Arantxa Sanchez Vicario by Rex Bellamy
From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990
In order of seniority the leaders of the new generation, other than Graf, are Sabatini, Zvereva, Mary Joe Fernandez, Sanchez, Martinez, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati. All were born between 1970 and 1976.
In terms of tennis, physique, and character, they are poised at an intermediate stage of development. Consequently it would be futile to speculate about which is likely to give Graf most cause for concern in the next few years. The only point one will make is that in 1989, her fist year on the grand slam circuit, the 15-year-old Seles provided the most spectacular evidence of star quality.
From 1985 to 1988 Graf’s obvious contemporary rival was Sabatini, who occasionally beat her but could never manage to do sp on the big occasions. Dark, glamorous, and immensely marketable in promoting a variety of commercial products, Sabatini became a millionairess without winning anything of shattering importance. On the other hand she was a consistently prominent teenager and made two dents in the game’s history: by becoming the youngest French semi-finalist (in 1985, at the age of 15) and the first player from Argentina to reach the women’s singles final of a Grand Slam tournament (at Flushing Meadow in 1988). At 5ft 8in she is, like Graf, ideally built for women’s tennis but has to work hard to counter a tendency towards languor. Her game features heavy top-spin on both flanks – tiring for her but even more tiring for her opponents – and from time to time she lets fly with a fierce backhand down the line, one of the most dazzling shots in the modern women’s game.
Zvereva, from Minsk, is almost a year younger but, on the evidence so far available, is a smarter and slightly more versatile competitor: and the best player to emerge from the Soviet Union since Olga Morozova almost 20 years earlier. In 1988 Zvereva beat both Navratilova and Helena Sukova in straight sets on her way to the French final but, overawed and overpowered, could take only 13 points from Graf in an embarrassing 32-minute match.
Fernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but lives in Miami, is a baseliner in the Chris Evert mould. In 1985, at the age of 14, she became the youngest player to win a match in the US Open and nine months later she advanced to the last eight in Paris. In 1989 she had to miss her high school graduation ceremony because, in Paris, she had reached a Grand Slam semi-final for the first time.
Martinez, four months younger than Sanchez, is bigger and in many respects potentially better than her springy little compatriot. In 1988 Martinez joined the circuit and also beat Sanchez to win the Spanish national championship. In 1989 Grand Slam events it took either Graf or Sabatini to beat her.
Seles, too, has an unusual backgound for a tennis player: Novi Sad in Yugoslavia, though she lives in Florida and comes across as a typically outgoing American teenager. In 1989 she rang the alarm bells by beating Evert in Houston and then reached the semi-finals in Paris and the last 16 at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. Seles serves left-handed and hits her two-fisted ground strokes so hard that one almost expects smoke to rise from the court whenever she plays. She basks in the limelight as if born to it, plays to the gallery, gunts with effort as she explodes into her shots, and has an inimitably engaging giggle that sounds like a muted but busy machine-gun. A great entertainer – and clearly a champion in the making if her body can withstand the strain she puts on it.
But Seles, precocious though she is, must look out for another Florida-based prodigy, Capriati, who is two years and three months younger. Capriati plays a more conventional game, awfully well, and under her father’s guidance has begun to benefit from the modern science of physical conditioning at a younger age than the likes of Margaret Court and Navratilova did.
Which leaves us in the delightful company of the chubby and cheerful Sanchez, who never reached the semi-finalof a Grand Slam event until she had the sauce to beat Graf 7-6 3-6 7-5 in the 1989 French Open final. The match lasted two hours and 58 minutes, which meant that Graf was playing the longest match of her career when she was not at her peak. In boxing parlance, Graf punched herself out. She was forced to play too many shots. But she had two set points in the first set (her backhand let her down) and led 5-3 in the third, only to lose 13 of the next 14 points. At 5-6 down in the third set the pallid Graf had to dash to the dressing room because of stomach cramps and at 30-all in the next game she hurried to her chair for a quick drink. But what made her feel ill was, more than anything else, the fact that she spent far too long clobbering a punchbag with a mind of its own.
Sanchez was quick in her anticipation and footwork, inexhaustible in her energy and fighting spirit, and boldly resourceful in seizing chances to take the ball early and hit blazing ripostes. Gasping with effort, she bounced about the court like a pintable ball fresh off the starting spring, and kept rallies going long after Graf’s assault should, logically, have ended them.
Towards the end Sanchez even began to fancy her chances as a volleyer – and did rather well in that unfamiliar role. She had an engaging swagger, a ready smile, and the air of a dishevelled, overworked waitress with a knack of keeping all the customers happy. Sanchez had the time of her life, grew Graf’s sting, and at the end of the match tumbled on to the court like a romping puppy and bounced up with clay-spattered clothes and a broad grin. It had been a great lark.
The popular little champion went back to Barcelona and more public acclaim, more bouquets, and met King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia. How marvellously she had built on the confidence gained in Rome, where she had reached the final, and on the inspiring example of Michael Chang, who expanded her horizons in Paris when he beat the top men’s seed, Ivan Lendl.
Sanchez kept it up too, reaching the last eight at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow before Graf and Sabatini in turn arrested her progress. Her Wimbledon performance was embellished by a brillantly cheeky drop-shot when she was match point down to Raffaella Reggi. Thus it was that a bubbly lass with a sunny disposition had four dream-like months in the summer of her 18th year. If she has anything to teach her contemporaries it lies in the fun she has playing tennis and the fact that she never gives up on a point. But one suspect that because of her background, build, and playing method, she may excel only on clay.
The stocky Sanchez is about 5ft 6in tall. Spaniads are traditionally attuned to clay and Sanchez has sharpened her game in the company of two older brothers, Emilio and Javier, who made their mark on the professional tour while she was still advancing towards its fringe. It is no discredit to either that they cannot match their sister’s joyously boisterous approach to tennis and to life.