Martina Navratilova and Conchita Martinez

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Conchita Martinez‘s victory at Wimbledon. Back then she was an underrated champion. She is now a respected and successful commentator and coach. Let’s go back in time…

By Diane Pucin, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
POSTED: November 06, 1994

Conchita Martinez seems such a lonely champion. She will walk around the streets of Philadelphia this week, and no one will stop. No one will point. No one will ask for an autograph or try to snap a surreptitious picture.

Martinez will earn polite applause on the tennis court, perhaps. Her game is efficient, but not spectacular, and the crowd will give its emotions to Jennifer Capriati and the start of her public comeback, or to the extroverted Mary Pierce, whose life has been filled with trauma and family misery, or to Gabriela Sabatini, the sweet, smiling woman who is the perpetual and beloved underdog.

The Virginia Slims of Philadelphia tennis tournament will start tomorrow at the Convention Center. Martinez will be the No. 1 seed and the defending champion. She will be the reigning Wimbledon champion. She will be anonymous.

This is always how it’s been for Martinez.

Once she was a frisky 5-year-old in Monzon, Spain, a town of 16,000 people, an hour and a half from Barcelona. Martinez saw her father and her brother play friendly games of tennis, so she asked for a racket, and she got one.

Martinez fell in love. She was talented, too, but there weren’t many people in Monzon who played tennis, so she hit the ball against a wall hour after hour, and the wall always cooperated: The wall always sent the ball back.

This was when tennis was perfect for Martinez, private and quiet. Except people saw Martinez, saw that her forehand was sharp and heavy, seemingly able to chop down trees. Martinez was tagged as promising and told she should go away to Barcelona all week, to a special school, away from her family, her two older brothers, and mother and father.

Martinez did this.

And she was lonely.

And she was determined.

Now she is a champion, a champion who treasures a few close friendships, her music, her motorcycle and her anonymity.

Martinez’s tennis coach is Eric van Harpen, a loud, exuberant man who discovered her when she was 15 years old and persuaded her to move to Switzerland. He prods her, pokes her, screams and yells, and will tell anybody who asks about Martinez’s failings. But van Harpen is also fiercely protective. He is insulted that Martinez isn’t always recognized for her talent and her accomplishments.

At home, in Spain, Martinez is always in the shadow of Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who plays tennis with a smile and a giggle and who makes friends easily.

Away from home, Martinez is just ignored. She isn’t No. 1 like Steffi Graf, the imperious queen who never smiles, but who is a graceful, unbeatable athlete, so good that she can’t be ignored. Martinez isn’t the elder stateswoman like Martina Navratilova, and doesn’t have the troubles of Capriati or Pierce. Martinez is just the person who always seems to be in the semifinals.

“For sure, she is overlooked,” van Harpen said. “For sure, she doesn’t like this. Even in Spain. She is not the people’s darling. It is bad luck a little that Conchita is behind Arantxa, but Conchita should deserve more recognition for what she has accomplished.”

Martinez is a Wimbledon champion, for goodness’ sakes. That should guarantee a certain dollop of fame. But it was Martinez’s destiny to win her first Grand Slam tournament at the Wimbledon that will go down in history as belonging to Navratilova. Navratilova, a nine-time champion, made a fabulous run to the final. Thirty-eight years old and on the verge of retirement, she played three taut sets with Martinez. Then Navratilova lost and cried and plucked a piece of grass to keep forever, and Martinez was in the background again, just a prop with a big trophy.

“It would be nice at Wimbledon, I think, if the crowds had cheered maybe a little more for the winner and a little less for Navratilova,” van Harpen said.

Martinez wouldn’t say that. The people at Wimbledon treated her very well, Martinez said, and Wimbledon was very wonderful, even for that nervous moment when Martinez had to curtsy in front of Princess Di before the match.

Martinez beat Navratilova, and that wasn’t the popular result. This did not result in immediate fame or any more fortune: no endorsements, none. That’s what Martinez said, and she didn’t sound angry or disappointed. This is normal.

It bothers van Harpen. But about this, van Harpen can do nothing. About Martinez owning only this one Grand Slam title so far, even though she is 22 years old and a pro for almost seven years, about that, van Harpen would like to do something.

Van Harpen thinks Martinez could be the best, better than Graf or Sanchez, who are ranked Nos. 1 and 2. He posed this question:

“What would be easier, for Graf to get the topspin backhand that she needs, and has been working on forever, which Conchita has? Or for Arantxa to get the forehand like Conchita? Or for Conchita to get the legs that Steffi and Arantxa have?”

This is the answer van Harpen wants. He wants Martinez to get the legs. He means by this that he wants Martinez to get in shape. Van Harpen thinks Martinez could be much fitter, and that, if she got much fitter, she would be No. 1.

When van Harpen first saw Martinez as a kid, he took a breath of shock. He saw a little, untrained girl who could think out a match, play the angles, plan the points. He taught this little girl a one-handed backhand, and he helped the little girl keep pummeling the other little girls with the heavy forehand. Now he wants the little girl to grow up and be No. 1.

“Of course, I want it,” Martinez said. She sounded angry for a moment when asked if she, really, truly, wants to be No. 1. “Of course, I do,” she said. “I am working with a trainer. I want to be No. 1, but it’s not so easy.”

It is not easy. And even if she does become No. 1, will that make Martinez popular? Will she be on Letterman, like Arantxa and Steffi and Martina? Will she be on magazine covers or in television commercials or billboards?

These are questions to be asked, but it is too late. Martinez must go. She has talked enough, and the phone clicks before you can even say thank you.