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Tennis / Thomas Bonk : At 17, Fernandez Begins New Chapter in Her Career

Her lessons have moved from the classroom to the tennis court for good now, which means Mary Joe Fernandez is going to be missed at her desk when she’s at the baseline instead.

“I don’t think I’ll ever laugh in history class again,” said Marilupe Ortiz, 17.

Sometimes when Ortiz glanced up from her book, she would see Fernandez making faces at her through a window from the hall.

“I laughed so hard I cried,” she said. “I thought I was going to have to swim out of class.”

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High school missed Fernandez, too, last month when her 48-girl senior class in Miami held its graduation ceremony and Mass.

The ceremonies at Carrollton School for the Sacred Heart went on without Fernandez because she was not in town. Instead, Fernandez, 17, was in Paris playing the semifinals of the French Open, so Sylvia Fernandez accepted her daughter’s diploma as well as a bouquet of roses.

“There are few like her,” Sylvia Fernandez said.

After reaching the semifinals in Paris, where she lost to eventual champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, and the fourth round at Wimbledon, Fernandez seems to have moved into tennis’ graduate school.

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Fernandez brings her new No. 14 ranking to the $300,000 Virginia Slims of Los Angeles, where Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Gabriela Sabatini are already at the head of the class. Monica Seles, 15, and Pam Shriver, 27, are also entered in the event, which will be played Aug. 7-13 at Manhattan Country Club.

In the time since Fernandez turned pro, six months after her 14th birthday, she has always played part-time while going to school. But now that she has graduated, Fernandez will play the tour full-time, even though that doesn’t mean she has stopped thinking about high school.

Carrollton is small enough that its students are a close-knit bunch, and Fernandez is learning to associate playing tournaments with opportunities to visit former classmates.

In Boston, she can visit Catherine Dillon, who will be enrolled at Boston College. Michelle Medina will be at Stanford and there is a tournament in Oakland. Another friend is going to be at Emory in Atlanta, and Ortiz plans to attend Northwestern, when she graduates from Carrollton.

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Fernandez was an A student even though she could miss two months at a time because of her tennis. Looking at it a different way, Fernandez managed to improve her tennis even though she might have been distracted by schoolwork.

“I guess I’m relieved that doing both is over,” she said. “It takes a lot of pressure off me. Now, I’ll just have one thing to worry about.”

Her young career already features a turning point--her semifinal appearance at the French Open. Even though Fernandez’s greatest moment came on the clay courts of Roland Garros, she still considers herself capable of similar results on hard or fast courts.

“The French obviously showed I can compete with anyone out there,” she said. “I was two matches away from winning it, which is nothing. My goal is to win any Grand Slam (event). I won’t be picky. Wimbledon?”

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And although her career is only now beginning in earnest, Fernandez is already thinking about when it may end. Evert told her that when she was 17, she thought she would quit at 25. That was nine years ago. Fernandez can’t see herself playing beyond 27 or 28 and said she may even quit sooner than that.

“I want to be a young grandmother,” she said.

Memo to the USTA: So just how popular with the players is your U.S. Open? Not very, apparently.

According to a survey in the Tennis magazine of France, 89 of the top men and women professionals did not rate the U.S. Open highly when comparing it to the other three Grand Slam events--the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.

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The U.S. Open was rated last in the category of best organization, last in best audience, last in players’ facilities, last in transportation, last in most beautiful stadium, last in best welcome, last in food, last in trophy ceremony and last in scheduling.

Players surveyed included John McEnroe, Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Yannick Noah, Pam Shriver, Helena Sukova and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.

Their sentiments and those of the other players can’t be considered much of a surprise anymore. Last, maybe, but certainly not least, the U.S. Open at Flushing Meadow is a great championship that seems to be viewed in an increasing disagreeable light.

One thing players at the U.S. Open can’t complain about is the money. The men’s and women’s singles champions will receive a record $300,000.

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First-round losers in qualifying will receive $1,000.

The total purse this year will be a record $5,124,000. This is the first time the U.S. Open prize money has exceeded $5 million and it’s 17% more than last year’s total of $4,371,500.

Today’s question: Does anyone in the men’s top 10 play without a racket contract? The answer is that four of them do: No. 2 Boris Becker, No. 3 Stefan Edberg, No. 4 Mats Wilander and No. 5 John McEnroe.

Becker must be enjoying the price of success. His deep pockets may be filling up rapidly. After winning his third Wimbledon title, Becker is expected to be worth an estimated $7.5 million off the court.

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Becker is negotiating a $2.5-million endorsement with a West German dairy. He already has million-dollar contracts with four companies, and his appearance fee for exhibitions is $120,000.

Wunderbar: Wimbledon champion Steffi Graf and the entire West German Federation Cup team will play in the Great American Bank Tennis Tournament, July 31-Aug. 6 in San Diego.

Graf, who is making her only West Coast tournament appearance, is going to have plenty of familiar company with the team that won the Federation Cup in 1987: Sylvia Hanika, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch and Claudia Porwik.

Also entered are Wimbledon quarterfinalists Gretchen Magers and Rosalyn Fairbank, who both live in San Diego, and Pam Shriver and Lori McNeil.

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The $200,000 tournament will be played at the San Diego Tennis and Racket Club.


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