She graced the sport

Adios Arantxa. Actually we must thank you for all those marvellous moments of watching pleasure you made possible, writes NIRMAL SHEKAR.

ON the day Arantxa Sanchez Vicario bid a tearful farewell to professional tennis in Barcelona, November 12 to be precise, if you checked Google's computer records, you'd probably find that searches for Anna Kournikova and the likes far outnumbered the ones for the lovable Spaniard.

Spanish tennis star Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario cries after announcing her retirement during a press conference in Barcelona, on November 12.

That says more about us — as sports lovers, as followers of sport and fans of sports stars — than it does about Sanchez Vicario.

Another day, another time, on the day Arantxa Sanchez Vicario surprised the near-invincible Steffi Graf in a dramatic final of the French Open in June 1989, at a time when the Net was still not born, the talk of the town was a giggling teenager who spoke in machine gun bursts. And that teenager Monica Seles and not Sanchez Vicario, who actually beat Graf at age 17 to win her first Grand Slam title.

This again says more about us than it does about Sanchez Vicario.

Sport, in every significant era, has its peerless geniuses. It has its great winners. It has, too, its icons and celebrities. Sanchez Vicario was none of these.

In a career spanning 17 years and three decades, the Spaniard won just four Grand Slam singles titles — three of them in Paris and the other at New York — a record that may not compare favourably with the likes of Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and the Williams sisters, with whom she's rubbed shoulders.

But what Sanchez Vicario was, was something that had to do with the very essence of sport. In every era, in every major sport, there are one of two players who with their commitment, drive, character and charm turn out to be the guardians of the soul of their sport.

And Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was very much the custodian of the very soul of women's tennis through all the years that she graced the sport.

She did not have the big weapons — the serve and the forehand — of a Steffi Graf; nor the great German's athleticism. She did not have, too, the power and depth of groundstrokes consistently displayed by Seles at her peak. Nor did Sanchez Vicario possess the sort of physical virtues that have carried the Williams sisters to the very top of the game today.

But what the Spaniard had was the wonderful ability to turn hard work and perseverance on court into a joyful winning combination. Perhaps no other player in women's tennis in the last 25 years has worked as hard as Sanchez Vicario did and had as much fun on the court as she did.

Remarkably, this infectious sense of joy with which Sanchez Vicario went about her business on the court, in turn brought so much joy to those who watched her throw everything she had at her opponents.

``Arantxa is absolutely wonderful. She is feisty and fiery and laughs back at the public when she misses an easy shot. But beneath all the fun and the giggles, she's a lion,'' said the late Ted Tinling in an interview with the Sports Illustrated in 1990.

Indeed behind the pudgy facial features and the smile, there lay hidden a player who was as ferocious a competitor as you might have seen in women's tennis.

Chasing everything and never once entertaining the thought of defeat in the course of a match, Sanchez Vicario quite often turned things around on court when everybody might have believed that she was tilting at windmills.

Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario holds the women's singles championship trophy, after defeating Monica Seles in the final of the French Open at Roland Garros in Paris on June 6, 1998.

Time after time after time, over a dozen years and more, at the highest levels of the game, I have seen Sanchez Vicario slap her thighs, dig deep and turn what looked like certain defeats into miraculous victories against opponents who were far more gifted than she was.

``Who has shown more heart than Aranxta Sanchez Vicario?'' asked Chris Evert, herself one of the greatest fighters in the game, on television at Wimbledon five years ago.

Perhaps no one in the last two decades. Sanchez Vicario's game was all about heart, about guts, about hustle and hard work, about will power and a never-say-die spirit.

In her first big match on a big stage, the 1989 French Open final, Sanchez Vicario, then only 17, was the sort of underdog who'd inspire the bookmakers at Ladbrokes in London to offer generous odds. She was quoted at 4-1 to win in three sets against Graf.

Alluring odds, but there were few takers. For, Graf had been near-invincible in 1988 and the first half of 1989, winning five Grand Slam titles in a row and the Olympic gold. In the 1988 French final, the German had beaten Natalia Zvereva 6-0, 6-0 in 33 minutes!

Sanchez-Vicario, the lovable Spaniard, signs autographs.

In the event, all that the fans were hoping was for a better contest and few had imagined that the girl from Barcelona had the weapons to outlast Graf. But Sanchez Vicario surprised all of us as she matched the megastar through three tough sets before outlasting her 7-5 in the third, although it must be said that Graf was unwell — an upset stomach — in the climactic set.

That performance established Sanchez Vicario's credentials as a competitor of the highest class as she became the youngest French champion in history (Seles rewrote that record the following year).

But her best came in 1994 when she won both the French and the U.S.Open titles — only the eighth player in the Open era to win two or more Slams in a calendar year — and then, in 1995, when she became the sixth player to hold the No.1 ranking.

The youngest member of one of the game's most famous tennis families, Sanchez Vicario often travelled with her mother Marissa and could also count on support from her two tennis playing brothers, Emilio and Javier, during the Grand Slam events.

Her family virtually grew up at the home of Spanish tennis, the Real Club de Tenis, in Barcelona, an establishment with a great tradition in the game, going back to Andres Gimeno and Manuel Orantes.

Sanchez Vicario's brothers were already established champions by the time she started playing.

``At first I was not interested. But when you are the youngest and everybody say you should play and you see racquets and ball in the house all the time, it is only natural you will,'' she said.

Once she started playing seriously, it was not long before the youngest Sanchez made a name for herself. And it was a magic moment, a dream come true, when she became the first Spanish woman to win the French Open.

But after peaking in 1994 and 1995, when Sanchez Vicario endured a slump and went without a Tour title in 1997, it appeared that her days were numbered and she was no longer a contender at the Slams.

But, at a time when all the attention was on the teen brigade led by Martina Hingis, the Spaniard surprised everyone as she beat Seles in the final of the 1998 French Open to win her third title in Paris.

``For me it's been a tough two years,'' she said after that victory. ''All the hard work I've done is paying off now. Nothing could be better than winning here.''

But that turned out to be the last time that Sanchez Vicario would feature in a Slam final. And over the last three years, it has been obvious that the woman nicknamed Barcelona Bumblebee by the Boston Globle columnist Bud Collins, was on decline.

Yet, even past her prime, Sanchez Vicario played with 100 per cent commitment until her last, always coming up with her very best when playing for Spain in the Federation Cup.

``She was a truly great player. She was just unbelievable in Spain, very, very famous. She has retired now, but she really gave 100 per cent to tennis and did 100 per cent for tennis,'' says Albert Costa, the reigning French Open champion.

Quite fittingly, her last match in pro tennis turned out to be in the Fed Cup final against Slovakia, although it did hurt her when she was heckled by a fan during the match as she struggled with a thigh injury.

During the course of the match, she broke Virginia Wade's record for the number of Fed Cup ties played (58) and number of matches played (100) and also shares with her team-mate Conchita Martinez the record for final appearances (10).

On Tour, Sanchez Vicario won 29 singles titles including four Slams, 67 doubles titles including six Grand Slam doubles and four Grand Slam mixed doubles.

``It hasn't been an easy decision but I believe the moment has arrived for me to dedicate my time to my personal life,'' said Sanchez Vicario at the press conference announcing her retirement in Barcelona last month.

``I will keep with me all the marvellous moments I've had in this sport. I am finishing my career with a great smile and I thank everyone who made it possible,'' she said.

Adios Arantxa. Actually we must thank you for all those marvellous moments of watching pleasure you made possible. Gracias Senorita.