Looking Back at a Legend... Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario

Not content to be a clay court counterpuncher, this spunky Spaniard made the most of her assets. And then some.

Published May 14, 2010 12:00

Looking Back at a Legend... Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario
Arantxa S��nchez-Vicario

Weeks at Singles No.1: 12...17th on all-time list
Weeks at Doubles No.1: 111…6th on all-time list
Tour Singles Titles: 29…17th on all-time list
Tour Doubles Titles: 69…7th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles / Doubles Titles: 4 / 6
Career Match Win-Loss: 759-295 (.720)

It felt like the end of an era when 33-year-old Chris Evert, hampered by a heel spur injury, lost to an unseeded Spanish teenager called Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario in the third round of the 1988 French Open. But while the loss would go down as the seven-time champion's worst at Roland Garros, the history books soon provided crucial context: Far from being an opportunistic upset, the young Spaniard's win was part of a changing of the guard. 

In short, Sánchez-Vicario was no one-hit wonder. Twelve months later, and still only 17, she became the youngest player to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Though 16-year-old Monica Seles stole that particular record the following year, there was much, much more to come from the young Catalan, who in February 1995 would become the second woman, after Martina Navratilova, to be ranked No.1 simultaneously in both singles and doubles.

That Sánchez-Vicario became a successful tennis player was no surprise, of course. Her family was already tennis royalty, what with brothers Emilio - who later became her coach - and Javier successful on the ATP Tour and elder sister Marisa also a touring pro. But with their nervous mother Marisa an ever-present and colorful character in the stands, Arantxa outdid her siblings: Quite simply, her remarkably well-rounded résumé made her the greatest woman player Spain has produced.

Here, There, Everywhere

By the time Sánchez-Vicario's main playing career concluded at the end of the 2002 season she had won 29 Tour singles titles, including four Grand Slams: the French Open in 1989, 1994 and 1998; and the US Open in 1994. She had been runner-up at majors a further eight times, including twice at Wimbledon, losing to Graf in the 1995 and 1996 finals, and twice at the Australian Open, losing to Graf in 1994 and Mary Pierce in 1995.

Far from merely being rock-solid from the baseline and quick around the court, Sánchez-Vicario had superb touch on the drop shot and lob, and busted national stereotypes with her accomplished net play.

And so in doubles she accumulated more than two years at No.1, winning 69 titles with a kaleidoscope of partners. That haul included six Grand Slam trophies: the US Open in 1993 (with Helena Suková) and 1994 (with Jana Novotna), Wimbledon in 1995 (with Novotna) and the Australian Open in 1992, 1995 and 1996 (with Sukova, Novotna and Chanda Rubin respectively.)

Ironically, it was the French Open that proved elusive in her quest for a career doubles Grand Slam, but she won the French mixed title twice, as well as the Australian Open and US Open once each.

A Worthy Foil and Foe

Did Sánchez-Vicario benefit from Seles's absence, and never-quite-the same return to the game? Maybe. But that shouldn't detract from her record, for she played her part in a clutch of thrilling major finals - not least her runner-up finish to Graf in Paris in 1996, 10-8 in the third set. Ditto Wimbledon in 1995, when she pushed Graf, by far the more natural grasscourter, to 7-5 in the decider.

Indeed, the Spaniard's competition could not have been tougher: seven of the 12 Slam finals she played were against Graf, whom she edged in tight three sets at Roland Garros in 1989 and Flushing Meadows in 1994. True, Sánchez-Vicario came out second-best against most of her major rivals, in terms of head-to-heads. But she rarely fell to lesser talents and burnished her status by securing key wins on the stages that really mattered: She only beat Seles three times in 23 attempts, but one of those wins was in the French Open final in 1998.

For the most part Sánchez-Vicario was cast as the plucky underdog against her more flashy foes - and an appealing one at that. No major player of recent decades has exuded such joie de vivre in going about her business; she practically bounced to her chair after winning important games. And while commonly-assigned adjectives like pugnacious and tenacious didn't make her glamorous, such qualities won her matches and - coupled with a cheeky grin - endeared her to fans.

Commentator Bud Collins, who dubbed her the Barcelona Bumblebee, noted that she was "unceasing in determined pursuit of tennis balls, none seeming too distant to be retrieved in some manner and returned again and again to demoralize opponents." And If that required rolling in the red clay, all the better.

She Reigns in Spain

In May, 2009, Sánchez Vicario - by then the mother of a baby daughter, also called Arantxa, by second husband Jose Santacana - was present at the opening ceremony of Madrid's Caja Mágica, the spectacular new home of the Mutua Madrileña Madrid Open. The second show court was named after her, and it is not hard to understand why.

No tennis player has represented her country with greater distinction. In 1991, Sánchez-Vicario guided Spain, which also boasted the considerable talents of Conchita Martínez, to its first Fed Cup title. The Spaniards won the team competition again in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1998. Sánchez-Vicario still holds the records for the most matches won by a player in Fed Cup competition (72) and for most ties played (58).

She is also Spain's most decorated Olympian, winning four medals - bronze in singles and silver with Martínez in doubles at home in Barcelona in 1992, and silver in singles and bronze in doubles again with Martínez at Athens in 1996. She came out of retirement in 2004 to play doubles in select tournaments - winning her last title at Palermo with young compatriot Anabel Medina Garrigues - as well as the Athens Olympics, duly becoming the only tennis player to play in five Olympics. She had already done enough to be named to the Spanish Olympic Committee in 2001.

When Sánchez Vicario was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007 she was only the third Spanish player - and first Spanish woman - to be accorded the honor. In a neat act of symmetry, that year she also became co-tournament director of the reincarnated Barcelona Ladies Open, in her hometown where, at 14 years, 4 months of age she had reached the semis on her Tour debut in 1986.

Not bad for a stocky counterpuncher, as she was sometimes described. Not bad at all.

Notable H2H: vs. Capriati 6-4…vs. Davenport 7-5… vs. Graf 8-28…vs. Hingis 2-18…vs. Martínez 14-4…vs. Navratilova 3-12…vs. Novotna 10-11…vs. Pierce 5-5… vs. Sabatini 11-12…vs. Seles 3-20…

Click here to look back at Arantxa's glorious career in pictures.

Keen to share your thoughts and memories of Arantxa? If so, please email your submission to alincoln@wtatour.com.

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