Marathon woman sets sights on final frontier

Clay-court specialist Sanchez is relishing the prospect of gaining grass distinction
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SHE should have gone down the line. There was a huge gap there. Amazingly, though, she went cross-court - right to where Steffi Graf was waiting. The crowd gasped. Graf could not believe her luck. She hammered a forehand winner to bring the score back to deuce.

We're talking "that" game here - 20 minutes' and 13 deuces' worth of almost unbearable tension that set the epic seal on last year's women's final and helped confer on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario the kind of Wimbledon heroine status that only the bravest losers acquire.

Serving at 5-5 in the third set, Sanchez held advantage no fewer than seven times, but it was on her fourth that she blew her best chance. "It was a very long point," she recalled during the French Open earlier this month. "I came to the net and I had a kind of a high volley, almost an overhead. I wanted to put it away down the line, but I played it cross- court and she was there. I did play the right shot - it was more that she was lucky."

Sanchez nearly won the game again two points later when a backhand landed an inch wide of the tramline. But in the end it was a netted backhand that gave Graf the game on her sixth advantage. The match, in effect, was over. Graf held her serve to love to win 4-6 6-1 7-5 in two hours in which the quality of the drama had matched the quality of the sport.

It was one of the great what-might-have-beens of modern tennis, but the down-to-earth Spaniard is not the type to dwell on that. "For a couple of months afterwards people kept telling me what an incredible match it was, but I don't think about it too much now. If you've played your best and someone beats you, I don't think there's anything you can do about it except to carry on trying to do things well and hopefully get better."

Sanchez also had the reassurance of a Centre Court audience which had come in expectation of a one-sided final but had thrilled to the way she ran and fought and pushed Graf to the brink. "I have a great memory of the crowd," Sanchez said. "A feeling that people were really enjoying themselves. At the end it was almost as if I had won."

Until last year, Sanchez had not exactly fired Wimbledon's imagination, mainly because Wimbledon had never done much for her. Whereas most players would regard victory there as the ultimate career achievement, Sanchez is steeped in the tradition of Spanish clay-court tennis, so for her the French Open was always the big goal. It remains the tournament closest to her heart. In 1989, at the age of 17, she became the youngest ever French champion - a record that would last only until the 16-year-old Monica Seles broke it the following year. In 1994, she won again at Roland Garros and, for the only time, at the US Open. She has twice been runner- up at the Australian Open.

Too often, though, Sanchez seemed to play Wimbledon as if it was an afterthought. Technique had to be adjusted, her mind reapplied. It was not easy. In both her first two years - 1987 and 1988 - she lost in the first round. Buoyed by her Paris success, she was a quarter-finalist in 1989, but a first-round loser again in 1990. Her Wimbledons remained mixed for the next four years: quarter-final, second round, fourth round, fourth round - hardly a record to suggest that she would do much in 1995.

Her attitude towards the tournament was changing, though. "For a few years I was not preparing very well," she said. "I never thought I could play on grass. I was always complaining about it because it was only two weeks of the year. Mentally, that was my mistake. Now I practise my serve and volley. I've started to enjoy grass because I think I've proved I'm someone who can stay back or come to the net."

Her experience last year of beating first Zina Garrison-Jackson, an accomplished grass-courter, 6-1 6-2 in the third round and then the big-serving Brenda Schultz-McCarthy in the quarter-finals told Sanchez that grass was a surface she had no need to fear. When, as the No 4 seed, she returns this week for her 10th successive Wimbledon, she would be right to fancy her chances against anybody.

The prospect of another showdown with Graf - if it is to happen it will be in the final - is certainly enticing. Graf may have had more high-profile rivalries with Martina Navratilova and Seles, but her matches against Sanchez have produced some of the best women's tennis of the last two years. Four of the last seven Grand Slam finals have been between them, their most recent, in the French Open two weeks ago, ending with Graf winning the third set 10-8 and the Centre Court of Roland Garros in uproar. "Steffi is always the biggest challenge for me," Sanchez said. "Beating anyone is nice, but beating the No1 is best."

A strongly built 5ft 6in, Sanchez may depend more on her athleticism and staying power than her touch with the racket, but a very Spanish blend of defiance, passion and vivacity always comes through in her game, irrespective of fluctuations in her form. As Barbara Rittner, one of her opponents at this year's French Open, said: "Even when Arantxa is not playing well, you still have to beat her."

Sanchez's determination first came to prominence when she won her country's national title at the age of 13. Unlike some teenage prodigies, a solid family background and the fact that her elder brothers, Emilio and Javier, played professionally helped her to grow up not only as a player but as a person. "My spirit definitely comes from my family," she said. "They are fighters too."

Now 24, Sanchez may have left her native Barcelona for a tax-haven home in Andorra, but she has a reputation for being one of the least affected women on the circuit. She can be as tough in her dealings with people as she is on the court, but she is valued for her openness and strength of character. There is not much mystique about Sanchez, who is a traditional Spanish matriarch in the making, and in that respect, as well as her tennis, she remains in the shadow of more troubled peers - Graf, Seles and Mary Pierce, for example. "Probably people don't talk about me as much as the others," she said. "But I'm not going to be hurt by that. I'm happy not to have tragedies in my life." Triumphs, even in defeat, are more her style.