The lunch conversation starts out innocently enough. Movies are discussed. Someone is complimented for wearing a lovely brooch. Mary Joe Fernandez and three of her best friends from her high school days, at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, in Miami, are home for the Christmas holidays.
Drinks arrive, diet colas mostly. Shortly thereafter everyone's reserves of pleasantries are exhausted. Now come the Fernandez-as-Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes tales. Fernandez drinks only mineral water, accuses one friend. She no longer eats desserts, notes another. In seconds the No. 4-ranked women's tennis player in the world is being humbled by three amateurs.
"After we went to Disney World last year, Mary Joe went to bed at 11!" says Cathy Dillon, a tart-tongued Boston College sophomore. "We were forced to dump ice on her."
"We'd walked around all day," says Fernandez defensively. "I was tired. Look, I had my wild stage, and you guys missed it."
"Guess we blinked," says Edda Fields, a sophomore at Emory who is generally conceded to be the brains of the bunch.
"The terrible twos," says Dillon. "That was your wild stage."
Finally, Marilupe Ortiz, a freshman at Florida International University, has the ultimate anecdote: "On days we had to go to confession, Mary Joe used to come up to me in a panic and say, 'Marilupe, you've got to help me think up some sins!' So I'd say, 'Mary Joe, knowing you, tell him you used the Lord's name in vain a couple months ago.' "
Fernandez laughs harder than anyone.
That the object of the teasing is a 19-year-old millionaire and a household name—overseas, at least—makes no difference. May Jay, as Fernandez's friends call her, was these women's pal and classmate long before they could see her play tennis on TV. She may have won two professional titles in 1990, her first full year on the tour; and she may have reached the finals of the Australian Open last January and the semis at both the U.S. Open in September and the Virginia Slims Championships in November. But they know her better as the schoolmate who for three consecutive years failed to receive the President's Council on Physical Fitness Award because she lacked the strength to complete the arm-hang portion of the test.
"We keep her in line," says Dillon. "It's our job."
If her friends didn't mean so much to her, Fernandez would probably be ranked even higher than fourth. Indeed, they are one of the reasons she is slightly behind schedule, as tennis prodigies go. Six years ago, after she had beaten the No. 11 player in the world (Bonnie Gadusek) and won her fourth straight Orange Bowl junior title—the 12-and-unders at 11, the 14's at 12, the 16's at 13 and the 18's at 14—Fernandez, then a high school freshman, came under immense pressure to leave school and play full-time on the pro tour. It was, after all, what her precocious predecessors Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin had done; what her chief rival, Gabriela Sabatini, was doing; and what Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras would later do. If you're dead set on getting an education, she was told, there are always correspondence courses: Bone up on the Pythagorean theorem in your hotel room between matches, fax the homework to the profs, and eventually earn yourself a nice general equivalency diploma.
Agents, other players and coaches advised her to strike while the iron was hot. "Even her parents [Jose and Sylvia] wanted her to drop out," says one of Fernandez's former coaches. Today the elder Fernandezes deny this, even though in the mid-1980s Jose and Sylvia suffered a severe financial setback when an investment in a stalled Venezuelan housing development tied up the family fortune, some $350,000. Says Sylvia, "We were for whatever made her happy."
Mary Joe happily took the road less traveled. She chose the pink stucco walls and prim uniform of Carrollton, which is housed in a stately Italian villa, over full-time tennis. For the next 3½ years she played a scaled-down schedule of pro tournaments, including the four Grand Slams, but she worked them around high school classes. "I just decided that if I was going to go to school, I was going to do it right," says Fernandez. "And I wasn't ready to sacrifice being with my friends."
Balancing tennis and schoolwork was a nifty trick. Often, Dillon would photocopy her notes and fax them to Fernandez at some faraway place, only to see Fernandez outperform her on the test. If Fernandez couldn't get the notes by fax, someone else would dictate them to her over the phone. With Carrollton's approval, she was allowed to take her final exams in August rather than in June.
During the first 3½ years after she turned pro, she earned more than $500,000 in prize money and endorsements and made mostly A's in her courses. But she missed the commencement ceremony. She was busy in Paris, reaching the semis of the French, where she lost to the eventual champion, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
After she finished school, Fernandez dived headlong into the tour, only to encounter this sobering truth: She was in no shape to play a full schedule. Last year she suffered a wrenched back, tendinitis in her right shoulder, an ankle sprain, a partially torn left hamstring and a minor cartilage tear in her right knee. That's what happens when your conditioning program consists of, as Fernandez says, "maybe riding the bike for 20 minutes if it rained and I couldn't play."
One afternoon recently, Fernandez let this tidbit slip: "I just did my first push-up last week. I'm so excited."
Fernandez cracked the Top 10 in February 1990, despite the lack of a coherent training program and the fact that she had not won a pro title. She was lacking not skill or a killer instinct but rather the stamina to play well for four matches on consecutive days. As her coach, Tim Gullikson, says, "It's hard to have the killer instinct when you're running on fumes."
In January 1990 Gullikson put Fernandez on a weightlifting program. "Nothing heavy," says Fernandez, "but lots of reps." And Gullikson sought to make over more than Fernandez's musculature. She needed to learn to put topspin on the ball and to put all of her 5'10", 130-pound frame into her serve. She also needed a new attack. That powder-puff, baseline, make-each-point-a-war-of-attrition game, styled after that of her childhood idol, Chris Evert, was becoming passè on the tour. Says Fred Stolle, who once coached Fernandez, "In Chrissie's day it was all control, patience. Nowadays it's all about power."
Gullikson slowly coaxed his pupil away from the baseline, to which she had always clung like a wallflower at a mixer. "Going to net is still not easy for me," says Fernandez. "I don't like being passed." Because he also coaches Aaron Krickstein, currently ranked 22nd among the men, Gullikson does not travel to many of Fernandez's matches, and his absence has hindered her transformation. She is much likelier to play aggressively if she knows he is in the stands, watching, as he was at last year's U.S. Open. In her quarterfinal win over ninth-seeded Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, Fernandez rushed the net 31 times—up from her usual five or six. "If you rush the net 10 times and win six points, you win," she says. "But it's more tiring, and you have to think a lot more."
That is just the point. More than anything else, Gullikson is asking Fernandez to do what she does best: think. He has met with markedly less success at telling her what to think. Be cockier, he told her early in their relationship. Fernandez seemed to respect her opponents too much. Did she think Steffi Graf respected her opponents? Hell, no!—she expected to dispatch them in 50 minutes. Before one match last year, Gullikson got steamed at Fernandez because she refused to flat-out say, "I'm going to win this match."
"Graf and Seles go into tournaments expecting to win," says Gullikson. "Mary Joe hopes she'll win. She'd like very much to win, and when she wins, I think she's still a little bit surprised."
As Fernandez continued her ascent in the rankings—she began 1990 ranked 12th—the goose egg in her tournament-win column became more and more conspicuous, a kind of scarlet 0 she wore around the circuit.
The drought died hard. At the Tokyo Indoors last September, Fernandez, having risen to No. 8, won a courageous three-hour, come-from-behind semifinal victory over Maleeva-Fragniere. After the match, which was played in a stiflingly hot gymnasium, Fernandez had to be packed in ice because her muscles were cramping badly; a knot was forming in one of her abdominal muscles so severe that it was visible through her skin. "We could hear her screaming," recalls Dean Goldfine, her hitting partner, who was outside the trainers' room. "It was a little scary."
A little? Fernandez told Sylvia, who was standing nearby, "Mom, just start praying for me." Fernandez had never experienced such pain; she didn't know if she would survive. Finally, a Japanese doctor came to the rescue. His cure, as described by Fernandez: "He put herbs on me, then some kind of incense stuff, then he started doing some kind of pressure-point thing on my knee. And the cramps started going away!" Devout Catholics, the Fernandezes still believe Sylvia's prayers wrought a minor miracle.
The real miracle occurred the next day, when Fernandez took the court—stiffly—against Amy Frazier, fought off more cramps and won 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. "I dug really deep and found out something about myself," says Fernandez. She celebrated her maiden pro title by sleeping for 12 hours. Three weeks later, in Filderstadt, Germany, she won her second title, and she finished the year having won 40 of 50 singles matches and two tournaments. "She's on a great roll right now," says Gullikson. "The idea is to keep that momentum alive."
Question: Will Gullikson be around to nurture it? At an exhibition in Essen, Germany, 12 days before the Filderstadt tournament, Fernandez's career took an unexpected twist. The exhibition was sponsored by Ion Tiriac, the scowling tennis maven from Romania and, incidentally, an old acquaintance of Jose's. It was in Essen that Jose and Tiriac laid the groundwork for Mary Joe's recent agreement to be represented by Tiriac's T-V Enterprises.
The move stunned Fernandez's former agency, the mammoth International Management Group. She had already switched agents within IMG, from John Evert to Gavin Forbes, after the Fernandezes complained that Evert was so absorbed with lining up Capriati's $5 million endorsement windfall that he had no time for Mary Joe. Evert is also said to have annoyed the Fernandezes by telling them on more than one occasion, "We've got this product lined up, but they want Jennifer." Forbes and Mary Joe had a much better relationship.
"IMG very good company," says Jose, a native of Oviedo, Spain, whose 20-plus years in the States have not made any appreciable dent in his accent. "Also very beeeeg. Much more impersonal." Tiriac's only other major client is Boris Becker. Though Mary Joe will play second fiddle, the Fernandezes figure that at least she'll be one of only two fiddles.
By arrangement, Tiriac will not limit his attentions to Fernandez's endorsements. He has definite ideas about her tennis, too, which could mean that Gullikson is on the way out. Alarmed by her chronic injuries, Tiriac has already set up a meeting between Fernandez and renowned British strength-and-conditioning coach Frank Dick.
With endorsements, Mary Joe's earnings topped $1 million last year. But things for the Fernandezes have not always been so flush. Jose met Sylvia, who is from Cuba, while visiting Havana in 1960. Eleven years later Mary Joe was born in the Dominican Republic, where Jose was working for an American investment company. Today they live in South Miami in a modest three-bedroom apartment—the same condo that Jose and Sylvia moved into 15 years ago.
One change Tiriac plans to make soon involves Fernandez's schedule. The T-V Enterprises people were appalled by the number of matches and exhibitions she entered in the second half of last year. "Boris can't play more than two weeks in a row, and he's a 200-pound man," says T-V Enterprises director Heather MacLachlan. "Mary Joe played four consecutive weeks"—with exhibitions thrown in on off days.
Gullikson's future with Fernandez seems up in the air, though he was with her for the recent Australian Open, where she was eliminated by Seles in the semis. He says, "I want to emphasize this: I really like Mary Joe. She is everything you could ask for—talented, smart, nice."
Then Gullikson indulges in some wishful thinking. "Look at Pete Sampras," he says. "From the time he was 15 to the time he was 19, he totally restructured his game. I wish Mary Joe had started when she was 15 instead of 19."
Fernandez does not share Gullikson's sentiments. That much is clear at the lunch table as she and her friends forage for the last few french fries in the basket, weigh their social options for the evening and compare the worst pickup lines they've ever heard. The unanimous winner: "Baby, was your father a thief? Then who stole the stars from the skies and put them in your eyes?"
Other diners glance over at the small group of friends as they fill the restaurant with laughter.