Sanchez vanquished

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The Independent Online
IT IS always dangerous to suggest that a player's number is up, especially when the player concerned is only 25 years old, but yesterday's shocking result at the Australian Open which saw the women's No 2 seed, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, beaten by Dominique van Roost might spell the end of the road for the Spaniard as a serious force in women's tennis.

She, of course, did not think so. "I've had a bad loss, but that happens, I'm not going to be disappointed at all - this is a sport, this is the way it is," the apparently philosophical Sanchez said after losing 1-6, 6-4, 8-6 to the Belgian, who is ranked 43rd in the world. The reality, though, is that this might well have been her last real shot at winning a fourth Grand Slam.

Despite her great "rivalry" with Steffi Graf, the German has won 28 of their 36 meetings - including their two great matches of the past 18 months, the 1995 Wimbledon and the 1996 French Open finals - and the truth is that it is only when Graf is off colour that Sanchez has a chance.

Her record against Monica Seles is no better. They have yet to play since Seles' return from her 27-month absence following her stabbing, but the record shows 13 of the 14 matches have gone to Seles. And then there is the new kid on the block. Martina Hingis beat Sanchez in three sets at last year's US Open and again in Germany five weeks later, suggesting the days when Sanchez goes in as favourite - or even an equal - with the 16-year-old Swiss are over.

This Australian Open, though, was the tournament Sanchez could have won. Graf is troubled by back problems and possibly also worries over the impending verdict in her father's long- running tax evasion trial, Seles is absent with the after-effects of a broken finger, and Hingis is still only 16. It should have been a situation made for the bouncing bumble bee from Barcelona.

Yet Sanchez has never been quite the same after her 10-8 final set defeat against Graf at Roland Garros on 8 June last year. After her two losses against Hingis she took three weeks off, did not touch a racquet, and just lounged on the beach. She returned to the circuit in November looking fresh, but the effect has clearly worn off - she lost early in Sydney last week, and has now crashed out of the Australian Open in the third round, her earliest exit from a Grand Slam tournament since 1992.

While van Roost played well - she is on a roll having won the WTA Tour event in Tasmania last week - Sanchez should never have let her get anywhere near winning. After taking the first set 6-1, the Spaniard was in full control, but she let her grip slip. She led 5-2 in the final set but still could not finish it.

Her strokes lacked punch, her forehand looked a liability, and it is hard to see her making any impression on Graf, Seles, Hingis and co unless she can build a new dimension into her game - and it may be too late for that. Perhaps her best chance to add another Grand Slam title is at Wimbledon where she has at least mastered the grass. But Graf claims the lawns as her favourite surface, and Hingis was Wimbledon junior champion at 13, so there is not that much hope there.

Even if Sanchez does fail to win another major, her achievements will still show two French Opens, one US Open and a short spell as world No 1. That would be enough for many, but is perhaps a shade disappointing given that she beat Graf in the French final as a 17-year-old in 1989, an exhilarating victory which was Graf's first defeat in six Grand Slams and which looked like being the first of many titles.

Another 25-year-old also caught the eye on day six of the Australian Open. Pete Sampras, lost on the first Saturday of last year's Open, trounced in straight sets by the Australian hope Mark Philippoussis. This year Sampras was also scheduled for the Saturday evening match against an Aussie, last year's semi-finalist Mark Woodforde. As if trying to erase the memory, Sampras blew the 31-year-old veteran left-hander off the court in 79 minutes, 6-1 6-0 6-1. Sampras was breathtaking in his dominance, and while Woodforde's game cannot be taken as representative of the kind of players he will face in the latter stages of the tournament, the level of the top seed's play must now make him favourite to win his second Australian title a week today.