Amid complex egos, Fernandez triumphs as just 'plain Mary Joe'

Mary Joe Fernandez is so pretty every ball boy wants to wor her matches. Young men line up five deep to watch her practice. Television commentators spend a lot of time trying to match her up with David Wheaton on the men's tour.

Having just turned 20, Fernandez has become the latest heartthrob on the women's pro tennis tour.


In the process, she has also become the top-ranked American player at the U.S. Open. Today, Fernandez, seeded fifth, takes on Radka Zrubakova in the third round.

The slight, tanned young woman from Miami is more comfortable with the ranking than the image.


"A heartthrob? Am I?" she said, laughing. "It's great! But I'm 20. Twenty. God. I don't even like the word. I wasn't ready not to be a teen-ager any more. A heartthrob? I don't want to talk about it, but if people are interested, just say I'm single and looking for someone to get me over being 20. I think there is probably less pressure being the No. 1 American player than being a heartthrob."

She is not broad-shouldered like Gabriela Sabatini, who won the Open a year ago and has gone on to establish herself on a consistent level with the very best in the game.

She is not a smiling, giggling teen-ager like Jennifer Capriati, or flighty one like Monica Seles. She has had no brushes with controversy, like Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.

She says she is just "plain Mary Joe" and she likes it that way.

"There is nothing about me that is controversial," she said. "There isn't any dirt."

In the players media guide, a person can learn Graf collects T-shirts and shorts; that Arantxa Sanchez Vicario loves to listen to the Beatles to relax; that Navratilova has four Shiba dogs and two Persian cats; that Capriati's favorite movies are "Big," "Ghost" and "Pretty Woman." But there are no such tidbits about Fernandez. No glimpses into her personality. No favorite foods, favorite music or favorite anything.

The only thing to be learned is that since joining the women's tour in 1985, as a 14-year-old, Fernandez managed to stay in school and earn her high school diploma as a straight A student at The Carrollton School in Miami in 1989.

But somehow the tennis world has found Fernandez, and it has found her simply irresistible.


At 5 feet 10, 130 pounds, she isn't overwhelming physically, but her consistent all-around performance on the court has forced her opponents to respect her game.

The only thing that seems to disrupt her placid exterior is the criticism that she doesn't have a killer stroke.

"I feel I have a forehand that I do a lot of damage with," said Fernandez. "It's not Steffi Graf's forehand, but I'm very intent on my game right now and I think all I need is to get a bit stronger and to develop my serve more. I think I can do more damage with my serve and that would help me to be more aggressive."

She seems to have everything else. She is a good strategist. She isconsistent. She knows how to mount a good defense from both sides of the court. But she could use some of Jimmy Connors' grit.

"Since I graduated from school two years ago, I've been working much harder," Fernandez said. "Last year, I found I was weak and not in good enough physical shape to compete week after week."

Working out with weights has helped her conditioning. So has a five-hour regimen of swimming, stationary bike riding and on-court wind sprints, although she is not interested in becoming another Sabatini.


"I don't want to get big and muscular," she said. "I just want the strength, so I won't get hurt. I want to use the strength as a ## preventive measure from injuries."

The work has paid off. This season, while still bothered by bouts of heat exhaustion, Fernandez has been a semifinalist in six tournaments, including the Australian Open and Wimbledon, losing to Seles and Graf, respectively. She also reached the quarters at the French before losing to Sanchez Vicario. In 1990, she was a finalist at the Australian Open.

"Since I made it to the finals of the Australian Open my own confidence has improved," she said. "It was the first time I ever thought, 'Hey, I can play well and I can compete against the girls out there.' It was the first time I wasn't scared of them. It makes a huge difference on the outlook of the rest of the field.

"The next step is to move into the top three and to do that, I havto win a major event," Fernandez said. "Last year was important, because I moved up and broke through to where I hadn't been before. This year, I've been close to breaking into that next level. But it just hasn't come yet. I think I have a good chance of doing it, but consistency gets you only so far. It has gotten me to No. 5, but with Steffi and Monica and Gaby and Martina, sooner or later, to get beyond that, I have to win."