Beavis and Butt-Head sat at a Beverly Hills sidewalk cafè, 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."
February 20, 1995
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 Sànchez 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.