UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
The Vault

Terrible Two Gigi Fernandez favors Armani; Natasha Zvereva digs Army surplus. But on the tennis court they join to form a perfectly matched set

BEAVIS AND Butt-Head sat at a Beverly Hills sidewalk cafe, gold
Cartier jewelry and Rolex watches dangling over cups of cappuccino.
The best doubles team in the world, Gigi Fernandez and Natasha
Zvereva, were having one of their typical conversations, the kind
that has earned them the nicknames of MTV cartoon characters. ''I'm
Beavis,'' Fernandez said. ''She's Butt-Head. Wait. No. I don't know.
Which is the blond and which is the brunet?'' The answer depends on
the day -- and on who is being the bigger butt-head.
Separately, they are difficult and underachieving. Together, they
almost make a whole person. Zvereva, 23, is a counterculture maven
from Minsk who listens to heavy metal and won't hire a coach because
she can't stand to be told what to do. Fernandez, 30, is a
self-described spoiled rich girl from Puerto Rico who has left such a
trail of broken rackets she once paid her fines to the women's tour
in advance. The only thing they have in common is a problem with
authority. Why did they team up? ''Our partners dumped us,''
Fernandez says.
If you thought ladies' doubles was a genteel event for tea-sipping
blue hairs, look again -- and cover your ears. When a match gets
tight, Fernandez and Zvereva lighten up by flipping through a book of
off-color jokes during the changeovers. ''Basically,'' Zvereva says,
''I try to take everything as one big joke.''
Their career together is one big last laugh. Beavis and Butt-Head
have won nine of the last 12 Grand Slam titles and are the most
dominant duo since Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver, who were the
greatest team ever and the last pair to win a doubles slam, in 1984.
Fernandez and Zvereva's match record last season was 60-4, and they
are the runaway top-ranked team in the world. It is Navratilova's
opinion that she and Shriver were slightly better, but it's arguable.
''We were power,'' she says. ''They are finesse. It would have been
close.''
If there is another difference, it is that Fernandez and Zvereva
are capable of losing in the first round occasionally. Fernandez is a
big serve-and- volleyer whose legendary bad temper has helped keep
her from ever being ranked higher in singles than No. 17. Zvereva
is an all-courter with lightning reflexes. Among the most natural but
mercurial athletes on tour, she has been as high as No. 5 and as low
as No. 30. They lost their chance at duplicating the
Navratilova-Shriver doubles slam when they were bounced from the U.S.
Open semifinals in September, the second straight year they narrowly
lost a slam bid. Zvereva had struggled with an assortment of
injuries, and Fernandez was admittedly tight. In general they hardly
seem the sorts to chase such records. ''In some ways what we've done
is tougher,'' Fernandez says of comparisons with Navratilova-Shriver
. ''They were great. It's amazing we're this good.''
Winning or losing, Fernandez and Zvereva are the liveliest act
around, including the Jensens, the chest-butting brothers doubles
team. They have been known to hit balls between their legs, over
their backs and while lying on the ground. ''The glory shots,''
Fernandez says. Zvereva helped them win the '93 Wimbledon title --
ironically, over the partners who spurned them, Jana Novotna and
Larissa Neiland -- when she struck two miraculous, lunging forehands
while lying in the grass after falling, to give them match point.
As the saying goes, the rocks in one head fill the holes in
another. It is the only way to explain the zig-and-zag chemistry of
Fernandez and Zvereva, opposites in style and temperament. As they
lounged at the table in Beverly Hills while on a break from
tournament play, they were a study in contrast. Fernandez wore a
$2,000 Armani suit, Zvereva a suede miniskirt and Big Rig
construction boots. ''We do a lot of things together, but shopping
isn't one of them,'' Fernandez says. ''We're too different.'' Yet
somehow they dovetail in all the important ways.
Fernandez and Zvereva genuinely like each other -- no mean
accomplishment in the back-stabbing world of women's tennis. They
have stayed together since the summer of 1991, when Fernandez was
dropped by Novotna and Zvereva by Neiland. Novotna and Neiland teamed
up, so Zvereva and Fernandez shrugged and did the same -- and won the
first six Grand Slam events they entered. Neiland does not have a
regular partner, and Novotna has had a half dozen partners in the
ensuing three years. (She teamed with the latest, Arantxa Sanchez
Vicario, to beat Fernandez and Zvereva in the Australian Open final
last month.) In contrast, Fernandez and Zvereva not only play
together, they also spend holidays together.
They exchange gifts after every tournament victory, a practice
begun at the urging of Fernandez's former coach, Julie Anthony, whom
they credit with bringing them together and keeping them there. With
each title, Zvereva gives Fernandez a Russian lacquered box, and
Fernandez buys Zvereva CDs for her collection, which numbers roughly
275. ''They're like sisters,'' says Lindsay Davenport, a tour player
and Zvereva's roommate in a Newport Beach, Calif., condo. ''They're
always off somewhere talking.''
Their Achilles' heel is emotion, not tactics. Fernandez, the
aggressor and strategic leader of the team, is subject to what she
calls ''my freak-outs,'' destructive rages that end in penalties and
fines. ''The best way to beat them is to get them upset,'' says
Davenport.
By doing just that, Davenport and partner Lisa Raymond dealt
Fernandez and Zvereva a second-round loss in Indian Wells, Calif.,
last February. It was the result of a major Fernandez freak-out. She
had just turned 30 and had drawn top-ranked Steffi Graf in the first
singles round, a combination of events that put her in a vile temper.
When Raymond passed her down the alley early in the match, Fernandez
erupted, hitting a ball out of the stadium. ''Gigi, stop,'' Zvereva
said. A few minutes later she broke a racket. ''Gigi, that's
enough,'' Zvereva said. Next, Fernandez cussed out a tournament
official. Zvereva gave up. ''About 98 percent of the time I'm capable
of handling her emotions,'' Zvereva says. ''I laugh. But this was
just uncontrollable.'' They went down in flames, 6-4, 6-4.
Afterward Zvereva would not speak to Fernandez and was so furious
the next day that she lost her first-round singles match. Finally
they sat down and talked. Zvereva told Fernandez that she was
self-absorbed and inconsiderate. ''The next time, think of me,''
Zvereva said.
The problem is that Fernandez doesn't think. She treats her racket
the way a loan shark treats a deadbeat. First she slaps it around. If
it doesn't cooperate, she breaks its legs. Two years ago she mailed
the WTA a $250 check, the equivalent of five warnings from a chair
umpire, before the season because she knew she couldn't trust herself
to control her temper. Last November she received a $2,000 fine from
the WTA Players Committee -- on which Zvereva sits -- for mooning her
opponent, Mary Pierce, in Filderstadt, Germany.
''Why do I explode?'' Fernandez says. ''Because I'm a child.''
Fernandez | figures she whacked her first racket when she was seven
and has continued because ''nobody ever told me I wasn't supposed
to.''
Fernandez is the daughter of a wealthy San Juan physician, Tuto,
and a beautiful socialite, Beatriz. Fernandez had an unlimited supply
of attention, rackets and lessons, and seldom heard the word no. By
the age of nine she was the subject of newspaper coverage across
Puerto Rico. As a teenager she was equally famous for her talent and
for extravagances like her black Camaro sports car. She made frequent
trips to the mainland for shopping and junior tournaments and
received a fistful of college scholarship offers. Fernandez went to
Clemson, made the NCAA finals as a freshman and turned pro six months
later.
She is widely regarded as Top 10 in ability, although her best
Grand Slam singles result came when she reached the Wimbledon
semifinals last year. Her limitation has been a career-long struggle
to control her anger, the root of which she thinks she understands.
''I'm a perfectionist,'' she says. ''And I'm insecure.'' This is why
she prefers the companionable comfort of doubles to the greater
exposure of singles. She says she went nuts in Indian Wells because
she thought she heard snickering in the crowd when Raymond passed
her. ''I thought they were mocking me,'' she says.
Zvereva's slow, almost porridgelike temperament serves as the
perfect antidote to Fernandez's emotional chaos. ''I understand why
Gigi explodes,'' she says. ''You have to express your emotions,
negative or positive. I do it too, but I do it in my head.'' Not
always. Zvereva celebrated a quarterfinal victory at the Australian
Open by lifting her shirt to reveal a sports bra, amusing fans but
not the WTA, which is considering a fine.
Zvereva tried taking things seriously once. She didn't like it. A
product of the Soviet sports machine, she rose to No. 5 and reached
the final of the French Open by age 17. But she hated the pressure
and resented her country's controlling authorities, and quietly
resisted both.
Zvereva expressed herself emotionally through a determined
individualism -- and by listening to screaming music. As a girl
growing up in Byelorussia, she danced alone in her room to
black-market rock-and-roll. Her taste grew progressively harder.
These days she listens to Metallica, AC-DC and old Led Zeppelin. She
flirts with grunge and wears T-shirts that say things like KNOWLEDGE
IS STUPID. She asks to borrow a piece of writing paper, then wipes
her mouth with it. %
If Zvereva is a subversive at heart, it is thanks to her father,
Marat, who worked at the Soviet Army Club in Minsk and fought for the
right to coach his daughter rather than turn her over to the machine.
At her father's urging, Zvereva demanded a share of her winnings,
which were going into Soviet coffers while she received only expense
money. She signed with an American agency and began tanking matches,
saying she wouldn't win unless she was paid. Zvereva feared she would
be tossed in the gulag, but after tense negotiations the authorities
backed down and let her keep the bulk of her earnings. ''I'm very
proud of that,'' she says.
But the experience left Zvereva exhausted and with a distaste for
pressure. Her ranking fell to No. 30, and she has yet to rehabilitate
it fully. Although nearly everyone considers her capable of being in
the Top 5, she has refused since 1990 to employ a full-time coach.
''I don't want to live up to anybody else's expectations,'' she says.
''My ambition is fun.''
Zvereva's offhandedness hides some dark moods. In her own way she
is as high-strung as Fernandez. ''The good news is, she has a lot of
feelings,'' Fernandez says. ''The bad news is, she keeps it all
inside.'' If Fernandez explodes, Zvereva implodes, becoming sullen
and uncommunicative.
When that happens, Fernandez and Zvereva always forgive each
other, perhaps because they are aware of their own shortcomings.
''There are plenty of times when I act totally weird, so I can't
blame her when she explodes,'' Zvereva says. It was both hilarious
and appropriate, then, when Fernandez and Zvereva began linking
themselves to those incorrigible MTV characters. At a party before
Wimbledon last summer, the pair delivered a sniggering satire of
themselves. Fernandez, as Butt-Head, sneered, ''I want to do
something bad.'' Zvereva, as Beavis, urged her on. ''Cool,'' she
cackled. ''Do it. Do it.''
With that, Fernandez seized a racket and reduced it to smithereens
before the roaring crowd.

Promoted Stories
SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.