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Terrible Two
Sally Jenkins
February 20, 1995
Gigi Fernandez favors Armani; Natasha Zvereva digs Army surplus. But on the tennis court they join to form a perfectly matched set
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February 20, 1995

Terrible Two

Gigi Fernandez favors Armani; Natasha Zvereva digs Army surplus. But on the tennis court they join to form a perfectly matched set

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Beavis and Butt-Head sat at a Beverly Hills sidewalk café, 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."

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 Sánchez 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.

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