Andrea Temesvari said Mary Joe Fernandez never did anything to hurt her. Ann Hobbs said she would like to see Fernandez play on a fast surface. Today, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch said Fernandez was "a little bit lucky at the end."
The three women have one thing in common: Fernandez defeated each of them. After an impressive 7-6, 7-5 upset of fourth-seeded Kohde-Kilsch this afternoon, Fernandez is in the quarterfinals of the French Open. That's not bad for a 14-year-old from Miami who has just finished ninth grade.
"I never thought I would get this far," Fernandez said. "I'm kind of in shock that I won today."
She is not alone. Kohde-Kilsch looked like she could not believe what was happening as the match progressed. She kept looking into the stands, where her parents and coach were sitting, as if to say, "What is going on here?"
What was going on was just what has gone on all week here. Behind her braces, tiny gold earrings and little-girl look, Fernandez is remarkably tough. In her first-round match, she took a first-set tie-breaker from Helen Kelesi and won in straight sets. In the second round, she came from a set down to beat Temesvari. Today, she came from 3-1 down in the first set and 4-2 down in the tie-breaker to win.
"I just keep telling myself that it's just another match," Fernandez said. "Maybe that's what they older players should do when they play me. Today, I thought she started getting upset with herself. After a while, I felt like I could win but I tried not to think about it because if I did I would have gotten nervous."
Fernandez, who next plays No. 6 seed Helena Sukova, doesn't seem to get nervous. "She's very steady," said Martina Navratilova, who has watched Fernandez play. "She doesn't seem to do anything that will get you in trouble, but she doesn't give up any easy points."
Fernandez is not the youngest quarterfinalist in the history of this tournament -- Kathy Rinaldi was three months younger when she reached the quarters in 1981 -- although she would be the youngest semifinalist. She still has a long way to go with her volleying. In many ways, she plays like her idol, Chris Evert Lloyd, did when she arrived on the tennis scene at the U.S. Open in 1971. Fernandez was a two-week-old baby in the Dominican Republic at the time.
"Chris has always been my idol," Fernandez said. "Maybe that's why I hit my two-fisted backhand just like her. I've watched her hit it so many times it's natural that I would copy it."
More important, to tennis people, is the fact that Fernandez hits her forehand flat, rather than with topspin. Many of the teen phenoms of recent years have had shoulder or elbow problems at a young age largely because of topspin.
"When I first saw her play at age 12, I thought she was wonderful," said Ted Tinling, the 75-year-old wonder who has watched women's tennis for 60 years. "But the best thing I saw about her was that she hit her forehand flat. She is the most innocuous, ungainly looking thing in the world but she's bloody hard to beat."
Fernandez has shot up to 5 feet 9 in the last 18 months and has a beanpole appearance. She turned pro in February and has been training this year with Australian great Fred Stolle. "She's got all the ground strokes already," Stolle said. "We're spending a lot of time right now working on her volleying. It will get better."
Even at such a young age, Fernandez is a terrific big-point player. Today, trailing by 4-2 in the tiebreaker, she whipped off two backhand winners to get even. Kohde-Kilsch, surprised, whacked a backhand long to go down, 5-4. Now nervous, Kohde-Kilsch double-faulted. On set point, she came in behind a serve and punched a volley wide.
"I didn't expect her to make those mistakes," Fernandez said. "But I'm sure glad she did."