After racking up 17 Grand Slam doubles titles in a storied career spanning a decade and a half, Gigi Fernandez hasn’t slowed down one bit during retirement.
Since hanging up her racquets in 1997, Golden Slam winner Fernandez has become a mother of two, spent years coaching recreational players, and delved into doubles instruction - combining technology and tennis to teach “The Gigi Method” on her channel, Doubles.TV.
She’s also earned a degree in psychology from the University of South Florida, and it’s the mental side of the tennis game that Fernandez seeks to address in her upcoming Mental Toughness Training workshop.
“I’ve been coaching recreational players for the last five years, but this product is really for anyone who struggles with the mental part of tennis,” Fernandez said. “That’s singles players, doubles players, juniors, rec players, aspiring college players - anyone who wants to compete and perform better.”
Noticing a growing demand for mental strength instruction, Fernandez put together the Mental Toughness Training workshop - drawing from her career experiences which saw her evolve from “the female McEnroe” who “smashed 100 racquets a year” to becoming a 17-time Grand Slam champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist.
In an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com, Fernandez breaks down how she turned her career around, shares her tips for how to stay tough under pressure, and reveals who she thinks are the mentally toughest WTA players right now.
Q: What is the Mental Toughness Training workshop?
“So I’ve been coaching recreational players for the last five years, and doing camps and clinics and travelling around the country. And the No.1 question that I get from people is: “How do I get mentally tough?” and “Why don’t I play as well in matches as I do in practice?”
“So I decided to kind of delve into the mental part of the game, and put something out there that’s kind of different and unique - something that I actually wish I had when I was playing tennis.
“The coaching on the mental game… a lot of people want to work on it, but they don’t know what to do or where to start. So the first thing I’m doing is giving people the free workshop, which is a three-video course, so they can have a little bit of that.”
External link: Gigi Fernandez’s Mental Toughness Training (January 9)
Q: Where did you get the idea to create a mental toughness video series?
“When I do the camps and the clinics, I always do at launch a mental presentation. And people love that, sometimes even more than they love the clinics.
“So then, last month I sent an email out and said, “If you could ask a 17-time Grand Slam champion any question about the mental game, what would it be? What do you struggle with most?” and I got over 2,000 responses. People asking me things like, “How do I play better under pressure? How do I manage the nerves? Why do I miss sitters? When do I start preparing for a match? What do I do in the time between points? What should I be thinking?” On and on for like 2,000 questions.
“So I thought, okay, there’s definitely something here. People want to know!”
Q: How did you learn how to be ‘mentally tough’?
“So basically I went back through my career. In my playing days, I was called ‘The Female McEnroe’ and I used to break 100 racquets a year and pay my fine to the WTA before the year started, because I knew I would be fined. (laughs) Yeah, I was bad!
“So I was that way during my career, and then four years into it I met Dr. Jim Loehr and started working with him on the mental part. He really helped me understand the psychology of tennis, and how to play your best under pressure. And then I really went on this ten-year journey of really understanding what happens to a human under pressure - how do we react, what can I do about it and how can I perform better?
“And obviously I figured it out, because I won 17 Grand Slams!” (laughs)
Q: What was the process like for you when you were learning this as a player?
“Oh my God, it was like banging my head against the wall! (laughing) Just a lot of trial and error, and putting things into play and practicing them and seeing how they helped.
“From that is where I developed probably the best part of the product, what I call the “Mental Toolkit”. It’s 12 things that I did when I was playing that helped me play better, just little mental cues or things that I did with my mind - reversing the score, putting bad thoughts in what I call a “little black box,” learning to meditate or learning to breathe.
“All these things are things that I did when I was playing that helped me play my best tennis under pressure. And that’s what I’m sharing in the product.”
Q: What was the most important thing that helped you cope under pressure?
“One of the things that I found really helpful was learning to meditate. It sounds a little bit hokey, maybe, but it’s just as simple as sitting down and breathing for 20 minutes.
“When you meditate, your mind wanders but you have to always bring your mind back to the breathing. And the key is that you have to bring it back without judgment or emotion. You can’t get mad at yourself for letting your mind wander. At first, I couldn’t even do this for three minutes, much less meditate for 20 minutes - it’s hard! But over time, I learned how to to do it and got good at it.
“And how that translates to the tennis court is you learn this skill of changing one thought to another without judgment or emotion. So when I was playing a match and I would get really angry and irritated - because you know, back then we didn’t have HawkEye or any of that technology, and I used to get ballistic about the line calls - I would just change that thought for another thought and remove the emotions from it.
"That was probably the most instrumental thing that I learned to do that helped me stay calm."
Q: Which players right now would you say are the mentally toughest?
“So definitely Angie Kerber has great mental strength, and [Simona] Halep as well, she’s really worked to become mentally strong.
“I think Maria Sharapova, too: what I really like about her is how good she is with her routines. She’s got very set patterns that she does on the court and between points, that help her contain her emotions when she plays.
“That’s something that a lot of recreational players really struggle with, how to manage that time between points. [On the WTA tour, the average length of a match is just over an hour and a half] but during that time players are only playing points for 16% of that time.
“For the other 84% of the time, on average, when the players are playing tennis they’re not playing a point. So what are they doing during that time? What should they be doing or keeping in their mind? That’s what I like to teach, so that they’re set up for when the next point starts.”