Gigi Fernandez might be new to coaching in World Team Tennis, but she already has a good sense of timing, arriving with a not-so-tough act to follow.
Last year, the New York Empire went 2-10 under Patrick McEnroe. Enter Fernandez, who spoke about the coming season on Thursday on the team’s new home — Court 17 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
“Hopefully, you’re going to help this team,” WTT commissioner Ilana Kloss said, sitting beside Fernandez and King herself. “I am not going to say what their record was last year, but it’s a low bar.”
Responded Fernandez, “I can’t do worse.”
To which King added, “You could do worse, but not much.”
But seriously, folks, the six-team WTT could use an improved Empire in its second season after that dud of an inaugural campaign, for which its home was Forest Hills Stadium, host of the U.S. Open before it moved to Flushing.
As Kloss and King, a co-founder of WTT, said, New York is important to the health of the enterprise because of its size and influence. Kloss said the lure of Court 17 was used to recruit players, for the Empire and visiting teams.
Fernandez, an International Tennis Hall of Fame member and one of the best doubles players of all time, hopes to turn the court into a legitimate advantage.
“Team tennis is all about that,” she said. “It’s about kind of harassing the opponent and getting in their head and the music will be going. It will be a party atmosphere out here.”
Fernandez, 53, is the only woman coach in WTT, which has had few in its more than four decades.
“We’re thrilled to have Gigi, but there’s no question we’d like to have more women coaches,” Kloss said.
The Empire has a new mascot named “Hudson,” that is shaped like the Empire State Building, but the more important attraction is players.
The roster includes Genie Bouchard, John Isner and Mardy Fish. The seven-match home schedule opens on July 16 against Philadelphia, with Isner scheduled to play. Bouchard is scheduled for home dates on July 27 and 28.
“We have a team with the potential to win the league,” Fernandez said. “That’s our goal.”
King, 73, does not have an official role with the Empire, but she works to promote WTT. She said the reason she lives in New York today dates to her time as a member of the New York Sets, who played at Nassau Coliseum until 1976 before moving to Madison Square Garden as the Apples in 1977.
“I wish I could play on Court 17,” she said. “It would be great. If we get this place full it will be crazy; that’s what we want.”
Of course, King might be a bit biased when it comes to the Tennis Center, given that it has her name on it, and has since 2006.
“I come in here now and my name is up there and . . . it feels so weird,” she said. “I cannot tell you. It’s like I’m dreaming. But I feel a lot of responsibility when I see my name, to make sure everybody comes out and supports the Empire, because we want to make a difference.”