Tennis: Sanchez Vicario usurps Graf

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A COMBINATION of Steffi Graf's suspect back and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario's undoubted spirit has finally enabled Spain's contribution to Grand Slam history to be set in concrete.

Sanchez Vicario is the first Spanish woman to win the United States Championship, and the first player of either sex from the nation to accomplish a major singles triumph on a modern hard court. Manuel Santana conquered America on grass in 1965, and Manuel Orantes succeeded when Forest Hills turned to clay in 1975.

The summer has brought unprecedented success for Spanish tennis, Sanchez Vicario and Sergi Bruguera winning the French Open singles titles on clay and Conchita Martinez defeating, though not upstaging, the departing Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon. Saturday's final, which Sanchez Vicario won, 1-6, 7-6, 6-4, may have lacked the emotional element of a great champion's farewell (at least, we trust this to be the case, because the sport cannot afford to lose Graf), but it was just as exciting as the one at Wimbledon.

The courts at Flushing Meadow are similar to the ones at the Australian Open, where Graf, the world No 1, had demonstrated her supremacy by thrashing Sanchez Vicario, the leading contender, 6-0, 6-2, in January. It seemed likely that the latest encounter would follow a similar course when Graf took the opening set in only 22 minutes. Graf continued to deal expertly with the game's great retriever, playing shots which might be blocked but rarely could be returned with a threat, until a degree of uncertainty became evident in the fourth game of the second set. The champion, having broken for 2-1, recovered from 0-40, only to net a backhand after Sanchez Vicario had created a fourth break point.

The injury to Graf's lower back flared after she hit a forehand on the second point of the eighth game. Though unsettled, she fashioned a break point in the next game, but netted a tentative backhand return, forfeiting an opportunty to serve for the match at 5-4. Even in the tie-break, Graf led 2-0 and 3-2, Sanchez Vicario winning the next five points to level the match.

Realising that Graf's incapacity was sufficent to take the edge off her serve and cause her to unleash the forehand with less abandon, the Spaniard had become increasingly inclined to leave the baseline and approach the net. There were five breaks of serve in the deciding set, Graf responding each time Sanchez Vicario gained the advantage, and threatening to extend the duel when the Spaniard served for the match after two hours.

The concluding game lasted seven minutes, Sanchez Vicario being passed by a forehand on her first match point and netting a backhand approach after creating the second with a superb lob. Graf's forehand let her down on two break points and set up a third match point for her opponent, whose features became the epitome of joy after she monitored a backhand return over the baseline. 'When you beat the best player in the world, that's the happiest day you can have,' Sanchez Vicario said.

Graf, who will consult her doctor in Essen this week before deciding when to resume playing, was unimpressed by the overall quality of the match, but refused to use the injury as an excuse. 'She played better than I did,' she said.

Sanchez Vicario, who received a cheque for dollars 550,000 ( pounds 366,000), plus dollars 100,000 for winning the doubles yesterday with Jana Novotna, may not be recognised as No 1 by the tour computer, but, having won two Grand Slams to Graf's one this year and contested three finals, she will surely be named world champion by the ITF.