Gigi Fernandez was 33 years old when she retired from professional tennis in 1997 - one year before Serena Williams lifted her first Grand Slam trophy.
At that age, Fernandez says, she was already “over the hill” - a complete change from today’s game where 30-somethings like Serena, Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and more continue to find success at the highest level.
Fernandez, who racked up 17 Grand Slams titles in doubles over the course of her storied career - along with two Olympic gold medals and two WTA Finals titles, also in doubles - has done anything but slow down since she hung up her racquets.
Now a mother of two, Fernandez used her time away from the game to earn two college degrees (psychology and business management), develop a doubles training toolkit and has coached at every level of the game: recreational, professional, World TeamTennis and more.
Still, Fernandez continues to be amazed by how much the sport has changed in the 22 years since she left it.
“In my day, if you wanted to have a long career and you wanted to become a mom, you didn’t have much of a choice,” she recalls in an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com. “I can’t imagine taking the time off, becoming pregnant and delivering - and then going right back on the tour.”
In an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com, the 17-time Grand Slam winner discusses how technology and sports science have lengthened WTA careers, the state of today’s doubles game, and who she tips as “the future of American tennis.”
Q: Currently you’re coaching recreational players and and focusing on doubles. Have you considered eventually coaching WTA players?
“So I coached a couple of players, I coached Sam Stosur and Lisa Raymond, and they won their US Open [doubles title in 2005] when I was helping them. But what happened was… I became a mom. I have nine-year-old twins, and so for the last 10 years I just haven’t wanted to travel.
“Coaching a professional tour player is a 24/7/365 commitment - you basically as a coach give up your life for the player. And you have to, for the player to be successful, but I’m just not in a position to do that with my nine-year-old twins
“So what’s great about coaching recreational players is that their leagues play in the morning - which is when my kids are in school. I’m able to work with the adults in the morning and then I can be a mom in the afternoon. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years.”
Q: Right now the WTA is seeing quite a few players becoming mothers and coming right back to compete on the tour. Is that something you could ever imagine doing back when you were playing?
“No! (laughs) Never. You know, the career lifespan back in my era was much shorter than what it is today. I retired at 33, and I was like, over the hill!
“And part of that is now players are taking so much better care of their bodies - because they’re making more money, they have the ability to travel with a team, like trainers and physios and nutritionists. Overall they take better care of themselves so they have more longevity in general.
“In my day, if you wanted to have a long career and you wanted to become a mom, you didn’t have much of a choice. I’m thankful that when I quit at 33, I was still in my childbearing years.
“But I can’t imagine taking the time off, becoming pregnant and delivering - and then going right back on the tour. That’s pretty amazing for the players who have done it.
“I’ve actually coached two of them: when I coached World Team Tennis this past July, I had Tatjana Maria and Maria Jose Sanchez Martinez, they’re both moms. So I got to kind of live that with them, and you know what? It’s hard. You miss your kids, but they’re on the road and sometimes they can’t bring them. It’s not always easy.
“And of course now Serena, she’s a mom too, definitely the most visible WTA mom. It’s great. It’s so great that they’re able to do that now.”
Q: While you had a great career in singles, most of your success was in doubles. What are your thoughts on the doubles game nowadays?
“Here’s the big conundrum for me: what most people watch on TV in tennis is singles. They like to tune in and watch the stars play, and that’s what’s shown more on TV and really focused on. But what people play, for the most part, is doubles. If you go to any club in any part of the country at any time of the day, like 85% of what’s going on is doubles.
“Eventually we all have to learn doubles or end up playing doubles, and I found that there’s a gap in the instruction of doubles. I felt that we’re not teaching it enough and not really focusing on it. So when I started traveling to conventions - like for example I would be at a three-day conference, and there would be like maybe one session that was just about doubles.
“So to me, that felt like a disconnect. I felt like there was more of a need for sharing good doubles instruction, so that’s why I started going more toward that path.”
Q: What can the sport do to improve bridge that gap between singles and doubles?
“I think that the fans really need to speak out more. Because we know people want to watch doubles - I hear it all the time and people are always posting about it on social media. They’re asking, like, “Why aren’t more doubles matches televised?”
“In my opinion, I know [TV networks] are willing to televise more doubles, but it’s a matter of the tournament keeping the cameras running. I know that because I’ve had a conversation with them. The tournaments shouldn’t shut off the TV when the singles final is over, just keep the feed running! That way they actually end up running more doubles matches, because they understand that the viewers, that’s what they play. Your average tennis-playing tennis fan plays doubles, not singles.”
Q: Why do you think that the top singles players don’t play doubles regularly anymore, like they used to?
“I think that’s what really hurt doubles, is back 20, 25 years ago the top players stopped playing doubles. McEnroe is the last male player that I can think of that was No.1 in the world and was playing doubles at the same time. The doubles game, on the men’s side, started to suffer from top players not playing. Sampras and Agassi, they didn’t play doubles.
“On the women’s game, it took a little bit longer. When I was playing, I remember we had Martina Navratilova, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Arantxa Sanchez [Vicario], Steffi Graf - all of these were great singles players, but they were also amazing doubles players. They played all the Grand Slams. And later on, of course, the Williams sisters, they played doubles together and even mixed as well when they first got to the top. Now, the women’s game has gone the way of the men’s, where the top singles players aren’t playing in doubles anymore.
“It could be that there’s just too much money now in singles, it’s such a big business that probably they just don’t want to take the chance of getting hurt or getting tired. But I just think that doubles is such a great complement for singles. If you talk to the great doubles players who were also singles players, like for example the Williams sisters who are amazing, they always say they would rather have a match on their day off than a practice session.
“I don’t know, maybe now that in doubles we’re using short sets, that could be a way to get the top players playing it more again. It’s a dilemma.”
Q: What are some of the biggest differences that you see between young girls who are coming up now in the sport, and back when you were their age coming up?
“It’s so different. Right now, it’s a business from the time you’re 12. If you have talent then at 12 you have a team behind you, your career is already kind of planned out, you have sponsors and managers.
“I mean, Coco Gauff, who is the future of American tennis, at 14 just signed a multi-year deal with Head. That kind of stuff was very rare in my generation.
“For me, I didn’t really get serious about tennis until I was in college. I was already 18, it was very late. But now, if you’re 15 or 16 and you’re not playing ITFs, travelling around all over the world and getting yourself known in the tennis world - then you’re not going to make it.
“It’s hard. You have to give up your childhood. Me, I felt like I had a pretty normal childhood. I mean, I traveled a little bit and in the summers I would go play tournaments. But my childhood was still pretty normal, I went to school, I had friends at school, I had my license and that was a pretty big deal, I went to my prom. All that. I feel girls that age, now they can’t do that. It’s crazy.”