Mary Joe Fernandez keeps climbing those rungs on the ladder of success. Last week the 14-year-old high school freshman won another Orange Bowl International Tennis title, this time in the girls' 18-and-under division. The Orange Bowl, widely regarded as the world's finest junior event, drawing thousands of entry applications from more than 50 countries, has been very good to Mary Joe. She won the 12s at age 11, the 14s at 12, the 16s at 13 and now has taken the 18s. Four for four. That completes the set.
The winner of the boys' 18s was Claudio Pistolesi of Italy. The 18-year-old Pistolesi is good, but it was the more youthful Fernandez who commanded the attention of observers like Robert Kaplan, a fellow nicknamed the Pied Piper because he is a consultant for an Italian company that makes tenniswear for which the kids would kill. Kaplan was in the stands at the Orange Bowl in Miami Beach as Fernandez leaned into a backhand that blitzed the line and transformed her opponent in the final, Patricia Tarabini of Argentina, into a spectator. Warming up, Mary Joe wore a snazzy new outfit that Kaplan had had flown in from Italy for her. Now, with a wild glint in his eye, Kaplan turned to a companion and said, "She's going to be the best ever." John Evert, the brother of another candidate for that title, name of Chris, was sitting on the other side of the Pied Piper. He didn't demur.
In junior tennis youth is wasted on the young, because the prodigies grow up so fast, without time to be kids. At first glance Fernandez seems cut from the usual cloth: immigrant parents (Jose from Spain and Silvia from Cuba); tennis-playing older sister, Mimi, for role model; two-fisted backhand; braces on teeth; A's in school; superb concentration. But Fernandez is slightly different. Mary Joe has time to smell the flowers. She stays at home rather than going off to live in a tennis camp. She doesn't even practice on Sundays.
Jose Fernandez has lived in Miami for 15 years and, according to his wife, has never taken the time to perfect his English because he has been too busy teaching Mary Joe tennis. According to Jose, the family has one simple rule: "If Mary Joe doesn't want to study, we make her study. If she doesn't want to play tennis, we don't make Mary Joe play." In the cutthroat, win-at-all-costs world of burnout fields forever, a.k.a. junior tennis, this is heresy.
The Fernandezes' wisdom is exceeded only by Mary Joe's talent and tenacity. She is 5'9½", reed thin, with a Madonna's face, ground strokes a la Evert Lloyd and a serve that keeps getting better. But she has more. "She has a mind like a steel trap," says Don Petrine Jr., a teaching professional who has worked with her. "She is the most mentally tough person in the history of tennis. People talk about how great her strokes are. It's true, but it's her head that makes her great, and it's Silvia and Jose who did that for her."
Already Mary Joe is 11-9 lifetime against women professionals. She has several "youngest evers" to her credit, including the "YE" to win a match against a pro, having beaten Pam Teeguarden at 13, and to win a match at the U.S. Open, having defeated Sara Gomer last year a couple of weeks after her 14th birthday. She also is the YE to reach the fourth round of a major tournament, the Lipton International a year ago, in which she clobbered Candy Reynolds love and love. Then she whipped Yvonne Vermaak and took out Bonnie Gadusek, before losing to Hana Mandlikova. Not bad for an eighth-grader.
With these achievements, the surprise at the Orange Bowl was that Fernandez was seeded only third. The problem was that after suffering a severe ankle injury last spring, she was less than astounding in the few junior events in which she played during the summer. She reached the semis in the Junior Wimbledon, finished third in the United States Tennis Association nationals and was involved in a controversy at the USTA indoors in Kansas City in November.
At that tournament the normally unruffled Fernandez—her heroes are the temperate Evert Lloyd and Bjorn Borg—felt as if she was the victim of bad calls in her final match with Trisha Laux, and at 3-3 in the third set she walked off the court and defaulted. It was as if the Mona Lisa had frowned. Her actions drew criticism, but no penalty from the USTA. A few weeks later, in protest against the USTA, she resigned from the U.S. team entered in the Continental Cup, a junior version of the Davis Cup.
"I still think it was the right thing and what I had to do," Mary Joe said last week. "There were some bad calls and the umpire wouldn't even talk to me. I got so frustrated. I told Trisha, 'Listen, it's nothing against you, but I'm going to quit. They're not being fair.' "
This was spicy grist for the junior tennis rumormongers, who declared that Mary Joe was suffering from the initial stages of burnout, that she was "afraid of pressure" and that her ankle injury was "psychosomatic."
Fernandez brushed aside such talk and rolled through her opening matches at the Orange Bowl, losing only four games in two matches. In the quarters, she faced 18-year-old Mariana Perez Roldan of Argentina, a good player with topspin off both sides and a butterfly's lightness of movement. At 3-3, 30—all in the first set, Mary Joe played two bad points and lost the game. The supposed cognoscenti began suggesting that Mary Joe was cracking. On the first point of the next game, the players waged a miniwar, ranging all over the court. Mary Joe won the point, and was on her way to a 6-4, 6-1 victory.
Fernandez beat the top seed, Laura Garrone of Italy, 6-1, 6-3 in the semis. Garrone had won junior titles at the U.S. and French opens in 1985 and is the world's top-ranked junior, though you wouldn't have known it from the way Fernandez handled her. "You can't beat Mary Joe in Florida," said Fritz Nau, a junior coach in Florida. "You come in here, you can't even score on MJ."
Fernandez's opponent in the final, Tarabini, is 17 and the Italian Open junior champion. Fernandez won 7-6, 6-1 in a match that was not that close. When Mary Joe needed a big point, her ground strokes usually came through, wearing out the corners of the court as well as the athletic Tarabini.
"She's done what she had to do in the juniors," said MJ's mother afterward. "A lot of pressure is off." What about turning professional? "It's up to her," said Silvia. "When she feels she's strong enough, she'll tell us."
And right now, Mary Joe is taking things one rung at a time. "We have to go slow," she said last week. "After all, I'm only 14." Still a junior, and a kid.
Meanwhile, the equipment and clothing manufacturers are awaiting the day. What will MJ be worth? "Whatever she asks for," says Kaplan.