Doubles guru Gigi Fernandez shares her passion

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It’s been said that the key to a successful working life is to find something you’re passionate about – then make a living at it.

For longtime WTA Tour star Gigi Fernandez, that passion is doubles.

Fernandez, now 53, won two WTA Tour singles titles in her career. But it was her doubles genius that earned her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2010.

The Puerto Rican-born American won 69 WTA Tour doubles titles and made 50 other finals. Of those titles, 17 were Grand Slams. With longtime partner Natasha Zvereva, she won six majors in a row through 1992-93.

Fernandez and Zvereva won three Grand Slam titles in both 1993 and 1994. Fernandez also won gold medals, with partner Mary Joe Fernandez, at both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.

That’s how great she is at it.

And in her post-tour life, Fernandez wants to make every player she comes into contact with better at it.

“Back then, single players played doubles. Even Steffi (Graf) and Gaby (Sabatini) were playing doubles, and on through the list. Our competition was better than us: better forehands, better backhands, more agile. So how did we beat them? I was never top 30 (in singles). I wasn’t even close. But we won 14 Grand Slams in five years,” Fernandez tells tennis.life.

“Why? Because we really, really understood doubles. It always looked like we were in the right place at the right time. And that’s what I’ve translated into the Gigi Method.”

The Gigi Method is Fernandez’s comprehensive guide to doubles: drills, online instruction, and tips for dealing with all the other dynamics that go into a successful doubles partnership.

Fernandez finished her undergraduate degree after her tennis career, and then earned an MBA. She has two young children with partner Jane Geddes. So it was a few years before she got back out on the court to share what she knows, and what she learned.

“When I started my job at Chelsea Piers (she’s senior tennis consultant for the huge facility located in Stamford, Connecticut), I hated tennis. I hated that I was going back on the teaching court,” she says. “There was a really bad perception on the tennis tour that if you were a teacher, you failed – or you didn’t make enough money.

“But I realized when I started doing it that I’m really good at this, and I can help a lot of people.”

It wasn’t an easy transition. For one of the best to ever play the doubles game to dial it down to the recreational level took some adjusting, and the clearing up of a few misconceptions. She made the transition with the help of mentors at Chelsea Piers like lead professional Kristian Larson. “I just thought that adults didn’t improve. If you were a 3.5 (NTRP rating), you’d be a 3.5 for the rest of your life. And now I see that’s not true. All my players have gone up a rating point,” she says.

Fernandez had been doing masters’ doubles clinics all around the U.S. and everywhere she went, she saw people making the same mistakes – the same fixable, easy-to-correct mistakes.

Some things change with the variables – whether you’re male or female, if you’re a little older and less spry. But the basics are the same whether you’re six years old – or 86.

The best way to reach as many people as possible, Fernandez realized, was to go the online instruction route. And over the last four years, she developed the Gigi Method.

It aims to do what so many coaches aren’t doing – treating doubles as a skill to excel at in its own right. “People like to learn. Short of coming to take a lesson with me, it’s really a great way to learn and get into the mind of the best doubles players in the history of the game,” she says of the program.

Doubles at the pro level has evolved in recent years – some say devolved, as traditional serve-and-volley has given way to more baseline play. It’s a concession to both the limitations of the skill sets of the new tennis generation and the powerful strings and racquets that make the serve return so difficult to volley.

But at every other level, from recreational to competitive, classic doubles remains the most effective way to win.

“The reason the (pro) players stay back is power, and spin. Back in my era, we had power.
People have been hitting the ball hard for a long time. But now, every volley is hit from the shoetops. Amateurs are different; they don’t have the power and the spin that professionals do,” Fernandez says. “I see amateur doubles as being what professional doubles was years ago – even before my era – when coming in was still what worked. Because it was putting pressure on the opponents. If you can get to that position, you have the best opportunity to win the points.”

Fernandez pointed to some statistics from a few years ago at the Australian Open. Brain Game Tennis analyst Craig O’Shaughnessy looked at the men’s and women’s doubles from the second round through to the final. He found that 60 per cent of the points ended in errors. But of the remainder, 87 per cent were won by the person at the net. “I tell people not to get fooled. Even if the players are playing back, the fact is that the baseline player has been the setup for the net person, statistically,” Fernandez says.

The problem, as she sees is, is that most players just don’t play the net well – for no discernible reason other than the instruction isn’t what it could be.

“We all know that doubles is. When you’re a junior, when you’re a high-school athlete, most of the time you’re focusing on singles. The high-performance players, they’re all singles players. Doubles is an afterthought,” Fernandez says. “They go to college, try to play on tour, they don’t make it, and then they go teach … But they never learned how to play doubles.

“Educational conferences, USTA conventions, there might be maybe one session on doubles – if you’re lucky. And a lot of times, nothing. They’re teaching what they know, but they were not properly taught to begin with.

“And there’s a whole other slew of coaches who don’t have that knowledge – a good understanding of what good doubles is – and don’t know where to get it,” she adds. “So when I discovered that, I thought, ‘I have to do something about this.’ ”

With doubles leagues the bread and butter of most clubs across North America and of such a large percentage of avid players, it’s always surprising to see how little pure doubles instruction there is.

Week after week, during the long league seasons, you see women’s teams doing the same drills. You see the same mistakes go uncorrected. And too often there’s a disconnect between what is learned, and putting it into practice on the match court.

At some clubs, there even are specific policies about not giving too much technical instruction at team trainings. The logic being that if the players really want to improve, they’ll be motivated to take private lessons – and thus bring more revenue to the clubs and the pros.

With the Gigi Method, players can get the instruction online, and can go out on court and put it into practice whether it’s on the training court with a team, or playing practice matches with other like-minded players who want to improve.

“We have a 28-week practice program available, with a different theme every week – which is how we run our practices at Chelsea Piers. Sometimes I find that club pros have a tough time coming up with 40 weeks of lesson plans. Here, we went out with the 17 pros, and they get a five-page document from me on what we’re working on this week,” Fernandez says. “People learn, and definitely get better.”

The Gigi Method offers a whole lot more than that, because doubles is so much more than just executing the shots and strategy. It also includes the “Bossy Partner Fix” and the “Blame Game Fix”. Who among us hasn’t dealt with these issues?

It also has tips on how to find the right partner, on how to decide who plays which side of the court, and on how to be supportive on the doubles court even when your partner isn’t returning the favor.

Basically, it covers the doubles game from A to Z, on court – and off.

Fernandez is planning a doubles YouTube channel – everything doubles, for all levels.

“I’d say 85-90 per cent of the tennis-playing public plays doubles. If you’re 40 and above, it gets harder to play singles so people are all – at some point – going to play doubles,” she says.

“And if it’s doubles, I should be the resident expert, with the mission of sharing my knowledge.

“It’s what I know. And I’m good at it.”

(See break-out doubles tips box below)

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