Tennis: Cruel finale for Seles

French Open: Dogged Sanchez Vicario brushes aside sentiment and apologises to the grieving Monica
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HEARD the one about the hare and the tortoise? Well, the tortoise did it again yesterday. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won her third French Open by bamboozling Monica Seles 7-6, 0-6, 6-2, negating the admirable aggression of Seles in the way only she knows how, by blocking, stalling and frustrating the woman who was chasing the most sentimental Grand Slam title of all, five years after being stabbed on court and less than a month after the death of her father from cancer.

The Spaniard, who was watched by her distinguished compatriot, Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, has for some time specialised in driving opponents to despair and then to defeat and this she accomplished again at Stade Roland Garros against the heavy and sentimental favourite in an hour and 53 minutes of compelling, if not classic, tennis. There were too many unnecessary errors, particularly from Seles, for that.

Sanchez won her first French title in 1989, which is still remembered here as the Year of the Scuffler since the men's crown was captured by Michael Chang. But scuffling can be done to great purpose sometimes, as Arantxa proved once more after two years in which her form had slipped alarmingly.

Just how much this moment meant to her became clear at the end after the two women had kissed at the net. Arantxa burst copiously into tears before climbing a perilous route up some scaffolding and into the VIP box to embrace her parents and hug her Yorkshire terrier Roland (named after the stadium in which she was appearing). The Sanchez record in Paris is now an admirable three victories and three runner-up finishes. Not bad for a tortoise.

She also paid handsome tribute to her defeated opponent for appearing in Paris at all so soon after family bereavement. "I am so sorry that I beat you," she said. "You didn't deserve to lose, but one of us had to."

The final, which Seles had reached by virtue of that momentous victory over Martina Hingis, was delayed for 40 minutes when a storm broke over the stadium half an hour before the scheduled start.

As if the weather had not made the court slow enough, attendants watered it before the start, which should have encouraged Arantxa to kiss them, too. This helped to defuse some of the pace on Seles's ground shots, but she was in mightily impressive form early on, breaking in the second game as the pattern was set from the start, with Seles in full attacking flow and Sanchez defending doggedly and counter-punching when the openings came.

At 5-3 in the first set Seles served for it, only to be pegged back and taken into a tie-break when her foolish persistence with drop shots and a couple of badly-netted smashes cost her dear. Now Sanchez scented a chance and she struck. She went five points to one ahead in the tie-break, was pulled back to 5-5 but then was grateful to Seles for a couple of netted forehands which saw the Spaniard go a set up after 51 minutes.

In the second set, the flow of the match was turned upside down as Seles hurtled through the first five games at a cost of six points. At this stage, Sanchez opted for what is fast becoming the bane of the women's game, the toilet break, or as the French call it, "la pause pi-pi." Seles decided she would have a break, too, on this excessively humid afternoon, then came back to close out the second set in fine style with the first and only ace of the match.

The destination of the Suzanne Lenglen Trophy was decided in the opening games of the final set as the embattled Sanchez dug deep to avert five break points on her serve. When these opportunities got away from her, Seles began to wilt visibly. She fell 3-0 behind and the contest was as good as over.

Sanchez got to match point after a typical session of scrambling was followed by a sharp cross-court backhand winner, after which a Seles volley which sailed long assured the Barcelona woman of her third French championship. After accepting the trophy, the 26-year-old Sanchez told her 24-year-old opponent: "They are calling us veterans, but we are a long way from being finished."

Seles had never tasted defeat in the French final, having won here three years in succession from 1990 to 1992 before her career, which up to that stage had included 11 Grand Slam titles, was halted when she was stabbed on court in Hamburg in April, 1993. Since coming back she has won one more Grand Slam, the Australian Open of 1996, and clearly she had been expecting more from yesterday's contest than the runner-up cheque.

But, as she pointed out, Sanchez chased everything, made fewer mistakes and seized her openings when they came along. "But I'm just happy that I got this far and I had a couple of great wins over Jana Novotna and Martina Hingis.

Explaining how she managed to rally after that disastrous second set, Sanchez said: "I knew the third set was going to be a different story, so I concentrated even more and all the work I had done paid off."

It certainly did. She is pounds 360,000 the richer today.