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The lunch conversation starts out innocently enough. Movies are discussed. Someone is complimented for wearing a lovely brooch. Mary Joe Fernandez and three of her best friends from her high school days, at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, in Miami, are home for the Christmas holidays.
Drinks arrive, diet colas mostly. Shortly thereafter everyone's reserves of pleasantries are exhausted. Now come the Fernandez-as-Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes tales. Fernandez drinks only mineral water, accuses one friend. She no longer eats desserts, notes another. In seconds the No. 4-ranked women's tennis player in the world is being humbled by three amateurs.
"After we went to Disney World last year, Mary Joe went to bed at 11!" says Cathy Dillon, a tart-tongued Boston College sophomore. "We were forced to dump ice on her."
"We'd walked around all day," says Fernandez defensively. "I was tired. Look, I had my wild stage, and you guys missed it."
"Guess we blinked," says Edda Fields, a sophomore at Emory who is generally conceded to be the brains of the bunch.
"The terrible twos," says Dillon. "That was your wild stage."
Finally, Marilupe Ortiz, a freshman at Florida International University, has the ultimate anecdote: "On days we had to go to confession, Mary Joe used to come up to me in a panic and say, 'Marilupe, you've got to help me think up some sins!' So I'd say, 'Mary Joe, knowing you, tell him you used the Lord's name in vain a couple months ago.' "
Fernandez laughs harder than anyone.
That the object of the teasing is a 19-year-old millionaire and a household name—overseas, at least—makes no difference. May Jay, as Fernandez's friends call her, was these women's pal and classmate long before they could see her play tennis on TV. She may have won two professional titles in 1990, her first full year on the tour; and she may have reached the finals of the Australian Open last January and the semis at both the U.S. Open in September and the Virginia Slims Championships in November. But they know her better as the schoolmate who for three consecutive years failed to receive the President's Council on Physical Fitness Award because she lacked the strength to complete the arm-hang portion of the test.
"We keep her in line," says Dillon. "It's our job."