By Angelica Acevedo
In an effort to raise money for Puerto Rico following last September’s devastating Hurricane Maria, Gigi Fernández — named the Puerto Rican Athlete of the Century in 2010 — and the New York Empire tennis team will host Play for Puerto Rico next week.
They will be playing against the San Diego Aviators, with a live auction taking place during halftime that will feature a bidding opportunity to play at Arthur Ashe Stadium for an hour later this summer.
“The proceeds from this day are going to go to helping people in Puerto Rico,” Fernández said of the July 20 event. “There are still people without roofs, people without water, people without electricity, so they can definitely use it.”
Fernández is currently the only female head coach for the tennis team, where she’s worked for two years with top-ranking professional athletes. New York Empire is one of six competing in the 43rd season of World TeamTennis, according to its official website.
They play their home matches at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. Fernández, an International Tennis Hall of Famer, is no stranger to Queens, as she recalls playing over 20 times and winning multiple events at the US Open years ago.
After retiring in 1997, Fernández has spent her free time coaching juniors and adults in the United States and Puerto Rico.
“It’s good to help others get better and I have so much knowledge about the game that I like to share it, I find it very rewarding,” she said.
Although her team didn’t make it to the WTT finals last year, she is confident that they will do so this year, citing her players’ international ranks, which include top-50 player Tatjana Maria and top 15 doubles player María José Martínez Sánchez.
“We’re pretty solid this year and hopefully we’ll take it one step further than we did last year and go to the finals,” she said.
Now a mother of two, Fernández made a name for herself as the first professional Puerto Rican female athlete in any sport. She gained international acclaim thanks to her exceptional doubles success and commanding presence on the court.
“I didn’t have any role models, so yes, it was unfortunate that I didn’t find somebody to say I want to be like them, but I had this passion for tennis and this talent that I slowly developed,” she said.
When it comes to Puerto Rico, the San Juan native continues to have close ties there and has seen the effects that Hurricane Maria left on the island.
Almost 10 months after the hurricane hit, there is no shortage of reports about the unstable conditions of the territory. In April, Rhodium Group, an independent research provider, reported that Puerto Rico’s blackout was the longest in United States history and the second longest internationally, as more than 100,000 residents didn’t have power six months after Hurricane Maria.
“It’s still bad… [I saw] a picture on Instagram yesterday taken from a hotel from one of the higher floors. The picture was of houses and I’d say about 20 percent of the houses had blue tarps for roofs,” Fernández said. “And that’s in San Juan, so if you go outside of the island people still don’t have water or electricity and they’re definitely suffering.”
Fernández said she has participated in about four fund-raising efforts since the hurricane and helped raise about $100,000. She hopes that people will continue to support the cause.
“If people can support that day it would be really helpful,” Fernández said. “If people could come out and watch the matches and make a donation that would be great.”