visiting the Deepak Chopra Center in Lancaster, Massachusetts in 1992.
Fernández played in 23 major finals, and before connecting with Zvereva had won the 1988 US Open with Robin White and had formed a formidable short-term team with Czech Jana Novotna, winning the French Open in 1991, and earning finalist appearances at both the 1991 Australian and Wimbledon Championships. Once Fernández and Zvereva combined talents, they were virtually unbeatable. They played in 18 major championship matches, won 14 of them, and on nine occasions whipped their opposition in straight sets. The women’s doubles community got a sneak preview of what the future would hold when the tandem won the 1992 French Open over a solid doubles team in Spain’s Conchita Martínez and Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario, 6-3, 6-2. That inaugural year playing together saw the duo defeat Larisa Savchenko and Novotna at both Wimbledon (6-4, 6-1) and the US Open (7-6, 6-1).
Fernández competed for three major mixed doubles titles, each time pairing with Czech Cyril Suk, falling in the 1995 Australian, Wimbledon, and US finals.
Fernández’s success wasn’t limited to the WTA tour, but her decision to represent the United States at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games was controversial, as she spurned her native Puerto Rico. Fernández had defended her decision by explaining that playing for the United States was the only chance she had at earning a Gold Medal, given there was no other Puerto Rican player to partner with. She teamed with Mary Joe Fernández to snare doubles Gold Medals at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona and 1996 Games in Atlanta. She played on the 1990 U.S. Fed team that defeated the Soviet Union, 2-1. She and doubles partner Zina Garrison won the deciding match over Larisa Savchenko and Zvereva, 6-4, 6-3.
Overlooked in Fernández’s fabulous professional career is a single season playing collegiate tennis at Clemson in 1982-83, where she was both a singles and doubles All-American. She advanced to the NCAA Division I Singles Championship, losing to University of Southern California All-America Beth Herr, 7-6, in the third set after squandering a match point.
In 2010, she was named the Puerto Rican Athlete of the Century.