Graf's greatest day

Steffi's staying power crowns a classic contest as Sanchez fights to the last
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the greatest finals in Wimbledon history yesterday offered the best possible riposte to those who say women's tennis lacks quality when Steffi Graf beat Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to claim her sixth title here, and her 17th in Grand Slams.

Graf beat Sanchez 4-6 6-1 7-5 in two hours, two minutes of utterly enthralling tennis, culminating in an extraordinary, 20-minute penultimate game which Graf finally wrested from her opponent to set herself up for victory. As with all the best sporting encounters, it was the fluctuations in the match and the way it built in excitement before reaching a sensational climax that made it so memorable.

There were distinct phases: an early period of gloriously open tennis from both players in which Sanchez deservedly emerged with the first set; a stretch of Graf domination in the middle in which she won the second set and went a break up in the third; Sanchez's recovery, when tiredness seemed to have done for her, to lead 5-4 in the third.

And then there was the game that Sanchez served at 5-5 in the third - 32 points, 13 deuces, eight game points, six break-points - which for sheer tension bore comparison with the Borg-McEnroe tie-break of 1980. But once Graf had broken her, it was all over. Graf served out to love to complete a match which will live in the memory for years.

Another chapter is thus added to the Graf legend. The 26-year-old German began the year fearing for her future in the game because of a chronic back problem. But she has lived with it to remain unbeaten in all six of the tournaments she has entered, including the French Open in Paris last month where, as here, Sanchez was the player who had to yield to her in the final.

That match was also a three-setter, but paled by comparison with yesterday's contest. Although Graf's stock of greatness rises yet further with this result, Sanchez, too, is now a Wimbledon heroine. They say nobody remembers who came second. But in this case it is hard to imagine anybody will forget the 23-year-old Spaniard, who, in her first Wimbledon final, put up one of the performances of her life.

The crowd loved her for it. Clay is Sanchez's natural surface, but she showed here that she has no reason to doubt her ability on grass or her chances of one day lifting the Wimbledon trophy.

Graf's greater experience and more suitable game for the conditions counted for a lot. But it came down to a gripping battle of wills in which the depths of Graf's own resources were tested to the limit by a woman whose renowned fighting spirit never glowed more brightly.

Graf was the overwhelming favourite, Sanchez the one who surprised even herself by reaching the final, never having got further than the quarter- finals in eight previous attempts. But, on another hot afternoon, the sight of spectators fanning themselves must have made the Spaniard feel at home.

The final got off to a tremendous start as both players, timing the ball superbly and hitting with wonderful freedom, won their opening service games to love. At this stage, the match was mainly being fought out over a series of astonishingly high- quality rallies in which both players hit with such skill and accuracy that they were drawing gasps from the crowd. Some of Sanchez's recovery shots defied belief, while the 24-stroke rally they had when she served at 2-3 in the first set was as good as anything you will ever see.

There was only one break in the first set, Sanchez benefiting from a missed inside-out forehand from Graf to lead 4-3. But having taken the first set 6-4, Sanchez went into decline and Graf imposed herself, racing through the second set 6-1. When she broke Sanchez to lead 2-1 in the third, the Spaniard's challenge looked spent.

But Sanchez dug deeper: a Graf double-fault helped her bring it back to 2-2. From then on, it was toe-to-toe stuff, before we reached the game that seemed to contain the entire match. The first deuce in the match did not come until the fourth game of the second set: now they went on for ever.

Sanchez got to her first game point with a forehand drop shot that testified to her bravery; to her second with a brilliant wrong-footing forehand down the line. Graf threw in a searing backhand return of serve. Sanchez got down to a low backhand volley of sumptuous delicacy. And so it went on, every point a drama of its own, until Graf hit an approach shot of cruel depth and Sanchez's backhand reply flopped into the net.

Graf had never experienced anything like that game, she said. "Neither of us really played any loose points, nobody gave up," she said. "There was some great tennis." The rest was almost a formality, Sanchez hitting long at 40-0 and Graf nearly falling into her in relief when they met at the net.

Sanchez, who said she was very happy with the way she played, saved one of her best touches for the prize-giving ceremony, cheekily taking the winner's salver out of Graf's hands and swapping it for the much smaller one she had won as runner-up. And it could so easily have turned out like that.

l Sanchez Vicario's doubles final with Jana Novotna against the holders, Gigi Fernadez and Natasha Zvereva, came to a halt at 4-4 in the final set in gathering gloom yesterday evening. Having lost the first set 7- 5, Sanchez and Novotna took the second set by the same score, but after two appeals by Fernandez and Zvereva, the referee, Alan Mills, brought matters to a close just after 9pm.