The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era (W): No. 13, Sanchez Vicario

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Like her fellow Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, Sanchez Vicario used clay to build her confidence for other surfaces. (AP)

Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.

(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)

13. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

Years played: 1985-2002
Titles: 29 (per WTA website)
Major titles: 4 (1989, 1994, 1998 French Open; 1994 US Open​)

“I had fought until then, and I thought I could continue fighting,” a 17-year-old Sanchez Vicario said after coming back from 3-5 down in the third set to stun world No. 1 Steffi Graf in the 1989 French Open final.

Why wouldn’t Sanchez Vicario think she could continue fighting? That’s all she had ever done, and all she would ever do over the course of her long career. The Barcelona Bumblebee, “buzzing and flitting the width and breadth of arenas across the planet,” as Bud Collins put it, brought a new, unflagging doggedness to tennis with her Roland Garros run in ’89.

In that, she was just like her fellow 17-year-old Michael Chang. Wearing the same red-and-purple-striped Reebok shirts, and exhibiting the same blind, youthful zest for battle, the American and the Spaniard together gave Paris and the tennis world a jolt that spring.

But while Chang’s title run in ’89 was his last at a major, Sanchez Vicario would dig in at the top of the game and stubbornly stay there for the next decade.

At 4, Aranzazu Isabel Maria Sanchez Vicario followed her older brothers Emilio and Javier onto their local clay courts, and she played with a dyed-in-the-wool dirt-baller’s mix of patience, passion, tenacity, speed, and smarts. She gave her topspin ground strokes plenty of margin, aiming them high over the net and well inside the lines. Yet this six-time Grand Slam doubles champion was more than a wallboard. She moved the ball around cleverly, and was opportunistic enough to close in and put it away when she had the opportunity.

Like her fellow Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, Sanchez Vicario used clay to build her confidence for other surfaces. And like Rafa, she eventually conquered—or nearly conquered—the other majors, and rose to No. 1. Along with two more wins at Roland Garros, an Olympic silver medal in Atlanta, and five Fed Cup titles for Spain, Sanchez Vicario recorded her only win over Steffi Graf in a Grand Slam final at the 1994 US Open. Much like Gabriela Sabatini, though, Sanchez Vicario would spend the bulk of her career in Graf’s long shadow. In 1995 and ’96, she lost four straight finals—two of which were three-set, overtime thrillers—to the German at the French Open and Wimbledon.

Even as the pace of the game increased in the ’90s, Sanchez Vicario wasn’t overwhelmed by it. In 1998, in her last hurrah, she beat another of her nemeses, Monica Seles, in three sets for her third French Open crown. As much as anyone in tennis history, Sanchez Vicario knew how far a tennis player can go on fight alone.

Defining Moment: Sanchez Vicario beat Steffi Graf in two classic Grand Slam finals, at the French Open in 1989 and the US Open in 1994. But she may never have played better than in her loss to the German in the 1995 Wimbledon final. The 10th game of the third set was among the greatest in tennis history, an epic 32-point, 20-minute, 13-deuce struggle. Sanchez Vicario had eight game points, but it ended with her serve and her spirit finally broken. Graf held at love for the title.

Watch: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario wins the 1994 French Open title

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