Tennis: Victorious Sanchez is major force

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The Independent Online
THE last shot of the women's championship at the US Open floated lazily beyond the baseline, a backhand return that went awry. Perhaps, as Hemingway used to say, the earth moved, for Steffi Graf had been beaten and the perception was that her conqueror, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, had now moved to No 1 on earth.

It didn't matter what the computer had to say to the crowd of 21,045 at Flushing Meadow. Although Graf is far ahead at the top, Sanchez Vicario's 1-6 7-6 6-4 triumph gave her two of the four majors for the year and a victory over Steffi at the season's virtual close.

In today's men's final, Andre Agassi, who was unseeded here, will meet the German Michael Stich. The black-clad Agassi, whose progress through the tournament has livened up proceedings at Flushing Meadow, defeated his fellow American, the No 9 seed, Todd Martin, 6-4 4-6 6-2 6-3 yesterday. It was revenge for Agassi's fourth-round defeat by Martin at Wimbledon earlier this year.

Stich, who beat Karel Novacek in three sets, has a chance to restore German pride after Graf's pain-ridden loss. Right down to the last stroke, the frenzied battle between the world's top two women was in doubt after a proud, wounded Graf rescued two match points against the little Spaniard's serve. In fact, in the hectic closing game that consumed four deuces and seven minutes, Graf held two break points. However, her famed weapon, the forehand, let the German down in the last crunch. Holding her second break point of the game, she plonked a forehand into the net for the fourth deuce. She then overhit a short second serve into the net to face her third match point. Sanchez Vicario was not going to be repelled this time, although she seemed startled when her closing serve sailed harmlessly from Steffi's racket beyond the court.

Graf, winner of this title in 1988 and 1989, said: 'Things were going so well that I wasn't going to lose after that first set.' Bullying Sanchez Vicario with brutal forehands, she rolled through five straight games for 6-1 in 22 minutes, and the reporters were composing obituaries in their minds. However, there proved to be almost two hours to go.

'I had to change, do something different,' said Sanchez Vicario, the only Spanish woman to win this championship. She began approaching behind a sliced backhand and scoring on volleys.

'She did the right thing,' said Graf, who would not be drawn into comment about her painful back condition for which the trainer was summoned to deliver pain-killing pills and a massage after the ninth game of the second set. A haggard Graf said: 'The back was no excuse, she played better.' But she admitted that she had worn a brace throughout the tournament and told close friends that she was in tremendous pain during the fortnight from a stress fracture of a vertebra.

A proud competitor, she is not one to complain. Graf's hope seemed to lie in a straight- sets victory and she racked up six of them to reach the final. By saving three set points in the second set of her 6-3 7-5 victory over Jana Novotna in the semi- finals, she may have staved off defeat there. Even though her chances dwindled in the third set, she fought back from a break in the opening game and another in the fifth. Their rallies were long, demanding and exciting. Graf felt her biggest chance vanished in the ninth game of the second set. She had a break point to go ahead 5-4 but hit a backhand return into the net. When they reached the tie-break, Graf trailed 0-2 then led 3-2 on a mini-break but did not win another point.

Her forehand came apart in the overtime. She made four successive errors and they were even. Back and forth they went in the final stretch in the most absorbing women's final at the Meadow since Gabriela Sabatini's 6-2 7-6 win over Graf in 1990. No one had come back from such an awful start since Tracy Austin seized the 1981 title from Martina Navratilova 1-6 7-6 7-6.

Graf said she needed an immediate rest and probably would not play for a month. She was headed for Germany to see her physician, and it is possible her 1994 campaign was finished.

Spaniards certainly kept moving on the tennis earth this year. This was their fourth major of eight, added to Arantxa's and Sergi Bruguera's French and Conchita Martinez's Wimbledon. Even though Graf holds a 24-8 edge in their seven- year rivalry, Sanchez Vicario has been a big occasion kid stopping Steffi four out of nine in major championships.

Earlier, Stich, who has struggled in the Grand Slams in the past year and struggled most years in the US Open, struggled no longer. Stich, the No 4 seed here, defeated the unseeded Karel Novacek 7-5 6- 3 7-6. The German, who has lost only one set in the tournament, had not gone further than the second round in his four previous Grand Slam events. In three of them - including Wimbledon, where he lost to Bryan Shelton in three sets - he was knocked out in the first round.

His luck had not been much better in New York. In five previous Opens, he had made the quarter-finals once, and lost twice in the first round, twice in the second. Losing to Shelton was by no means pleasant, but neither was it devastating, Stich said. 'I think I'm old enough to put those things behind me,' he said. 'I lost against someone who played better on the day. It was very disappointing, but it was not the end of the world.'

Nor was it the end of his Grand Slam success. 'Everybody was telling me how bad I play in the slams and I can't take the pressure,' Stich said. 'And now I'm in the final.'

He is now looking for a second Grand Slam championship to go with his 1991 Wimbledon title. Stich, who won the season- ending World Championship last year, has a perfect record in Grand Slam finals - Wimbledon is the only other he has been in.

A change of style has helped improve his Open results, Stich said. 'I am not rushing all my shots,' Stich said. 'I am staying at the back. I try to play like four, five, six shots then just pick the ball to come to the net and be aggressive.'

Before, he said, he was not as patient. 'I was rushing a lot of balls and making a lot of unforced errors,' he said. Novacek faced a couple of match points in his third-round match with Todd Woodbridge and survived. Not this time.

Novacek, No 8 in the world in 1991 and No 17 at the end of last year, lost in the first round of six straight events tournaments last spring. Something had to be done. He changed coaches. And got back to basics. And made it to his first Grand Slam semi-final.

(Photograph omitted)