For a long time, the joke in tennis great Gigi Fernández’s family was that she was “just a college dropout.”
The two-time Olympic Gold Medal doubles winner comes from an educated clan. Her grandmother was the first female dentist in Puerto Rico. Her father was a doctor. Fernández went to Clemson University on an athletic scholarship, but after facing Beth Herr in the NCAA finals, she decided that “if I could go to 7-6 in the [third-set tie-breaker] with a player like that, I thought I could have a chance on the pro tour. I got my ranking up to 85th in the world in singles and decided to turn pro,” she said in an interview with New York Tennis magazine. Thus, the joke; one that Fernández, 59, tells with just a hint of irony.
And funny as it once was, it can’t be told anymore. Fernández’s storied career includes 17 Grand Slam doubles titles, and after retiring from professional tennis in 1997, she reentered college at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she was also a tennis coach. She got her undergraduate degree in psychology and went on to Rollins College to get her MBA.
Gigi Fernández’s life after competing
It’s safe to say Fernández didn’t drop the ball when she ended her tennis career. These days, she is essentially serving it to others as founder of Gigi Fernández Tennis and as the tennis touring professional at the Innisbrook Resort. Before that, however, she and her business partner, Valerie Stern, conceived of and marketed a children’s video, Baby Goes Pro, intended to inspire an early and lifelong love of sports in children under 4.
“I don’t know whether tennis made me that way or what came first, but I’m very driven. It’s part of my makeup,” says Fernández, who was the first female athlete from Puerto Rico ever to turn pro. In the DVD, professional and collegiate athletes demonstrate the basics of five sports: tennis, soccer, basketball, baseball and golf. The 25-minute video, which has a coveted “Parent Tested Parent Approved” seal of approval, captures its audience with original sing-along music and an animated monkey by the name of Emkei (pronounced MK, the first initial of Fernández’s twins’ names), who introduces each sport. Fernández says she and Stern consulted with a well-known sports psychologist to learn when kids could be introduced to the mechanics of sports and how talent is created. “We wanted to know, ‘What can we do to expose this generation of kids right now to sports?’” she says.
The inspiration for Baby Goes Pro
Fernández says the idea was born after a friend gave her twin children a popular DVD, and Fernández was surprised by how intently the kids watched it. She realized that TV, while a detriment if used as a constant babysitter, could also be a motivator in small doses. “I thought Oh my gosh, TV. If they’re going to watch TV, let me show them something that can help them,” she says.
She also really wanted her children to have a jump-start into sports at a young age. She looked for DVDs that encouraged a love of sports in young children and quickly realized there was nothing useful available.
That’s when she decided to create her own. “Our slogan is ‘inspiring a generation to move,’” Fernández says. “It’s so important right now, with obesity rates going out of control.” According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published in 2021, “In a longitudinal cohort of 432,302 persons aged 2-19 years with outpatient visits, the monthly rate of increase in [body mass index] nearly doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with a prepandemic period.”
“The culture has changed so much,” Fernández says. “When I was young, if I got bored, I went out and played. If you move while you’re young, there’s a good chance you’ll move for a lifetime.”
Gigi Fernández’s early life and career
Fernández was just 3 when her interest in tennis was ignited. While her older siblings took lessons at a local club, Fernández would hit a tennis ball endlessly against the wall. She thought it was fun and mesmerizing to hear the “whack, whack, whack” sound of the yellow orb against the racket, and soon she was begging for an instructor. She got lessons at age 7, and in her first match, she lost 6-0, 6-0.
But giving up the sport never crossed her mind. “As an athlete, you develop the mentality to never quit. I knew that tennis was always going to be part of my life,” she says.
She played for Puerto Rico in the 1984 Olympics, the first year tennis had been in the games in 60 years—though, that year, it was only included as a “demonstration sport.” In 1992, as part of the U.S. team, she and Mary Joe Fernández played for the gold against Spanish athletes Conchita Martínez and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.
“It was sold out,” she says. “The king and queen showed up halfway through. Our opponents started playing out of their minds and we still won! It was a great moment. Hearing the anthem, even now, my hair still rises. I still get chills.” She and Fernández also won a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Her regular tennis partner was Natasha Zvereva, with whom she won 14 of her 17 Grand Slams. They have the “second-highest team total of the Open era behind that of Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver,” according to a New York Times article.
A continued focus on sports
The International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee concedes that her athletic drive inspired her to focus on sports even as she retired from tennis, earned her degrees and became an entrepreneur. And the transition worked—Baby Goes Pro, her first entrepreneurial pursuit, received positive reviews from parents and kids.
For her, though, the proof of Baby Goes Pro’s success was in the pudding. Her twins, born in April 2009, loved the video. “My little boy was kicking a soccer ball properly at 12 months,” she says, emphasizing that it’s important not only to teach kids the fundamentals, but also to teach them correctly.
Baby Goes Pro was released in early 2010; that same year, Fernández and Stern were asked by the White House to present the five sports highlighted in the video at the annual Easter Egg Roll as part of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” initiative. “It’s great that the first family sees the importance of exposing children to sports, especially during an Easter Egg Roll, which is not traditionally a ‘sporty’ event,” says Fernández.
She and Stern had three weeks to put their event together. In total, 30,000 people from all 50 states attended the Easter Egg Roll, and President Obama even shot a few baskets with some of the kids on the White House basketball court. “We definitely exposed many kids to sports that might have never had the chance,” Fernández says.
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by by © Arnold Drapkin/ZUMA Press/Corbis
Tom Ziglar is the proud son of Zig Ziglar and the CEO of Ziglar, Inc. He joined the Zig Ziglar Corporation in 1987 and climbed from working in the warehouse to sales, to management, and then on to leadership. Today, he speaks around the world; hosts The Ziglar Show, one of the top-ranked business podcasts; and carries on the Ziglar philosophy: “You can have everything in life you want if you will just help enough other people get what they want.” He and his wife, Chachis, have one daughter and reside in Plano, Texas.