By Jennifer L. Warren
NEW WINDSOR – Jahari Blake has to smile when he recalls meeting ex-professional tennis star, Gigi Fernandez.
“When she first came on to the court and walked over to us, she said, “I don’t know if you guys know me, but…” relayed an astonished Blake. “I just kept thinking how could we not know who she was?”
For anyone who followed tennis in the 1980’s and 90’s, it would be hard not to recollect the profound impact Fernandez made on the game. A two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, who tallied 17 Grand Slam Tennis Doubles Championships during her stellar career, Fernandez was a dominating force on the court.
These days, since her retirement in 1997, her focus has turned to coaching as well as leading workshops around the country, giving back to the game she remains passionate about. It was during one of those moments when she was once again promoting the sport as a panel member at the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Eastern Conference in 2016, that she met another panel member, Dennis Maher, a coach for both the Newburgh Tennis Club and Newburgh Free Academy Varsity Tennis Team. The spark was ignited to bring the tennis star to the area.
“I threw it out to her if she would be interested in speaking with my Tennis Club; she was immediately receptive,” relayed Maher. “She was very down to earth and easy to talk to; I didn’t at all feel like I was talking to a celebrity, but I knew because she was so busy, it would take a while to make it happen.”
About two years later, that comfortable, relaxed spirit Fernandez carries could be detected on the tennis courts at Sportsplex (excited to offer their facilities as part of their continued efforts directed at community outreach) Saturday, as she patiently and highly competently relayed her extensive pearls of tennis wisdom to a group of extremely attentive and receptive Goldback Tennis Club members. Explaining such pointers as how to lob and position yourself on the court, Fernandez then moved on to guide the teenagers as they put the professional’s tips to practice. Energetically pacing the court, as she assessed their progress, Fernandez remains committed to spreading the beauty of the sport that provided her with limitless joy and opportunities.
“I love the game because it involves your whole body and it’s something you can play throughout your entire life,” said Fernandez. “Giving back to it now is everything; I took a 15 year break after I retired, but ever since, I have wanted nothing more than to share the knowledge I have for it with others.”
The first Puerto Rican to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame as well as the 2014 ESPN 10th Most Influential Hispanic Athlete in History, Fernandez is also extremely proud of her heritage and the opportunity to inspire others.
“I lived in Puerto Rico since I was 19; it’s very much a part of my heart, as I love the food, dancing and culture,” said Fernandez. “There have been around 3-4 Puerto Rican female professional tennis players that have achieved good success, which is really amazing for such a small island.”
She added, “I would like to see more in the game, but since the natural disaster that hit there, it makes it hard.”
In addition to the day’s event, “A Free Community Tennis Play Day,” featuring a Goldback Tennis Club interaction with Fernandez, it also included another session when adults too could mine and apply her tennis expertise. Both groups gained not only critical technical details to elevate their tennis game, but a genuine appreciation for the person delivering them.
“I see the kids thinking about the game a lot more since she worked with them,” said Maher. “She is imprinting a real purpose behind what they are doing on the court.”
Blake was one of several who could attest to that elevated motivation and direction.
“I learned a lot of strategies about where to go, where to hit the ball, how to move, really refreshing my mind about how important they were,” said Blake following the clinic. “To learn all this from someone so hugely successful, it’s just eye-opening, amazing and once-in-a-lifetime thing that I feel so lucky to be able to do, and I’m going to now apply as many of these things to my game as I can.”