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Gigi Fernández: "We Have A Mixed Identity"

By Gabrielle Paese

May 31, 2002
Copyright © 2002 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Former world doubles champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Gigi Fernández said this week she anticipates controversy should she represent Puerto Rico in doubles tennis at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

"I'm sure people will turn it into a political issue if I decide to play," said the 38-year-old San Juan native, who walked away from the game in 1997 with a pro record of 68 doubles titles and 21 Grand Slam doubles titles, along with her two gold medals won for the United States in 1992 and 1996 teamed with Dominican Mary Joe Fernández. "That's just the facts of our culture, the Olympic dilemma. What are we?"

Fernández first represented Puerto Rico when San Juan played host to the Pan Am Games in 1979. Just 15, Fernández won a bronze medal. In 1982 at the Central American-Caribbean Games in Cuba, she teamed up with Marilda Juliá to win doubles gold and cinched a silver medal in the singles as well. She represented Puerto Rico at the 1984 Olympics.

Years later, as she began to establish herself as the top-ranked doubles player in women's professional tennis, she was invited to play for United States Federation Cup team.

"I do know for a fact that there was no person in Puerto Rico I could have played doubles with," said Fernández of her decision to switch Olympic Committees. "I have no regrets. I wanted to win a gold medal and I did. I have never been controlled by what people say about me."

Fernández said she felt it was wrong for people to criticize her decision as selfish and personal. She was (and still is) the only Puerto Rican woman ever to win Olympic gold.

"It's just part of our culture. We have a mixed identity. I mean, what other country has this problem? I can't think of another country in the world that has this situation," said Fernández. "Maybe Quebec, but at least they're part of Canada."

Fernández said this week that if Puerto Rico invited her to play doubles at the 2004 Games with young Puerto Rican pro Tour player Cristina Brandi, she would consider coming out of retirement.

"In the case of an Olympics they seed 32 teams in doubles and if you look there really aren't 32 countries that have world-ranked doubles teams," said Fernández.

Brandi has never represented Puerto Rico and up until now has told the media she'd like to be asked to join the U.S. team.

"She's facing some issues I was 10 years ago," said Fernández. "I think she had hoped to represent the United States, but with the Williams sisters and the rest of the talent there's no way she's going to be on the team, so I think she can be convinced to represent Puerto Rico.

"I'm sure there are some who see it like her second choice, but we'll take her," said Fernández. "

Fernández is currently coaching Puerto Rico's Federation Cup team, after administering counsel from the sidelines for the past three years while she waited out the eligibility penalty for switching Olympic Committees. (Call it an Olympic redshirt: while National Olympic Committees have varying eligibility rules, tennis' rule of thumb is you have to wait three years before you can represent your new country).

Last month, Fernández coached Puerto Rico's young Fed Cup team in its failed bid to move up to Group 2. She said she would not consider actually playing Fed Cup. Puerto Rico's only pro tennis player since Charlie Pasarell said she could only be coaxed out of retirement to play in the Olympics.

Fernández said she was proud to represent Puerto Rico and the United States. She criticized Puerto Rican player Vilmarie Castelví for backing out of Federation Cup play last month.

"I've always represented whatever country I was representing," said Fernández. "When they called me, I played. If you don't play, you lack a sense of responsibility to your country. Mari Toro [another Fed Cup team member] has always represented Puerto Rico. She's played seven times in the last seven years. Vilmarie has played three times in the last seven years."

Fernández is reported to be on the verge of signing a contract with the University of South Florida as women's head tennis coach. Fernández is also coaching this summer in two tennis camps in San Juan for kids ages 10-18. For more info on the camps, go to www.gigiferná

WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz heads to Poconos to continue training

WBA heavyweight champion John Ruiz returned to the United States after spending a month training in the south of Puerto Rico at the Salinas Olympic Training Center. Ruiz said he did so in order to spend a month with his mom, who has moved back to Sabana Grande's Barrio Susúa from Massachusetts, where she raised her children.

Ruiz had nothing but praise for the folks in Salinas and said his decision to move camp to the Poconos was due to the oppressive heat in Salinas.

"It's going to be too hot," said Ruiz. "Every workout I have I come out drenched and I basically lose 10 pounds. I'd be a lightweight before the fight date."

The WBA heavyweight champion is scheduled to fight No. 1 contender Kirk Johnson (31-0-1, 23 KOs) on July 27 in a mandatory title defense tentatively set for Las Vegas.

Ruiz, meanwhile, said he understood where Gigi Fernández was coming from.

"When people ask me what I am, I say I'm a Puerto Rican American," said Ruiz. "I have two flags, but the one thing about the Puerto Rican flag is the star stands alone."

Ruiz said growing up Puerto Rican in the states was not easy, but that the Puerto Rican community in Massachusetts never forgot its roots.

"It was a big adjustment, and coming back here is hard because I never got a formal education in Spanish, just what I would hear my mother talking and you know I can't read or write in Spanish," said Ruiz. "When I got here on this trip I was surprised that I could read some words in the newspaper.

"When I was a kid, going to the U.S. meant you forgot about your Spanish. Nowadays, they mix it up. But back then it was really tough," said Ruiz.

He said that he never felt less Puerto Rican for having been born in the United States.

"You see it over there with the big [Puerto Rican heritage] festivals," said Ruiz. "They keep the culture they brought with them alive and it's a wonderful feeling. I can remember trying to win the road races during the festival because the prize was a round-trip ticket to Puerto Rico and that was a big deal."

With his new title, Ruiz can afford plenty of round trip tickets to the island. But before he returns again, Ruiz aims to beat Johnson to try for a unification fight in December, possibly against IBF and WBC champion Lennox Lewis.

He ruled out a fight versus fellow Puerto Rican heavyweight Fres Oquendo in the near future.

"Since the most important thing for me right now is the unification bout, that [a fight versus Oquendo] is not on my mind," said Ruiz. "But I'd have to consider anything Don King suggests."

Ruiz's manager, Norman "Stoney" Stone also took a shot at Oquendo's manager, Félix Trinidad Sr., for sending the young heavyweight to do battle against David Tua, a fight Oquendo (22-1, 13 KOs) lost because, Stone said, he was overmatched.

"A manager's job is to get the easiest fight for the most money and to make sure everything runs right," said Stone. "My job is not to prove that Johnny's tougher than anyone. When you get up there and you start to think you're better than everyone else, that's when the guy upstairs comes in and sends you back down again."

Stone said he'd like to land a fight versus Lewis (39-2-1, 30 KOs) no later than January of 2003.

"If we fight Lennox we have to get at least $10 to $12 [million] plus a percentage of pay-per-view," said Stone.

Stone and Ruiz both said they're tired of hearing about Evander Holyfield.

"It's like going to school and repeating the same grade over and over again," said Ruiz.

Ruiz said he learned a lot in his last fight in December of 2001 against Holyfield, the third of their series, which ended in a draw.

"The last fight, I worried about [gaining respect] too much and I let it control the fight," said Ruiz. "I've got to stop worrying about it and fight the way I want to fight."


Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the most recent recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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