Steffi Graf brought out the best in me: Arantxa Sanchez on her famous rivalry

Former World No. 1 Spanish tennis star Arantxa Sanchez opens up to Hindustan Times about the game, the future of the sport in India and her career, including her rivalry with Steffi Graf

tennis Updated: Apr 18, 2017 09:02 IST
Leslie Xavier
Leslie Xavier
New Delhi
Arantxa Sanchez,French Open,Sania Mirza
Spanish former World No. 1 professional tennis player, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, at the HT office in New Delhi on Monday.(Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

Every kid in Spain who picks up a tennis racquet nurtures one dream -- winning the French Open. Arantxa Sánchez was no different when she started out as a four-year-old. “It was my toy, my doll in a way,” she says, describing the journey.

In her first visit to India -- as a guest at the Rendez-Vous A Roland-Garros tennis tournament to be played in New Delhi on April 18-19 -- Sánchez would be sharing her expertise with the eight boys and girls who are taking part in the national finals. The winners of the event will get a chance to travel to France and play in the Junior French Open wild card tournament.

The former World No 1, who won four singles (three French Open), six women’s doubles and four mixed doubles Grand Slam titles and four Olympic medals is defined not by the silverware but by Steffi Graf.

From her “most memorable triumph” over Graf -- the 1989 French Open which she won as a 17-year-old -- to her near misses against the German in five finals to a classic victory at the 1994 US Open, a Arantxa Sánchez vs Steffi Graf match was the Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal equivalent of the time.

The 45-year-old “happily-retired, mother of two” opens up to Hindustan Times about the game, the tennis future of India and her career, including her rivalry with Graf.


On her first Grand Slam victory at the 1989 French Open:

It was just great to be in the final to start with. Being the first Spanish woman to be in the final, and that too against Steffi Graf who was unbeatable at the time, was a big achievement and was celebrated back home. The feeling was that I will be run over by Steffi. They were wrong. I knew I had a chance and I had nothing to lose.

Things started off really tight... and I ended up winning the first set 7-5 and the French crowd got behind me as I was the underdog. Steffi won the second set 6-3 and raced to match-point, 5-4 up, in the third. She then stepped off the court for some reason and returned, and I held my serve, 5-5. Then I broke her serve and suddenly I was serving for the title, on the verge of beating the great Steffi Graf.

I was nervous and shivering but managed to hold things together and play my best. When I heard “Game, Set and Match Arantxa Sánchez”, I just collapsed, crying like a baby and rolling all over the court. I ran to the net to shake hands with Steffi, covered all over with clay. But that was the magic moment. I still get goosebumps when I talk about it.

There began the rivalry that defined the Spaniard’s career...

We have played many, many matches. Steffi always used to bring out the best in me. I was runner-up at Grand Slams eight times, out of which five times I lost to her.

The matches were always close. One classic match was the 1995 Wimbledon final where we were 5-5 in third set and had a 32 game-point marathon. It was very close and one ball changed it for me. The ball was very close to the line and the call went Steffi’s way. Those days we didn’t have a review system.

Arantxa Sánchez feels India has many parallels with Spain, especially how tennis was in the country early in her career...

I was the person who opened up tennis in Spain. After me, Spain has seen a lot of success, in both the men’s and women’s tour. It was hard initially as in Spain football is big, just like how cricket is in India. But now, tennis is very popular and India could replicate that.

India has produced many good doubles players -- Sania Mirza, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna. But no one has come up in singles.

Arantxa Sanchez says young Indian tennis players will need private sponsor support as well as that of the national federation in order to excel in the sport. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT PHOTO)

Success in singles is something that won’t happen overnight. There should be a programme in India to nurture young players and take them up through the junior ranks in a systematic way and then open them up to the senior and professional circuits.

Tennis as a sport is very expensive too. The young players need private sponsor support and the national federation should also provide funds and organise tournaments for them. Success in singles is possible for India, just that you need more tournaments and should promote the talented players. It is a slow sport as far as result is concerned. One has to work very hard and keep at it…

On Sania Mirza:

Sania is very talented and has done well at the Slams. She has been changing partners and that is normal while on tour. I was very surprised when she split with Martina Hingis, with whom she reached the No 1 rank.

I am sure they have valid reasons for the split and now Sania has to quickly find a partner with whom she will have a good understanding and compatibility as far as the game is concerned. She needs a partner who is strong on the back-hand court as she is a deuce-court player. Once she does that, she will be back to her winning ways.

On Paes and Bhupathi:

I know Leander more than Bhupathi. We were good friends while on tour. He, on many occasions, asked me to play mixed doubles with him. But I was with my regular partner Todd Woodbridge (of Australia) at the time, and we were winning. So I didn’t want to change.

And then I retired so I couldn’t play with Leander and he still reminds me that whenever we meet.

But yeah, both Leander and Bhupathi were great players and they have done a lot for Indian tennis and people will realise that in the future. It is unfortunate they have had a fallout and that is sad. But they will have their reasons and I can’t comment on that.

First Published: Apr 17, 2017 23:16 IST