Gigi Fernandez coaching a tennis team weak in women’s doubles? It did not seem right, and it did not feel right.
“I wanted to jump out of my skin,” the coach of World Team Tennis’ New York Empire said, recalling her first season on the job in 2017.
Did she ever consider getting on the court herself, what with a resume that includes 17 Grand Slam doubles titles and two Olympic gold medals in doubles?
“No, no,” she said, laughing. “But sometimes I wonder if I would have done better.”
Fernandez, 54, instead has a more practical plan for her second season after leading the Empire from two victories in 2016 to seven last summer, one match short of the WTT finals.
The team added doubles specialist Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez in search of a female counterpart to its successful male doubles expert, Neal Skupski.
“We needed a female Neal to make the finals last year, and we didn’t have that,” Fernandez said.
The team’s three big-name “franchise” players are back: Mardy Fish, John Isner and Eugenie Bouchard.
Fernandez said her goal is to use Fish more judiciously after he seemed to tire late in a successful season last year. Isner and Bouchard are stars who will sell tickets for their limited appearances.
“People love to watch (Bouchard),” Fernandez said. “She was starting her comeback when she came last year, so she should do better this year, but in any case she’s a great girl and a good addition to the team.”
Fernandez, WTT’s lone female coach, lives in Florida with her wife, Jane Geddes, who originally is from East Northport and won the 1986 U.S. Women’s Open golf tournament, and their 9-year-old twins. She will relocate to New York for the brief WTT season, with the opener on July 15.
The WTT is an unusual creature in the tennis world, where players are part of a team, fans are encouraged to be raucous, “let” serves are in play and it behooves a coach to keep things light.
“I’m pretty easy with the players,” Fernandez said. “I don’t have many demands on their time. I mean, they’re all professionals and I just basically give them free time . . . I don’t have to push them to practice or get on their case.”
The Empire’s big selling point in 2017 was a move from Forest Hills to intimate Court 17 at the Billie Jean National Tennis Center in Flushing.
“When we had a good crowd they really got into it,” Fernandez said, “so hopefully this year we get more people coming out, because that’s what makes team tennis exciting, is the crowd support and the crowd getting involved in the matches.
“The other venues that we played at that were packed, you can really tell the difference in the impact it has on the team when they’re playing in front of a packed stadium.”
WTT markets its fan friendliness, with access to players that would be impossible when the U.S. Open visits the Tennis Center in late summer.
“You’re allowed to talk to the players; you’re allowed to kind of heckle them,” Fernandez said. “It’s loud, not country club tennis where you have to be quiet.”
That sort of atmosphere takes getting used to for many players.
“Some people, it takes them a while to figure that out, and some people have a hard time concentrating,” Fernandez said. “In the beginning of the season sometimes people are a little thrown off. But they’re pros. It’s kind of like playing the let. It’s something you definitely have to adapt to, because it’s not normal.”