Former World No.1 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario chatted on the We Are Tennis Instagram Live account on Friday, and among the various topics the WTA Legend discussed was a in-depth look back at her early years as a French Open phenom.
"Definitely, when I was a young age, I wanted to do well at the French Open because for the Spaniards, the French Open is always the favorite tournament," said Sanchez Vicario, who started her illustrious career at Roland Garros as a 15-year-old quarterfinalist in 1987.
"The first Grand Slam you wanted to win was the French Open, it’s also close to home, and definitely, I always connected well with the crowds," the Spanish star added. "I was always feeling very comfortable there. And especially clay-court surface, I always loved to play on."
Sanchez Vicario stunned the crowds in her 1987 debut in Paris.
"It is amazing that I was preparing well and I came up at a very young age. I didn’t expect that was going to happen that young, but I had to learn with that, I had to deal with that...
"I had a good season on the clay, preparing really well before the French, and started winning one match, second match, third match, and I get to the quarterfinals at the age of 15 when normally I’m supposed to play the juniors!" Sanchez Vicario exclaimed.
"So there I was, playing the main draw, quarterfinals, beating players that normally [had a] better ranking than me, and bigger and older than me. But I had nothing to lose. I always play better against a tougher opponent, when they would have better rankings than me. I liked to compete, because I was always a very good competitor, and I was a fighter, so I was never going to give up."
Arantxa Sánchez Vicario will share with us her best memories in Paris! Prepare your questions for the three-time @rolandgarros Champion, live on Instagram today at 6pm GMT! #RGLegendsTalks— We Are Tennis (@WeAreTennis) June 5, 2020
👉 https://t.co/WSJZ75xDkq pic.twitter.com/kwP4gk4Ggo
Sanchez Vicario reached the elite eight in 1987 without the loss of a set, before finally seeing her run ended by Gabriela Sabatini. "Definitely it was a big, big compliment to be there in the quarterfinals. The whole of Spain was looking forward for this young 15-year-old Spanish girl doing so well."
She added that at the time she was already considering "having the chance that one day, I could go maybe more ahead, a little bit farther, and one day maybe winning. That’s how the philosophy was when I was younger, and then slowly I came up."
The next year, 16-year-old Sanchez Vicario reached the quarterfinals again, helped along by her massive third-round upset of seven-time champion and No.3 seed Chris Evert.
“Chris Evert was my idol growing up," said Sanchez Vicario. "I would watch her playing, as well as Martina Navratilova, on TV. Those were the two players I was always watching the matches on TV, and I was dreaming to play both of them one day, to get the experience, to compete against them, to try to be a champion as they are."
"She was the favorite, she was the Queen of Paris, she always wins there," Sanchez Vicario continued. "She didn’t lose many matches going to the clay court at the French Open."
In fact, in their only other meeting, Evert had defeated Sanchez Vicario just weeks before in the Tampa final.
This time around, though, things were different.
"I just tried to play my game," said Sanchez Vicario. "I probably surprised her in the beginning because I played very well in the first set. I was not missing much, I was very aggressive. The second set, I started getting a little bit nervous because I knew I was getting closer to [beating] her!
"But I handled my nerves pretty well. I think I just tried to say, ‘Okay, let’s play point by point and don’t think that you are going to try to beat Chris Evert. Try to be focused and finish in two sets.’"
Sanchez Vicario prevailed in the second-set tiebreak and triumphed 6-1, 7-6(4). "I could not believe it until I’d go to shake hands with her," Sanchez Vicario recalled. "She congratulated me, said ‘Congratulations,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s true, I beat her!’"
It was a pivotal win for Sanchez Vicario's confidence. "Beating her there, I said, ‘Well, if I beat the best player on the clay courts, definitely I’m getting much closer one day to win here and maybe be a champion as well.’”
One year later, in 1989, the Spaniard fulfilled her dream. Sanchez Vicario made her third straight Roland Garros quarterfinal, then broke through with wins over Jana Novotna and Mary Joe Fernandez to reach her first Grand Slam final at age 17.
Awaiting her in the final was Stefanie Graf, who had been dominant on the WTA in the preceding seasons. Graf was less than a year removed from her "Golden Slam," when she won all four majors and the Olympic gold medal in 1988 -- a feat which has still never been matched by any other tennis player.
"[Graf] was two-and-a-half years straight, winning everything!" Sanchez Vicario recalled. "Everything means Grand Slams, gold medal, all the best tournaments in the world. Being No.1 in the world for two years consecutively...
"I think that helped me a lot. I was very ready because I had nothing to lose. I had a great tournament, beating other Top 10 players as well.
"I was like, ‘I have my chances -- I just have to go play it on the court.’"
Nevertheless, Graf was the heavy favorite, and Sanchez Vicario admitted she had a rough night's sleep before the final due to expectations and nerves. But when the opening frame of the final went her way, the Spaniard saw an opportunity.
"Suddenly after an hour, I won the first set 7-6," said Sanchez Vicario. "Obviously the crowd, they always go with the underdog -- I was the underdog. People started seeing how I was fighting, how I was playing, they start liking me, they like my personality, they started supporting me. [Then] I get more excited, I get more pumped, I’d get really confident, and I knew the crowd was behind me."
Muguruza is the 2nd Spanish woman at the world No.1 spot. The first ever? Arantxa Sanchez / 1ère Esp n°1, 20 ans avant Garbiñe: Arantxa ! pic.twitter.com/YsVSgIWCfJ— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) September 18, 2017
Graf rebounded to win the second set and go up a break in the third, but serving for the match, the German faltered. "[Graf] served at 5-3 in the third set, the match was very close, and suddenly I broke her serve," said Sanchez Vicario. "After that, I realized she was nervous, she had tension.
"I win my serve, 5-5, and suddenly I break her serve again. So, 6-5, and I was serving for the match. That’s when my nerves come up -- I start feeling [like] everything was shaking. I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m one game away from beating Steffi and winning the French Open!’
"I was young, I was trying to just play point by point, and everything was moving, my legs, my hands, my headband! I was just trying to say ‘Come on’ -- ‘Vamos.’"
Sanchez Vicario served out the victory, winning her first Grand Slam title at 1989 Roland Garros, 7-6(6), 3-6, 7-5. The 17-year-old became, at the time, the youngest women's singles champion at the event.
"When I heard, ‘Game, set, and match Sanchez,’ I could not believe it," said Sanchez Vicario. "I just threw the racquet in the air, I rolled on the clay, and I started crying like a baby.
"I could not believe it until I had the trophy in my hands, and I was the happiest person in the whole life," Sanchez Vicario continued. "And I made history, because nobody expected that, but sometimes in tennis, these things happen!"
Over the next decade-plus, Sanchez Vicario went on to reach World No.1 in both singles and doubles, and finished her career with 29 WTA singles titles and 69 WTA doubles titles.
At Grand Slam level, the Spaniard won four singles titles, six women's doubles titles, and four mixed doubles titles -- including two more Roland Garros singles titles in 1994 and 1998. These statistics made her an obvious inclusion into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007 -- the first-ever Spanish woman inducted.
"It's very easy to say that you've been No.1, but it's very difficult to get there, but even more to maintain yourself there," said Sanchez Vicario. "I was happy enough for a very long career. I never had too many injuries, so I was very lucky as well because I prepared myself very well, and I was lucky enough to win on all the surfaces.
"If they would have told me before, when I was younger, that I'd have to sign [something] that I'd have that career, I would have signed straight away!
"But I never expected to have that, so I'm very privileged and very honored to have a great career as I had."