For a long time, the joke in tennis great Gigi Fernandez’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. Her three siblings all have graduate degrees. Fernandez went to Clemson University on a scholarship, but she did so well in the NCAA that she left college to excel on the courts of the pro tour. Thus the joke: one that Fernandez, 47, tells with just a hint of irony.
And funny as it once was, it can’t be told anymore.Fernandez’s storied career includes 17 Grand Slam doubles titles, and when she retired from professional tennis, she re-entered college at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she was also a tennis coach. She got her undergraduate degree in psychology and went on to Rollins College to get her MBA.
It’s safe to say Fernandez didn’t drop the ball when she ended her tennis career. These days, she is essentially serving it to others. She and her business partner, Valerie Stern, a self-described soccer mom, conceived of and now market 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 Fernandez, who was the first female athlete ever to turn pro in Puerto Rico. 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, captures its audience with original sing-along music and an animated monkey by the name of Emkei (pronounced MK, the first initial of Fernandez’s twins’ names), who introduces each sport. Fernandez says she and Stern consulted with a well-known sports psychologist to learn when kids could 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.
Fernandez says the idea was born after a friend gave her twin children a popular DVD, and Fernandez 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 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,” Fernandez says. “It’s so important right now, with obesity rates going out of control.”According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last 30 years. Almost one in five children ages 6 to 12 is considered overweight. “The culture has changed so much,” she 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.”
Fernandez was just 3 when her interest in tennis was ignited. She and her siblings would hang around at the country club, and Fernandez 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 began playing competitively. In her first tournament, 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 played for Puerto Rico in the 1984 Olympics, the first year tennis had been in the games in 60 years. She sat out the ’88 Olympics in order to be considered for the U.S. team in ’92. Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, didn’t have a doubles tennis team. In ’92, she and Mary Joe Fernandez played for the gold against the Spaniards in Spain.
“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 Fernandez also won a gold medal in the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta.
Her regular tennis partner was Natasha Zvereva, with whom she won 14 of her 17 Grand Slams. They have the second best record of any doubles team in Grand Slam history, after Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver.
The recent 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.So far, the transition has worked. Baby Goes Pro has received positive reviews from parents and kids and even won a Telly Award for video production in the early beginning category. For her, though, the proof is in the pudding: Her twins, born in April 2009, love 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 February 2010; a month later, Fernandez 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 Fernandez.
She and Stern had three weeks to put the event together. Six thousand kids from all walks of life and abilities came through that day and were chaperoned by 150 volunteer student athletes. President Obama even came out and shot a few baskets with some of the kids on the White House basketball court. “We defi nitely exposed many kids to sports that might have never had the chance,” Fernandez says.