Graf wins in the long run

French Open: German achieves a tearful final triumph as Sanchez Vicario takes her rival to the limit once again
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Steffi Graf and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario produced an epic to rival last year's Wimbledon final at the French Open yesterday, Graf successfully defending the title, 6-3 6-7 10-8, after just over three hours.

It was the German's 19th Grand Slam singles title, which puts her one ahead of Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and second only to Margaret Court, who won 24.

As at Wimbledon, Sanchez Vicario left with the runners-up prize plus immense admiration for her competitive spirit. At the All England Club, she contested an unforgettable 20-minute game with Graf. Yesterday, the pair played a total of 40 games, a new record for the French Open final - taking over from Britain's Angela Mortimer and the American Dorothy Knode who played 38 in 1955.

But the occasion was about passion rather than mere statistics, and Graf was in tears as she embraced her opponent at the conclusion. Nor did she try to conceal her emotion when she gave special thanks to her father, Peter, "back home".

Although she had to make two attempts at addressing the crowd in French, they quickly caught on that she was thanking them for their support over the last 14 years, and they made it clear that they want her back as often as possible.

Both players must have believed they had the match in their grasp long before the various twists of form and fortune finally settled the trophy in Graf's hands for the fifth time. That tied her with Court, but leaves her two behind Evert.

Sanchez Vicario led 4-2 in the final set, and twice served for the title. To the Spaniard's frustration, Graf delivered the decisive blows. There were a number of disputed calls, but not in the concluding game.

Graf hit the baseline with three consecutive shots before Sanchez Vicario drove a backhand long to offer the first match point. It was all the German required, and she kept the ball in play until her opponent netted a backhand.

The opening three games indicated that it would be a long, drawn-out contest. Graf saved a break point in the first, battling through five deuces to hold serve after eight minutes. The champion then broke to love, only to double-fault and miss a forehand enabling Sanchez Vicario to level.

However, when Graf broke again for 3-1, the remainder of the set took a predictable course in the German's favour. Although irritated by the odd line call, Graf controlled the majority of the points and was able to serve the set out to love after 37 minutes.

The pattern seemed about to continue when Sanchez Vicario double-faulted at 15-30 in the opening game. But the Spaniard swiftly salvaged the situation, saving one of the break points with a forehand drive and the second by out-rallying her opponent in a 30-shot duel.

From that point the balance began to shift, even though Sanchez Vicario appeared incapable of holding an advantage. She broke for 3-1 and again for 4-2, only for Graf to pull level.

The Spaniard had two break points for 5-3. Graf saved the first and Sanchez Vicario over-hit the second. Sanchez Vicario still came within two points of taking the set before the tie-break, when she led 5-4, 30-0 with Graf serving.

When it came to the shoot-out, Graf swept into a 4-1 lead - and contrived to lose it. While Sanchez deserves credit for thundering a forehand down the line for 4-2, Graf then made four consecutive errors to go 4-6, and compounded the situation by double-faulting on set point.

The effect on both players was immediately apparent. Sanchez Vicario, relieved to be still in the match, began to punish Graf with confident shot-making.

She broke for 3-2, causing Graf to miss a forehand by hitting a potent return, and had two more break points for 5-2. Even after she had been broken for 5-5, Sanchez Vicario continued to pursue a third title with characteristic determination.

Her hopes were raised when Graf steered a backhand long to go down 6- 7, but after the German delivered a winner on the crucial point in the next game, it was Wimbledon all over again. "I think this was the most spectacular match we've had," Graf said afterwards.