By Laura Amato
As far as summer jobs go, Gigi Fernández couldn’t come up with a better one than this.
The former professional tennis player — winner of 17 Grand Slam titles and two gold medals over the course of her career — is set to take the reins of the New York Empire, coaching the squad in its second season of World Team Tennis competition. It’s a job Fernández was excited to accept and one she hopes will help shine a light on tennis in the city.
“I live about 30 miles from the National Tennis Center, so it really did seem like a fun summer gig,” said Fernández, who’s been coaching since her pro retirement in 1997. “It’s good, professional tennis and I thought it was something I really just wanted to be a part of.”
It didn’t take long for Fernández to agree to join the Empire. Of course, she was familiar with World Team Tennis — the brainchild of Billie Jean King that brings together some of the top names in the sport each summer for matches across the country — playing on the circuit 1998, and the opportunity to be part of that again, particularly in New York, was too good to pass up.
“I spoke to [general manager Michele Cope] and she asked because it looked like Patrick [McEnroe] wasn’t going to be returning to coach this season,” Fernández said. “So she asked me if I would consider it and I thought about it for about two seconds before I said ‘yes, of course.’ ”
The Empire competed on the World Team Tennis circuit last season, but things are decidedly different for the squad this summer. In addition to Fernández’s arrival, the Empire will also compete on a new home court — Court 17 at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
It’s a move that helped peak Fernández’s initial interest in joining the team this summer.
“Court 17 is a really special court at the US Tennis Center,” Fernández said. “It’s small, you get really close to the players and there’s an energy when it’s a full house that is just incredible. I remember playing there and it’s really important to me and it’s also really accessible to everybody.”
Although the Empire will compete at the National Tennis Center, World Team Tennis isn’t quite as strict as its professional tour counterpart. In fact, fan participation is a key part of the matches and Fernández is hoping area fans can bring a bit of New York flair to this summer’s schedule.
“It’s interactive, that’s a really good way to describe it,” she said. “The players and the coaches are all very involved in the community and we want to be. We’re out there playing tennis in the morning, meeting with fans, bringing kids out and holding clinics.
“The fans are also actually encouraged to participate,” Fernández added. “It’s not like other tennis where you have to be quiet or anything. We want people yelling and cheering and really heckling people. We’re hoping to get some good New York heckling going this season.”
Fernández is excited to have some fun this summer, but this year’s Empire squad also has its sights set on success. This team isn’t just looking to entertain, it’s looking to win as well, and for Fernández, that’s her main goal.
“I think we want to do better than last year,” she said. “Ideally we want to make the playoffs this year and compete amongst the top teams. There’s definite goals and we’re ready to play some good tennis this year.”