The drain in Spain

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The Independent Online
WITH most tennis fans will have viewed yesterday's US Open women's singles final between Steffi Graf and Monica Seles as the dream final, that will not necessarily be a common view in two corners of Spain.

In the two and a quarter years of Seles' exile following her stabbing in Hamburg on 30 April 1993, the elite of women's tennis was a German- Spanish affair. Martina Navratilova spent a few weeks in the top three in 1993 and Mary Pierce made it to third in the rankings earlier this year, but apart from that the top three have been Graf, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez.

Of the two Spaniards, Sanchez has most reason to feel her noise is out of joint. She made No 1 in February, but had just 10 weeks there in three separate spells, and since Graf beat her in the French Open final, the German has been well clear at the top.

The most frustrating aspect for Sanchez Vicario is that, having finally won the recognition of being a player for all surfaces that she has worked so hard for, she has found herself eclipsed by Graf and Seles and viewed as a distant third in the race. Her narrow defeat in the Wimbledon final represented a triumph for all the hard work she had put in on her net game, and for conquering her original dislike of grass.

Additionally galling for Sanchez is that had Seles chosen to come back during one of the Spaniard's weeks as No 1, she would have shared the co-No 1 ranking with the ex-Yugoslav, not Graf. Yet that would have been a travesty of justice. Sanchez has played Seles 12 times and won just once (the final of the 1992 Canadian Open), while Graf and Seles have played 10 times, the German winning six of them.

Martinez has less to feel aggrieved about and more to prove. Her 1994 Wimbledon championship was achieved with Seles absent and Graf beaten in a shock first-round upset, Sanchez still finding her grass court feet and an ageing Navratilova proving a little too slow in the final.

Under a new support team ofcoach Carlos Kirmayr and Gigi Fernandez, Martinez has proved one of the most consistent players of the year, reaching the semi-finals of all four Grand Slams, but she is beginning to look a bit Sabatini-like in seeming a class act in the early rounds but lacking the stomach for the latter-stage crunch matches. Moreover, she has yet to take a set off Seles in nine meetings, including Friday's semi-final, and as long as this trend continues, her Wimbledon title will look more and more like a blip.