Wimbledon '96: Sanchez remembers her lines just in time

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When the television has exploded or your flight has been cancelled again, one of the great parlour games is to come up with the names of famous Belgians.

The qualifiers (cut around the dotted line for future use) usually include Eddy Merckx, Rene Magritte, Georges Simenon, Maurice Maeterlinck and, granted lenient playing partners, Hercule Poirot. Yesterday was the chance for Sabine Appelmans to join the celebrity band.

The 24-year-old was the first Belgian in the fourth round since 1975 and was bidding to become the first from her nation to make the quarter- finals in the Open era. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, the No 4 seed, was in the way.

Certainly they don't sell Appelmans short in Belgium itself. Panorama magazine nominated her as the globe's "Ideal Woman", placing her ahead of a quartet who are pretty much interchangeable: Claudia Schiffer, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer and Pamela Anderson.

This Flanders loyalty to their girl is reward for Appelmans' own faithfulness. As a youngster she went to a tennis camp with a friend and stuck with her even though it meant joining a group for left-handers. She has been a southpaw ever since.

Yesterday's was always going to be a different discipline for Appelmans. In the third round she disposed of Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, who is about as mobile as Ayers Rock, but now she faced the circuit's greatest scurrier. "It is true that the match was a lot different than against Schultz-McCarthy," she said. "Against her we had very short rallies, but today there were some long rallies and I had to give a lot of energy.''

What did surprise the Belgian, however, was her opponent's approach. In their previous five encounters (all of which had gone to the Spaniard), Sanchez Vicario had started pugnaciously and retreated to a percentage game only if things had started going wrong. Despite the success of this formula, Sanchez Vicario turned it upside down and almost sent the form book the same way as well.

The Spaniard sank into a self-destructive trance early on. When matters are going awry, Sanchez Vicario tends to dispute line calls in her own distinguishable manner, stopping dead still in a variety of postures as if frozen in disbelief. For the first set and the beginning of the second, Court One resembled Madame Tussaud's as Appelmans forged a 6-3, 2-0 lead.

At that point a little man appeared in Sanchez Vicario's head and crashed the cymbals together. She immediately twitched back to life, breaking both Appelmans' serve and stranglehold. "At 2-0 down I went more for my shots and I started being a little more aggressive and I broke her serve," the Spaniard said. "After that, I got more confident and I started playing my own game, like I should have been from the beginning.''

Appelmans also noted that her opponent appeared to have been plugged into the southern grid. "After 2-0 she hit the ball harder and did not make mistakes any more," she said. "I had a feeling that I had to do something special because I was hitting good balls and she was bringing everything back." Just over 30 minutes later it was all over, Sanchez Vicario steaming to a 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 victory.

Appelmans' post-mortem sounded like a rehearsed loser's speech. It is doubtful she had considered a different result. "It has been a very good week, I did not expect to do so well here," she said. "I have been playing well every match so no regrets and I think it was a good week.''

Now that she has extricated herself from this web, Sanchez Vicario quite likes her prospects. "I've had tough matches, but I'm feeling confident and I've been playing a little better every match," she said. "Today's match helped me because losing one set and coming back gives you good confidence. I'm glad to have a tough match and handle it very well at the end.''