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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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By doing just that, Davenport and partner Lisa Raymond dealt Fernandez and Zvereva a second-round loss in Indian Wells, Calif., last February. It was the result of a major Fernandez freak-out. She had just turned 30 and had drawn top-ranked Steffi Graf in the first singles round, a combination of events that put her in a vile temper. When Raymond passed her down the alley early in the match, Fernandez erupted, hitting a ball out of the stadium. "Gigi, stop," Zvereva said. A few minutes later she broke a racket. "Gigi, that's enough," Zvereva said. Next, Fernandez cussed out a tournament official. Zvereva gave up. "About 98 percent of the time I'm capable of handling her emotions," Zvereva says. "I laugh. But this was just uncontrollable." They went down in flames, 6-4, 6-4.

Afterward Zvereva would not speak to Fernandez and was so furious the next day that she lost her first-round singles match. Finally they sat down and talked. Zvereva told Fernandez that she was self-absorbed and inconsiderate. "The next time, think of me," Zvereva said.

The problem is that Fernandez doesn't think. She treats her racket the way a loan shark treats a deadbeat. First she slaps it around. If it doesn't cooperate, she breaks its legs. Two years ago she mailed the WTA a $250 check, the equivalent of five warnings from a chair umpire, before the season because she knew she couldn't trust herself to control her temper. Last November she received a $2,000 fine from the WTA Players Committee—on which Zvereva sits—for mooning her opponent, Mary Pierce, in Filderstadt, Germany.

"Why do I explode?" Fernandez says. "Because I'm a child." Fernandez figures she whacked her first racket when she was seven and has continued because "nobody ever told me I wasn't supposed to."

Fernandez is the daughter of a wealthy San Juan physician, Tuto, and a beautiful socialite, Beatriz. Fernandez had an unlimited supply of attention, rackets and lessons, and seldom heard the word no. By the age of nine she was the subject of newspaper coverage across Puerto Rico. As a teenager she was equally famous for her talent and for extravagances like her black Camaro sports car. She made frequent trips to the mainland for shopping and junior tournaments and received a fistful of college scholarship offers. Fernandez went to Clemson, made the NCAA finals as a freshman and turned pro six months later.

She is widely regarded as Top 10 in ability, although her best Grand Slam singles result came when she reached the Wimbledon semifinals last year. Her limitation has been a career-long struggle to control her anger, the root of which she thinks she understands. "I'm a perfectionist," she says. "And I'm insecure." This is why she prefers the companionable comfort of doubles to the greater exposure of singles. She says she went nuts in Indian Wells because she thought she heard snickering in the crowd when Raymond passed her. "I thought they were mocking me," she says.

Zvereva's slow, almost porridgelike temperament serves as the perfect antidote to Fernandez's emotional chaos. "I understand why Gigi explodes," she says. "You have to express your emotions, negative or positive. I do it too, but I do it in my head." Not always. Zvereva celebrated a quarterfinal victory at the Australian Open by lifting her shirt to reveal a sports bra, amusing fans but not the WTA, which is considering a fine.

Zvereva tried taking things seriously once. She didn't like it. A product of the Soviet sports machine, she rose to No. 5 and reached the final of the French Open by age 17. But she hated the pressure and resented her country's controlling authorities, and quietly resisted both.

Zvereva expressed herself emotionally through a determined individualism—and by listening to screaming music. As a girl growing up in Byelorussia, she danced alone in her room to black-market rock-and-roll. Her taste grew progressively harder. These days she listens to Metallica, AC-DC and old Led Zeppelin. She flirts with grunge and wears T-shirts that say things like KNOWLEDGE IS STUPID. She asks to borrow a piece of writing paper, then wipes her mouth with it.

If Zvereva is a subversive at heart, it is thanks to her father, Marat, who worked at the Soviet Army Club in Minsk and fought for the right to coach his daughter rather than turn her over to the machine. At her father's urging, Zvereva demanded a share of her winnings, which were going into Soviet coffers while she received only expense money. She signed with an American agency and began tanking matches, saying she wouldn't win unless she was paid. Zvereva feared she would be tossed in the gulag, but after tense negotiations the authorities backed down and let her keep the bulk of her earnings. "I'm very proud of that," she says.

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