If her friends didn't mean so much to her, Fernandez would probably be ranked even higher than fourth. Indeed, they are one of the reasons she is slightly behind schedule, as tennis prodigies go. Six years ago, after she had beaten the No. 11 player in the world (Bonnie Gadusek) and won her fourth straight Orange Bowl junior title—the 12-and-unders at 11, the 14's at 12, the 16's at 13 and the 18's at 14—Fernandez, then a high school freshman, came under immense pressure to leave school and play full-time on the pro tour. It was, after all, what her precocious predecessors Andrea Jaeger and Tracy Austin had done; what her chief rival, Gabriela Sabatini, was doing; and what Monica Seles, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras would later do. If you're dead set on getting an education, she was told, there are always correspondence courses: Bone up on the Pythagorean theorem in your hotel room between matches, fax the homework to the profs, and eventually earn yourself a nice general equivalency diploma.
Agents, other players and coaches advised her to strike while the iron was hot. "Even her parents [Jose and Sylvia] wanted her to drop out," says one of Fernandez's former coaches. Today the elder Fernandezes deny this, even though in the mid-1980s Jose and Sylvia suffered a severe financial setback when an investment in a stalled Venezuelan housing development tied up the family fortune, some $350,000. Says Sylvia, "We were for whatever made her happy."
Mary Joe happily took the road less traveled. She chose the pink stucco walls and prim uniform of Carrollton, which is housed in a stately Italian villa, over full-time tennis. For the next 3½ years she played a scaled-down schedule of pro tournaments, including the four Grand Slams, but she worked them around high school classes. "I just decided that if I was going to go to school, I was going to do it right," says Fernandez. "And I wasn't ready to sacrifice being with my friends."
Balancing tennis and schoolwork was a nifty trick. Often, Dillon would photocopy her notes and fax them to Fernandez at some faraway place, only to see Fernandez outperform her on the test. If Fernandez couldn't get the notes by fax, someone else would dictate them to her over the phone. With Carrollton's approval, she was allowed to take her final exams in August rather than in June.
During the first 3½ years after she turned pro, she earned more than $500,000 in prize money and endorsements and made mostly A's in her courses. But she missed the commencement ceremony. She was busy in Paris, reaching the semis of the French, where she lost to the eventual champion, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
After she finished school, Fernandez dived headlong into the tour, only to encounter this sobering truth: She was in no shape to play a full schedule. Last year she suffered a wrenched back, tendinitis in her right shoulder, an ankle sprain, a partially torn left hamstring and a minor cartilage tear in her right knee. That's what happens when your conditioning program consists of, as Fernandez says, "maybe riding the bike for 20 minutes if it rained and I couldn't play."
One afternoon recently, Fernandez let this tidbit slip: "I just did my first push-up last week. I'm so excited."
Fernandez cracked the Top 10 in February 1990, despite the lack of a coherent training program and the fact that she had not won a pro title. She was lacking not skill or a killer instinct but rather the stamina to play well for four matches on consecutive days. As her coach, Tim Gullikson, says, "It's hard to have the killer instinct when you're running on fumes."
In January 1990 Gullikson put Fernandez on a weightlifting program. "Nothing heavy," says Fernandez, "but lots of reps." And Gullikson sought to make over more than Fernandez's musculature. She needed to learn to put topspin on the ball and to put all of her 5'10", 130-pound frame into her serve. She also needed a new attack. That powder-puff, baseline, make-each-point-a-war-of-attrition game, styled after that of her childhood idol, Chris Evert, was becoming passé on the tour. Says Fred Stolle, who once coached Fernandez, "In Chrissie's day it was all control, patience. Nowadays it's all about power."
Gullikson slowly coaxed his pupil away from the baseline, to which she had always clung like a wallflower at a mixer. "Going to net is still not easy for me," says Fernandez. "I don't like being passed." Because he also coaches Aaron Krickstein, currently ranked 22nd among the men, Gullikson does not travel to many of Fernandez's matches, and his absence has hindered her transformation. She is much likelier to play aggressively if she knows he is in the stands, watching, as he was at last year's U.S. Open. In her quarterfinal win over ninth-seeded Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere, Fernandez rushed the net 31 times—up from her usual five or six. "If you rush the net 10 times and win six points, you win," she says. "But it's more tiring, and you have to think a lot more."