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The day when... Miami applauded a 13 year-old-player
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The day when... Miami applauded a 13 year-old-player

It was 30 years ago, in 1985, at the Miami tournament: Mary Jo Fernandez became the youngest winner of a match on the WTA Tour, at 13 years and 6 months. A crazy era of women's tennis, when Sabatini, 14, and Steffi Graff, 15, were the other figureheads of this amazing baby bottle class.

 

Delray Beach, Florida, on the 5th of February 1985. That day, on the courts on the Miami tournament, then called the Lipton International Players Championships, two Americans over 16 years apart played against each other: Candy Reynolds, who was then almost 30, and Mary Joe Fernandez, 13 and not even 6 months old. It was the latter, young teenager, who inevitably attracted the attention of the public, especially since she was dominating her senior by not showing any mercy. The score: 6/0 6/0! "MJ" became the attraction of the tournament and passed two more rounds with victories on the South African Yvonne Vermaak (6/3 6/3) and her compatriot Bonnie Gadusek, seeded No. 11 (7/6 7/6), before finally losing in the round of 16 against the dreaded Czech Hana Mandlíková who would win a few months later the US Open, where Mary Joe Fernandez would beat another record, that of the youngest player of the women's tour to win a Grand Slam match, dominating the British Sara Gomer in the first round (6/1 6/4) four days after her fourteenth birthday.

 

Pro only a year later

 

But who was this precocity phenomenon, double record holder that still stand today? A young schoolgirl from Miami, major host city of the Spanish-speaking population in the south-eastern United States, where her family moved when she was a few months old. Mary Joe - born Maria Jose - was born in the Dominican Republic, where her Spanish father and Cuban mother met. If she quickly proved to be predisposed racquet in hand, her trainings weren't at the expense of her education, said her father Jose Fernandez in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1986. « Whether she likes it or not, Mary Joe continues his education. However, we will never force her to play tennis if she doesn't want to. » Words at the antipodes of the tyrant Parents stereotype pushing their young offspring toward excellence. The young champion continued her studies in parallel with tournaments for more than a year before finally turning pro in 1986. She would win her first tournament in 1989 and it would be the following year, when she turned 19 that would be the most accomplished of her career. She finished the season fourth in the world, and retired shortly before her 30th birthday, in 2000, with 7 singles titles and 19 in doubles, including the Australian Open in 1991 and Roland Garros in 1996.

 

Amongst men too…

 

To come back to the year 1985 and this Miami tournament record, it’s interesting to see thirty years after, the number of teenagers that were participating. Mary Joe Fernandez was the youngest of all but there also were her compatriots Melissa Gurney and Stephanie Rehe, both 15, as well as Gabriela Sabatini, 14, or Steffi Graf, semi-finalist in the competition, defeated in the last four by Chris Evert, 30. The era was for baby champions since during that same year, 1985, the ATP season was also marked by the victory in the first round of the Buenos Aires tournament of the Argentine Franco Davin, 15, against the Chilean top seed Hans Gildemeister, making him still today the youngest player to have ever won a match on the men's tour. Today the youngest of the tour are the American Catherine Bellis, 15 years and 11 months old, 211th player in the world and the South Korean Duck Hee Lee, 16 years and 10 months old, 470th player in the world. Suffice to say that the records of Mary Joe Fernandez and Franco Davin are still far from falling...

 

By Régis Delanoë