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Success Story

By Joel Drucker

It’s 11:00 on a hot morning at the Australian Open, and Mary Joe Fernandez has just arrived at the ESPN production office. She’ll work all afternoon, into the night, likely not returning to her hotel until near midnight. She’ll analyze various matches on this day, study the draw and weigh in on a host of stories floating around the grounds.

As Fernandez marks up her notes with a yellow highlighter, she turns to a colleague. “What have you got?” she asks. “What have you heard?”

Woven into Fernandez’s day are time with her husband, IMG agent Tony Godsick, and with her two children, Isabella and Nicholas, as well as phone calls and contact with coaches, players and others who affect her work at ESPN and her new job as U.S. Fed Cup captain. Says Fernandez’ ESPN colleague Cliff Drysdale, “She knows as much about the individuals playing as anybody. It’s just like her tennis style: She works hard and gets the work done with no fuss.”

Weeks later, sitting in the living room of her home outside Cleveland, Fernandez is tending to Isabella, who’s been sick with a cold. Reflecting on her current life in tennis, Fernandez says, “I love being a mom, and I also love my work. I love watching tennis matches. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make a living from something I love.”

It’s also a life the 37-year-old Fernandez particularly values since it was nearly taken away from her on two painful occasions. More than a decade ago, a wrist injury threatened to end Fernandez’ career. Even more significantly, prior to that she suffered from endometriosis, a gynecological condition that threatened to end her playing
career and even reduce her chances of having children.

Fernandez overcame both setbacks with the same qualities that have marked her entire life: patience, diligence and an exquisite ability to maintain poise no matter how demanding the situation. As she likes to tell aspiring young players, “You work as hard as you can and do all you can to get as good as you can be. And then, no matter what happens, you won’t look back wondering, ‘I wish I’d done it this way or that.’”

“Let me tell you something about Mary Joe,” says one of her closest friends, Monica Seles. “She’s nice, and she’s smooth and she’s friendly, but she’s also one tough cookie.”

Success, perspective and balance appear to come so easily to Fernandez that it’s tempting to forget just how much goes into mastering all of those things. This is particularly true in tennis, an individual sport that has seen its share of prodigies wracked by burnout, crisis, and enough physical and emotional pain to sustain a decade’s worth of soap opera plots. But none of that applies to Fernandez, who has stayed above the fray and always has exhibited the class of a champion, win or lose. She is, in large part, tennis’ Teflon lady: nothing bad sticks to her.

Inspired by an older sister, Fernandez began tennis at age 3. “I’m very competitive,” she says. “When I was first starting, I used to keep count of how many balls I hit against the wall each day.”

Admitting that “I never planned to be a pro,” Fernandez, throughout her teen years, always had at least one higher priority than her next match. Her father, Jose, said shortly after she’d become the youngest player to win a main-draw match at the 1985 US Open, “If Mary Joe doesn’t want to study, we make her study, [but] if she doesn’t want to play tennis, we don’t make Mary Joe play.”

By 14, Fernandez was the world’s best junior, winning the prestigious Orange Bowl. As Seles says, “She was the one, just conducting herself with such grace—and winning. I thought to myself, ‘that’s someone I’m going to have to compete against.’”

By 1990, Fernandez was ranked No. 4 in the world. At the 1993 French Open, she staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in tennis history, rallying from a 1-6, 1-5 deficit against Gabriela Sabatini to win 10-8 in the third. She reached the final, the third Slam final of her career, but this was the first time she truly believed she could win, even against an opponent as formidable as Steffi Graf.

She had her chances, winning the first set, going up a break in the third. But as Fernandez recalls, “I was up, and then, suddenly, it was over. Those great ones, they play great when they’re down. That was tough.”

Tempting as it is to view this with frustration—“It was my time to win,” she says about that match—Fernandez views her career with perspective and appreciation. “When I look back,” she says, “ I feel proud of all that happened.”

Certainly, Fernandez left nary a stone unturned in the pursuit of excellence, from hitting 1,000 consecutive balls in rigorous workouts to increasing her off-court regimen to making every possible effort to recover from significant injuries. Now, contemplating the future of American tennis, Fernandez offers the same advice to aspiring juniors, and to her young Fed Cup charges. “Tennis is a game where you can’t control everything,”
she says, “so take care of the things you can control: fitness and attitude. There’s no excuse for not being as fit as possible. And you see how the greats like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are always positive.”

There are a host of young Americans that Fernandez admires, including 2008 US Open junior girls champion CoCo Vandeweghe, 2008 Orange Bowl winner Julia Boserup and the player Boserup beat in the final, Christina McHale (which was the first time since 1975 that two American girls met in that prestigious event’s final). As she rattles off a series of other names—Gail Brodsky, Asia Muhammad and many, many more, including Fed Cup newcomer Melanie Oudin—Fernandez quickly points out that “there are so many others making their way up, and I like the way they’re pushing each other to improve and working together.”

It was exactly that spirit of collaboration that triggered Fernandez’ decision to become Fed Cup captain. She’d loved the Connolly Cup as a junior, won two Grand Slam doubles titles, earned a pair of Olympic gold medals with Gigi Fernandez (no relation) and relished every minute of her Fed Cup experience as a player. “I learned so much from [then captain] Billie Jean King, so much about how every individual is different,” Fernandez says. “She’d see me studying the team and say, ‘Maybe you want to do this one day.’ I wasn’t quite sure, but as I got older I began to see just how much I really liked the team environment.” Says Seles, “Mary Joe is just such a calming influence. She knows what it takes to work hard, to bring people together.”

Fernandez says that it’s much tougher to watch than to play. “You’re on the outside looking in, so you can find out what’s going on on the court,” she says. “But you better find out quickly, and then get that information across to your player.”

Competing versus Argentina in the quarterfinals of this year’s Fed Cup, with the U.S. trailing 2-1, Oudin lost the first set of a singles match, leaving the U.S. squad six games from elimination. “All she did was say positive things to me,” Oudin says. “She told me she loved how well I was competing. She said to me, ‘You can do this!’” Oudin did, her win turning the tide and helping the Americans earn a victory over Argentina that set up a semifinal encounter with the Czech Republic in April.

“That turned out to be a great first experience as captain,” Fernandez says. “I love getting involved in the strategy of tennis matches and seeing how they play out. Of course, as captain I have the chance to really help these players try to get better and try to win their matches.”

Wherever Fernandez’ tennis duties take her, her top priority is always managing her team at home. Isabella is 7 and enjoys hitting with her mother. Inspired by her father’s most prominent client, Roger Federer, Isabella hits a one-handed backhand and loves rushing the net. “Very different than me,” Fernandez jokes. She’s also started feeding balls to 4-year-old Nicholas. “Tennis has been my life and my passion,” Fernandez says. “I want my children to learn it and have the skill. You learn so much about life from tennis.”

If it hadn’t been for tennis, Fernandez imagines she might have taught math to elementary school children. And indeed, there is a mathematical precision to her arc. Teen prodigy, veteran pro, TV commentator, wife, mother, Fed Cup captain—at each step, with trademark patience and willpower, Fernandez has sized up the opportunity, applied herself to the task and found success. It all adds up.
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