Not long after the first Gulf War, I got to sit down and record an interview with Mary Joe Fernandez, who was about 3 years into a pro career. If I’m being honest, I am not the world’s best interviewer. For starters, I can have a lot to say and I’m not shy when it comes to voicing an opinion. I’m therefore better suited to those willing to swap a few jokes, as well as have a hot discussion: coaxing publicity handouts from pampered egos, which is what most ‘interviews’ have become, is just not me.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I recently replayed a tape of an interview with Mary Joe. I reckon we got as close to a real conversation as it’s possible to, considering we were starting from scratch (with an allocation of 20 minutes), although when listening to it again, I occasionally wanted to give myself a smack in the mouth for interrupting what she was attempting to say.
On the morning of what was a blisteringly hot day, I’d put sun cream on every part of my exposed skin…or so I thought, though it turned out I’d missed my ears. I hadn’t felt them burning and probably wouldn’t have noticed. But in the afternoon, when I was roaming around the outside courts with my cameras, I saw Marianne Werdel and one of the other American players touching their ears and giggling in my direction. When I saw myself in a mirror, I looked like someone had stuck a glowing red ear on each side of my head.
Not surprisingly, I was a bit self conscious when I turned up for the interview later in the day (didn’t stop be butting in), wearing two bright red ears which looked like they’d been painted on by a pre-school play group…only by this time the paint was peeling off. And it didn’t do much for my confidence when Mary Joe, for whom I’d always had a soft spot, arrived in the interview room, fresh out of the shower, her hair in a plait and looking bronzed-bloody-gorgeous.
Strangely, she appeared even less comfortable than me and her first words amounted to a nervy, fumbled apology for being ‘not very good at this sorda thing’, which makes me wonder how she has been transformed into the confident creature who asks the questions in on-court, post-match interviews at the US Open.
Anyhow, we ambled along quite naturally, with only the occasional hiccup: Mary Joe reiterating that she wasn’t ‘very good at this sorda thing’, and me opening my big mouth when I should’ve kept schtum. I also kept throwing her a sneaky glance, to see if she was staring at my playgroup ears.
Towards the end of the interview, I asked if she remembered what she was doing the day the (Gulf War started?
She became very animated. Mary Joe remembered the dayclearly. She was playing a second round match in the Grand Slam of her favourite country, Australia, and ‘couldn’t believe I was playing. It made the match seem not important at all. What am I doing playing tennis when we’re at war? You check your priorities.’
The conversation was getting interesting just when it was about to end. As I got the nod from WTA man Doug sitting at the next table, telling me that my time was up, I asked who she most admired?
‘Mother Teresa’, she answered like a well-schooled Catholic girl.
Some years earlier I’d been in Calcutta and met Mother Teresa. I think you need to be Catholic to understand the unnerving magnitude of this next bit, but one night, when Calcutta was in one of its many electricity blackouts, I came out of the chapel at Mother House and walked right into Mother on the balcony. She said there was a lovely Priest at the house and he was hearing Confessions: would I like to go? She got hold of my hand and kind of sent me to Confession (I tried wriggling out of it, but few, if any, got the better of Mother).
I’m no Saint, more-so in the heady testosterone years, and I hadn’t been to Confession in…oh, yeah-long.
Sweat? Phew! I don’t think I have ever sweat so much on a tennis court.
Anyway, before I left Calcutta I asked Mother for some signed bits of paper to take back to England: sort of a keepsake, for family and friends, and at the time I’d kept one back for myself.
I took my Filofax from my camera bag, pulled out the slip of paper, on which Mother had scribbled a few words and gave it to Mary Joe. Maybe she thought it was a forgery (I’ve always looked a bit dodgy!), but, apart from stunned thank-yous, it left her speechless.
As it was my last one, I suppose I should look back on it with a measure of regret, but I never have. Mainly because being there at Mother House, in that situation, is one of the most powerful memories I have, and no memento comes close to the reality. Also, I felt Mary Joe was (no doubt still is) a genuinely humble, sweet human being.
And on a day when my self-esteem was low and I was in need of a little tenderness (to prevent expensive and un-Catholic therapy!), she had the human decency not to stare at my bright red, Freddie Kruger ears.