Gigi Fernandez comes from a family of highly educated people.
Her grandmother, Dolores Pla, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and was Puerto Rico’s first female dentist. Her father, Tuto, was a well-known doctor and two uncles made a living as a neurosurgeon and an urologist. Oh, and three of her siblings have masters degrees.
Fernandez attended Clemson University for one year -- earning All-American honors in tennis -- before opting for professional tennis.
“So the joke in my family when I was traveling around the world,” Fernandez said, “was that I was just another college dropout.”
Was she possibly the underachiever of the family?
“Possibly,” Fernandez said, laughing.
Not a chance.
Eventually, she went on to collect a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of Southern Florida and a Master of Business Administration from Rollins College’s Crummer School of Business. Fernandez seems poised to crush her burgeoning career after playing tennis. She’s a mother of twins, a registered stock broker and a financial advisor, among many other things.
“You can’t teach tennis forever,” Fernandez said from her home in Tampa. “I’m definitely an entrepreneur.”
She deals in “experiential travel,” providing tennis fans with a variety of unique opportunities.
“People want experiences,” Fernandez said. “When you become older and accomplished, what do you want to do in life? Things you can’t normally -- that’s what I do.
“Come learn to play doubles with a 17-time Grand Slam champion, attend the French Open, Wimbledon or Indian Wells, or come play tennis with Andy Roddick.”
The foundation of her life today -- Beatriz “Gigi” Fernandez turns 60 this February -- is a wildly successful tennis career. Her on-court resume is, quite frankly, difficult to digest.
As she casually mentioned, Fernandez was a 17-time Grand Slam doubles champion from 1991-97. She won 14 of those with Natasha Zvereva, making them the second most successful pair in the Open Era, after Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver. She was, of course, the No.1-ranked doubles player -- eight different times for a total of 80 weeks.
Fernandez also won two Olympic gold medals for the United States playing with Mary Joe Fernandez (no relation). She was also Puerto Rico’s first female professional athlete, playing from 1983-1997. In singles, Fernandez rose to the rank of No.17 and made the semifinals at Wimbledon in 1994. She was part of America’s winning Fed Cup team in 1990 and was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010. She also served as a coach for Rennae Stubbs, Lisa Raymond and Sam Stosur.
But ask Fernandez which of these achievements she’s most proud of, and her answer isn’t a specific trophy or tournament.
“I’m most proud of the legacy I left in Puerto Rico,” she said, emotion flooding into her voice. “We come from a very small island, 100 miles by 35 in the middle of the Caribbean. There’s two tennis Hall of Famers that are Puerto Rican -- Charlie Pasarell is the other one. So when you look at China with their billion people, and they have one -- Li Na. There are a lot of tennis nations with only one person in the Hall of Fame, and Puerto Rico has two.
“I gave girls in Puerto Rico the opportunity to understand that it was OK for them to be professional athletes. Because when I was growing up, girls were not professionals. They were raised to get married and have kids. Look at Monica Puig, who won the Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. So, yeah, I’m proud of that.”
When pressed, she’ll say those two gold medals -- won in Barcelona and Atlanta -- mean the most to her. When she was living in Colorado and California, her license plate was DBL GLD.
“I used to joke that I would come home from a summer when I’d win the French, Wimbledon, the US Open, L.A., -- and no one cared,” she said. “I came home with one gold medal and everybody would stop me in the streets when I was living in Aspen at the time. That was pretty special.”
The first Grand Slam doubles title, with Robin White at the 1988 US Open, was another thrill.
“I mean, you’re going to try to win a Grand Slam,” she said, “but when you do it, it’s like, `Holy, crap!’”
Fernandez didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what her life would look like after tennis -- until she retired. When it happened in 1997, she wanted nothing to do with tennis. She began a long journey, trying to figure out the future. She became a realtor in California, buying and selling houses. There was a weight-loss business in Puerto Rico and a universal shopping business, well before Amazon or Google.
After several other failed attempts, Fernandez gave into the family favorite, education. She got her masters degree and moved to Stamford, Connecticut with her wife, Jane Geddes, a former LPGA and WWE executive.
“I learned basic finance,” Fernandez said. “I don’t know any tennis player who ever lived on a budget. Once you make it, the word budget is a bad one. What budget? That doesn’t work in business -- or life.”
Fernandez found her niche -- in tennis, of all things. Mollie Marcoux, currently the commissioner of the LPGA, was then an executive at Chelsea Piers Connecticut, a 400,000-square-foot sports facility. Marcoux hired Fernandez, who had been retired for 15 years, as the director of tennis.
“Finally, I just embraced the fact that I was going to be Gigi Fernandez the tennis player,” she said. There’s a really high percentage in the United States, where adults play doubles, not singles. In the 90-percent range. No one was catering to them and teaching them how to play good doubles or bringing them to the experiences I do … so that’s how it evolved.”
She was a teacher at heart and seeing her students improve gave her a sense of joy. Wanting to expand her reach, Fernandez moved to Tampa, where she has family. She hosted learning camps the Innisbrook Resort and gradually grew her Gigi Fernandez Tennis business into visits to the French Open, Wimbledon, the US Open, Indian Wells and the Laver Cup.
Today, she’ll typically conduct 10 to 15 learning camps each year at Innisbrook, Indian Wells and the US Open. Some camps feature visits from legends like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Andy Roddick. Fans have the opportunity to hit with these Hall of Famers, take photos and maybe catch a lunch or dinner with their heroes. Fernandez has even taken a handful of rabid fans on a cruise in Saint Lucia for Bravo’s “Below Deck.”
“I try to find unique and fun things to do with people who love tennis,” she said. “The holy grail is bringing them into Wimbledon. The most fun I have each year is walking into the gates of Wimbledon with people who have never been. They’re so excited -- I’m so excited.”
Going forward, there’s a lot going on.
Fernandez made it her goal to teach tennis camps in all 50 states. There’s still a few missing -- Alaska, North and South Dakota, Idaho, Montana and Nebraska, among others -- but after a date in Missouri, she’s up to 37 of 50.
She’s looking forward to an early December safari in the Serengeti with the McEnroe brothers, John and Patrick.
“I just got invited,” said Fernandez, with her trademark enthusiasm. “I hear they’re building a court. So I’ll do that and bring some people. How cool is that?”