Sanchez Vicario's greater feat

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The Independent Online
After moving into the last four at Wimbledon for the first time, Arantxa San- chez Vicario remarked: "At least we'll have a Spaniard in the final." The Spaniard she was referring to was not Conchita Martinez nor, for that matter, Don Alberto Aza Arias, the ambassador for Spain who was in a no- lose situation in the Royal Box yesterday.

In the end it was a bit of an anticlimax at the corrida, or more accurately the Centre Court for the first semi-final, as the defending champion made a tame, lame exit. Early in the first set it became apparent that Martinez, who is not the fastest mover on grass, was almost relegated to tortoise class.

Why the lethargy? Had she spent too much time in the tapas bar? Was she ready for a siesta? Not at all. As a matter of fact Martinez gave a blistering performance, or at least her feet did.

After being defeated 6-3, 6-7, 6-1 Martinez revealed that since beating Gabriela Sabatini in the quarter-finals she had been having trouble with her sole mates. "I had blisters all over," a rather doleful Conchita confessed. Midway through the first set the trainer came dashing on court with her bag of tricks, but what was needed was a magic sponge.

"I put some tape on my feet but that made them more painful," Martinez said. "We took the tape off and that made things worse." The trainer reappeared on several occasions and in fact covered more ground than her patient. Martinez explained that having put tape on and taken it off they resorted to putting fresh tape on again. "You just have to play with the pain," she said. "It was painful to run." At times it was painful to watch.

Everybody knows that Martinez has feet for clay but it was not just her lack of blistering pace that cost her her title. In addition to the trainer she could have done with a psychologist. "I didn't believe enough in myself to win the match," she said. "Sometimes you feel great sometimes you don't."

There was, of course, another reason for the demise of the champion. Sanchez, like her opponent and doubles partner, is not considered to be at home on grass but for the sake of a point this girl would run with the bulls of Pamplona.

The winner last year of the French and US Opens, Sanchez had never gone beyond the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Thus at the point of victory she fell flat on her back on the baseline which is her natural habitat. The only time the two ladies (both aged 23) advanced simultaneously to the net was to shake hands. Sanchez also planted a kiss on Conchita's cheeks.

"I was mentally ready to fight and be aggressive," Sanchez said. "I never let her bother me. The pressure was on her. She was the defending champion. This is a dream come true." Whereas Sanchez was always registering on the gruntometer, there was hardly a peep out of Martinez. Mentally, the two were on a different plane. Sanchez: "I should have won the match in two sets." Martinez: "I was surprised I got the second set."

For the connoisseur of that rarely sighted phenomenon, the rally, there were some classics of the genre. Not only that but an unusually high number of net cords, most of them from Martinez. However, those who live by the cord die by the cord, and when Sanchez won a crucial point via the top of the net it helped her to take the set.

A similar thing happened in the fifth game of the second set and Sanchez established a 5-2 lead. "My intention was to come to the net and move her around," Sanchez said," but then I sat back too much." She started playing pat-a-cake, the set went to a tie-break and Martinez prevailed despite being 4-1 down.

At that point you might have thought that Martinez would have been sufficiently heartened to have made a real match of it, but the opposite happened. The pain in Spain was on her side of the net. "I made a lot of mistakes and I wasn't playing my best," Martinez said. "She's pretty consistent. Her strong point is that she never gives up. When someone comes to the net often you can play passing shots. When it happens only sometimes it can take you by surprise."

What is surprising about this is that Martinez was surprised. They are, after all, doubles partners, and nobody knows Sanchez's game better than Martinez. "It was great to play another Spanish player," Sanchez said, "but she's Conchita, I'm Arantxa, and we're two different persons."

It is true that Sanchez ventures to the net a little more often than that other great Spaniard, Lili de Alvarez, the Countess de Valdene, who appeared in three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 1926, but only just. De Alvarez, a dedicated setter of fashion, lost all three. Martinez pointed out that her doubles partner "always loses to a great serve and volleyer''.

Not that she was writing off Sanchez's chances against Steffi Graf in the final. As for Sanchez, she reminded her audience: "I'm the No 1 in the world in doubles. I know how to go to the net. I've got nothing to lose." Except the championship.