An Interview With Mary Jo Fernandez

Mary Joe Fernandez

TIM CURRY: We have on the call with us live from Australia, U.S. Fed Cup Captain Mary Joe Fernandez. It’s 7:30 in the morning in Melbourne, and she’s preparing again today for ESPN commentary duties once again but is joining us to announce the U.S. Fed Cup team that will take on Belgium February 5th and 6th in Antwerp.
This is Mary Joe’s third year as U.S. Fed Cup Captain and she has successfully led the U.S. to the finals her first two years as captain. After introductory comments from Mary Joe, we will open up the call for Q&A. Mary Joe.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Good morning from Australia. Good afternoon there in the states. Just wanted to let everybody know how excited I am to be starting as Fed Cup captain this year. And it seems like when you end the year and start the year it’s very quick, there’s a big gap between the semis and finals, but there’s a quick turnaround between the finals and the first round. But here we go. Right after Australia we head over to Belgium. And I’m pleased to announce my team.
I have the same core group returning with Bethanie Mattek-Sands playing; Melanie Oudin; Liezel Huber, and Vania King will be joining us again, two-time majors doubles winner last year. She’s been on teams before.
And we’re excited to have her return. So we’re looking forward to it. We have our work cut out for us in Belgium against the top players. But we’re going to go give it our best shot. I have great faith in the team and the capabilities. And we’ll see what happens. So I open it up to questions.
THE MODERATOR: Questions?

Q. You mentioned having your work cut out for you. What sort of intimidation factor might there be with Belgium apparently bringing (Kim) Clijsters and Justine (Henin)?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Well, it’s pretty clear. They’re two of the best players to play the game. And Clijsters is still here playing today in the quarterfinals. Justine went out early.
To me, the Fed Cup is very different than a regular tour tournament. And, again, hopefully I can offer some advice when I’m on the court. And you just — you really approach it as this one unique match. And you try to do all you can to disrupt all the great things that both those players do.
It’s not easy. But it’s been done before. And you go out with a very positive attitude.

Q. And you had expected or hoped that Venus Williams might have been able to play this time and I’m wondering when you found out she wouldn’t be able to play?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Yes, Venus was going to play, and unfortunately she got hurt during the Australian Open and just confirmed with her just a couple of days ago about her injury and she wouldn’t be able to go.

Q. Obviously you’ve been to Australia and you’ve been watching Melanie and Bethanie and Vania and Liezel play. How impressed are you with how they’ve all started their years and how they’re looking now in the year?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Well, Liezel just won last night her doubles. She’s going to be playing in the semifinals later today with Nadia Petrova. And she’s been looking her usual prepared self and playing smart tennis on the doubles courts.
Bethanie had a great run down here in Australia winning the Hopman Cup with John Isner and then getting to the finals in a warm-up tournament before. She had a tough first-round match against actually a qualifier named (Arantxa) Rus. Was down a set in the break and fought really hard and came back and started up the match in the third and had a tough time closing it out.
But in the mixed doubles lost her doubles yesterday. So she’s been playing a lot of tennis, which is good. She’s match tough. She’s prepared.
Melanie had a tougher time down under, not winning any matches, and losing a tough three set match here in her first round here at the Australian Open. She’s not as confident. But Fed Cup seems to bring out the best in Melanie time and time again. And she’s practicing hard again this week. And we’ll be ready for her next week.
And Vania won her first round and then lost to (Caroline) Wozniacki in a tough second round. Wozniacki is still in the tournament. She’s in the semis. That was a tough drop for her. But she’s coming from last year playing two major finals and winning them in doubles, with (Yaroslava) Shvedova. She didn’t win here.
But she as well is back at home and starting to practice and get ready. So overall pretty good. They all have played matches and will be ready.

Q. I know obviously until you actually get down there and you are watching the girls play and everything, you don’t really know how you’re going to do it. But obviously Liezel and Bethanie have had a lot of success the last couple of years for you in doubles, yet obviously Vania has had great success at the Slams last year and everything. Do you have any inkling of what way you stay with the combination that’s been working or you go with Vania, or you just can’t even think about that yet?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I think about it. The nice thing about having Vania on the team, she’s very versatile, can play both singles and doubles. And I do make my decision sort of towards the end. We’ve changed our double teams a few times right before that fifth match.
Leaning at the start, definitely to go with the team that’s been there before. And that’s played. Having said that, Vania and Liezel have played a couple times at Fed Cup as well. They complement each other very well, too.
We’ll obviously have to play it by ear as it gets to the fifth match. But during the week we’ll have everybody practice doubles with each other, because you really have to be prepared for any situation. But that’s the good news having Vania is she can play many different roles.

Q. You talked about the timing. You also mentioned that. I would imagine having Fed Cup and having to travel on the heels of the Australian Open would not be what most people think is the most ideal timing.
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: It depends where you’re playing. It’s a tough flight, obviously, for me because I’m going straight from here. But for the ones that are back at home, it’s not as bad.
And we’re playing on a surface we like. It’s indoor hard. And we went to France last year and played well. So we’re used to it. We’re used to the travel. We’re used to the time changes and getting used to it.

Q. I was wondering if you could talk about Melanie and how have you seen her develop since her run at the U.S. Open a couple of years ago, and how she’s played last year for you at Fed Cup?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Sure. Melanie, not last year but the year before, was the Cinderella story of the US Open and it really started before that when she qualified at Wimbledon beating Jankovic along the way. She has so much determination. She works extremely hard.
In my mind, she’s improving, trying to get better. She’s not as focused on day-to-day results it is about getting better at her game. I think last year was a tough year for her.
I think players figured her game out. She had a little bit more of a target on her back. And I think it was a tough year for her to get used to all the attention, all the publicity and really the expectation of being the next great American.
She handles it well. She has a great head on her shoulders. For Fed Cup, she’s been instrumental, and I couldn’t ask for a better team player because she really puts the team first.
You’ve seen her play. She fights for every single ball from the first ball to the last. That’s what you want to see during team competition.
So she’ll get there again. I think she’s doing the right thing. She’s trying to get, develop a better serve, a little bit more power. She’s trying to become a little more offensive. For me, the important thing is if she can’t get away from her strength, from her movement, from her consistency. I think that’s really what got her the breakthrough and she’s got to have that balance and combination in her game.

Q. Is this going to be the key for her to jump to that top 20 level?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Again, I think her base is how quick she is and how well she can maneuver around the court and defend. For someone that tall, she really packs a pretty big punch with her forehand. She’s trying to learn to use that better and be a little more aggressive. You just can’t come, I think, too much outside your game sometimes and leave the consistency behind. So once she starts figuring out the balance of the two, I think that’s when she’s going to start winning a lot more matches.

TIM CURRY: While we wait for further questions to be queued, I wanted to mention that win or lose, the U.S. Fed Cup team will play their next match the weekend of April 16-17. If the U.S. wins, we will host the winner of the Slovak Repubic/Czech Republic quarterfinal. If we lose, we will be competing the World Group Playoff that weekend, most likely against one of the teams currently in World Group II, to determine our status for the 2012 Fed Cup.

Q. Just curious to get your thoughts on some of the results of some of the young American women, in particular Lauren Davis and Beatrice Capra, Christina (McHale), Coco (Vandeweghe), and if any of them will be coming along as practice partners to Belgium?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Sure. Lauren Davis will be coming along as one of our young players. Won the (USTA) wildcard playoff tournament to the Australian Open and lost to Sam Stosur in the first right here. And playing Juniors and had a tough win yesterday, and I think she’s on court again today. So I’m looking forward to having her there.
She’s won so many matches in the last season winning Juniors and Challengers and everything. So I think it’s something like 35, 36 matches. She’s definitely one to watch.
And we had eight American women in the main draw here that were 21 years old and younger, which was really nice to see, and that included Christina McHale and Coco Vandeweghe. Alison Riske, Jamie Hampton. So it was a nice break-through.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get past the first round. So we still have a lot of work to do. But they’re slowly getting there. I really believe that all these women should be in the top 100. They should be consistently getting into the majors and perhaps going a lot further and breaking the top 50. I think it was a big step to get so many in the main draw, whether it was through qualifying or like Lauren won the (USTA) wildcard tournament and got straight in risk got straight in, and (Irina) Falconi came thru qualifying as well. It’s definitely looking better. And the women are working hard.
I was down in Florida, the USTA Training Center in December, watching a lot of the girls practice and they’re taking it really seriously. And that’s why I really suspect a big jump from a lot of them here in 2011.

TIM CURRY: Many of the top young players that Mary Joe mentioned, including Coco Vandeweghe, Allison Riske and Irina Falconi, will be competing at the $100,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Midland, Mich., the week following Fed Cup as well as some of the young players who have been part of previous U.S. Fed Cup teams such as Sloane Stephens, Alexa Glatch and Christina McHale. Qualifying in Midland actually begins while the Fed Cup matches are being contested.

Q. Did Jim Courier at all stop you or ask for any tips since he’s starting his captaincy and yet you recently did, I was wondering if you guys had any conversation on that?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: We’ve had a few conversations about what a long road it’s been, two South Florida juniors have come through, and he is Davis Cup captain and I’m Fed Cup captain, how nice that is. I’ve known Jim forever. And I think he’s going to do a fantastic job. Tips, no. He jokes around all the time, how do I get to the final my first year. (Laughter)
But, again, he’s a great guy. He’s very smart. He knows his tennis. Strategy. Great camaraderie with all the U.S. men and looking forward to seeing him do great things with the Davis Cup team.

Q. Wondering your opinion on potentially Rafael Nadal can win the Nadal Slam, it won’t be a calendar slam, but it will be a non-calendar slam. Particularly in the men’s game, I know it’s been done in the women’s game, nobody’s done it since 1969. And when Rod did it as a calendar slam, if he does that how do you view that accomplishment?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: I think it would be unbelievable. I mean, for him to get four in a row during a time where the competition is just so high would be outstanding and what I love about Nadal is his improvement, just in the last few years. I mean, every year he’s better. And for someone who just started off as a great clay quarter, you know, now he dominates on every surface. He’s remarkable. So he’s very close. I think he can do it.
And it would be just, it would be great to see because it has been a long time since it’s been done. And I think it would be great for tennis, too.

Q. Wanted to ask how have you treated putting on the different hats or roles of potential coach, friend, mentor, even parent sometimes to these young girls, and if you could talk about a situation where you’ve had to play those different roles?
CAPTAIN FERNANDEZ: Well, one of the things I really enjoy about Fed Cup and the week of Fed Cup is learning — now I have a sort of base group that I’m getting to know really well. But their personalities. I mean, everybody’s very different. Billie Jean King was my mentor, Fed Cup and Olympic captain.
And she’s always giving me such great advice about how you really have to treat each individual differently and learn what works with each one.
Some like to be talked to more, some less. When to find those moments. And the most important thing for me is to try to get the best out of them, to make them the best they can be. And it’s a challenge. But for me it’s very rewarding. It’s a lot of fun. And I enjoy following all these American women through the year. And at a time now where we’re really trying to develop the next generation of players, it’s fun. It’s been exciting, and I enjoy, when I watch them practice and see what their intentions are, what their goals are.
So you are, you’re coach, you’re friend, you’re trying to help any which way you can. And they become family, the ones that you deal with on a very frequent basis, and it’s been — I’ve said this before, it’s been a great experience. And one of the favorite things that I get to do.
TIM CURRY: Thank you.