The Fernandez family: A lifelong ‘love affair,’ nourished by faith
Mike Nelson Sep 7, 2017
How many parents have not just one but two sets of twin daughters? How many of them see all four become nationally ranked junior tennis players, collegiate champions and professional tour competitors?
And how many of them see all four play for the same high school — at the same time — and win a CIF championship? With mom as the coach?
Meet the Fernandez family of the South Bay: parents Dolores and Carlos, twin daughters Anna Maria and Anna Lucia, and (not quite three years younger) twin daughters Cecilia and Elisa. Four decades ago, the Fernandez family led Bishop Montgomery High School of Torrance to the 1977 Division 4A girls tennis championship, capping a remarkable three-year run that saw both older girls play twice for the singles title, and all four battle for the doubles title.
Today, the Fernandez family — which now includes the daughters’ husbands and their kids (12 in all) — maintains a close-knit bond forged in part by their attachment to tennis, but primarily by a strong belief in family and faith. That includes Catholic school upbringing and a parenting/coaching philosophy that emphasizes encouragement over results.
Not that they have a problem with being remembered as the first Catholic high school team and individuals in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to win CIF titles in girls’ tennis.
“Oh, of course, we enjoyed winning the championship,” said Dolores Fernandez, who with her husband of 57 years still lives in Torrance, still attends St. Lawrence Martyr Church where their daughters were baptized and attended the parish school, and still gets out on the court now and then to hit with her daughters or grandkids.
“But we always enjoyed being together as a family,” she added proudly. “And that continues today.”
Catholic school ties
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dolores graduated from St. Mary’s Academy when it was a boarding school at Slauson and Crenshaw. She was also a highly ranked junior tennis player who played in tournaments locally “and for my school,” and later graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College before marrying Carlos Fernandez, a civil engineer from Ecuador and Columbia University.
“He had no idea I played tennis,” Dolores recalled, laughing, “until one day I got out my trophies and said I wanted to put them up. ‘Where’d you get those?’ he said. Pretty soon, I was teaching him how to play.”
That was at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills, where their two sets of twin girls likewise took lessons from mom and, later, noted coach Robert Lansdorp (whose pupils also included Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport).
The girls also attended St. Lawrence Martyr School. “There was never a question about that,” said Dolores. “We were a Catholic family, Carlos and I had gone to Catholic school, and it made sense for our daughters to attend as well.”
“Our parents felt Catholic school gave us the best foundation for success as adults,” said Elisa Fernandez-Zimmerman, who since 2014 has been principal of St. Margaret Mary School in Lomita. “They dedicated their lives to raising us in sports and academics with a solid faith foundation.”
“Going to Catholic school and to church every Sunday kept our faith front and center in our lives,” added Cecilia Fernandez-Parker, who attends St. John Fisher Church in Rancho Palos Verdes with Dale, her husband of 30 years. “Most of our tennis friends were in public school, but we liked going to St. Lawrence.”
High school success
In the mid-1970s, the girls — all of them, like their mom two decades earlier, rising through the local junior tennis ranks — moved on to Bishop Montgomery High School, where Dolores coached the girls’ team. “A nice way to stay connected with my family,” she smiled.
As sophomores, Anna Maria and Anna Lucia reached the CIF-Southern Section Division 4A singles final in 1975, with Anna Maria winning 6-2-6-1. The following year’s final saw a nearly identical result (Anna Maria winning 6-2, 6-2).
And then came 1977, when they were joined by their twin sisters, freshmen Cecilia and Elisa (and, coincidentally, two nonrelated Fernandez girls, Teresa and Lulu).
“It was exciting,” said Cecilia, “but at the same time, the four of us had played in national junior events by then, so we didn’t feel a lot of pressure. And Mom was very encouraging and positive. She always believed in us, always believed that we could win if we went out and executed our shots just as we’d practiced them so many times.”
After winning their third straight Santa Fe League title, Bishop Montgomery defeated Newport in the CIF 4A team final. In the doubles final, Anna Maria and Anna Lucia beat Cecilia and Elisa, 6-3, 6-4 — “a lot of fun,” recalled Cecilia. “It was the highlight of our year.”
Who’d their parents cheer for? “Carlos and I just wanted the girls to play well,” said Dolores. “It wasn’t about who won or lost.”
“They were happy we were all in the finals,” added Cecilia, smiling. “They just sat back and watched.”
That ended the Fernandez girls’ high school playing days, as local and national juniors’ competition took priority.
“We were traveling throughout the year, especially all summer, which was fun, but it didn’t leave much time for competing in CIF,” said Dolores. “So we focused on the juniors’ events.”
In 1976, Anna Lucia teamed with Trey Lewis to win the national 16-and-under doubles title. A year later, Anna Maria did likewise partnered with future U.S. Open champ Tracy Austin, and in 1978 Anna Maria and Tracy repeated their victory to win the national 18-and-under doubles crown.
All four Fernandez girls earned full scholarships to play college tennis — Anna Maria, Anna Lucia and Cecilia at USC, and Elisa at Pepperdine. Each made multiple All-America teams; Anna Maria captured the national collegiate singles championship title in 1981, earning national “player of the year” honors; and the three “Trojan” Fernandez sisters each played on NCAA team champions.
Playing professionally on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, Anna Maria earned a No. 19 world ranking and won five doubles titles. She eventually married Australian tennis star Ray Ruffels (an Australian Open doubles champion), and they now split time between Laguna Niguel and Australia, with two teenage children fashioning their own athletic careers — in golf. Son Ryan, 19, plays on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, having won the 2014 Junior World Golf Championship, and daughter Gabriela, 16, is a top Australian amateur.
Anna Lucia played briefly on the pro tour, then married Ty Smith and raised two daughters locally. She recently moved with her husband to Florida after his job transfer, but visits California regularly.
Elisa played professionally for a brief time, attended law school at Western State University in Fullerton, coached at L.A. Harbor College, and since 2005 has taught at St. Margaret Mary Alacoque School (serving as principal since 2014). She’s also been married for 30 years to aerospace executive Stephen Zimmerman, with five adult children (three girls, two boys).
And Cecilia — who played professionally for five years — earned a teaching degree and has taught tennis at the Jack Kramer Club for more than 25 years. She and husband Dale Parker have three college-age, tennis-playing children (a son and two daughters).
“I enjoy instructing players of all ages and abilities,” said Cecilia. “Not many kids are going to give tennis the hours and years of dedication it takes to succeed at a high level, but I’m happy to see kids stay in the game and have fun with it.”
Dolores and Carlos, both retired, still live in Torrance within 10 minutes of Cecilia and Elisa, who occasionally persuade Dolores to hit with them (“Just to keep in shape,” grins Cecilia) or their kids. And family get-togethers happen regularly, as Anna Maria, Anna Lucia and their families visit as much as possible.
“We’re never far away from each other, really,” said Dolores, “and that is a blessing.”