Clay Cult Players: Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, the perpetual underdog

Clay Cult Players: Aranxta Sanchez Vicario, the perpetual underdog

When it comes to toppling giants, David was 1-0 versus Goliath. Then there was Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who at Roland Garros successfully played the David role three times.

When it comes to toppling giants, David was 1-0 versus Goliath. Then there was Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, who at Roland Garros successfully played the David role three times. 

In 1989, ’94 and ’98, this Spaniard who vividly personifies the word “plucky” walked on to what was then called “Court Central” to play the Roland Garros women’s singles final.  On each occasion, Sanchez Vicario faced an opponent with considerable firepower and a strong aura of intimidation.

That first time, it was versus world number one Stefanie Graf, who had won five straight majors, including a remarkable “Golden Slam” in ’88, a calendar year sweep of all four majors, capped off by an Olympic gold medal. At Roland Garros, Graf had won the title two years in a row, winning the ’88 final 6-0, 6-0 in 32 minutes.

Five years later, Sanchez Vicario took on Mary Pierce. Pierce’s bazooka-like groundstrokes had been on fire the entire fortnight. In her six wins leading up to the finals, Pierce had dropped a mere ten games, not once even being extended to a 6-3 set. In the semis, Pierce had crushed the holder, Graf, 6-2, 6-2, in 77 rapid-fire minutes. Natives hoped that Pierce could become the first French woman to win the singles title at Roland Garros since Francoise Durr had taken it in 1967.

Then came 1998. Monica Seles had won the Roland Garros singles title three straight times in the early ‘90s, including a straight set win over Sanchez Vicario in the ’91 final.  In the wake of a horrific 1993 stabbing incident, Seles had been away from tennis for more than two years, only returning late in ’95.  Now, in the spring of ’98, just weeks after the death of her father, Karolj, Seles was rapidly regaining the form that had made her an incredibly ferocious competitor and lethal ball-striker—that rare ability to hit the ball early and hard. 

Such was the setting. Three tennis Goliaths, each eventually inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. 

Then there was Sanchez Vicario, a rowboat taking on battleships. Her biggest physical weapon was a reasonably versatile powerful two-handed backhand. The rest was a smorgasbord, idiosyncratically punctuated by the plastic clip she affixed to her back to hold the second ball when serving.

Getty Images

But physical dimensions are only part of what comprise an athlete. Sanchez Vicario’s head and heart were massive. She was a problem-solver of the first order, constantly looking for ways to force the opponent to work that much harder. Added to this was a pit bull-like tenacity.  The hectic aspects of Sanchez Vicario’s game—scamper, dash, high, low, deep, short—gave her tennis a nonstop buzzing quality that led journalist Bud Collins to nickname her, “The Barcelona Bumblebee.”

An early signal of Sanchez Vicario’s clay court prowess had come at Roland Garros in 1988. In the third round, she took down world number three, seven-time Roland Garros champion Chris Evert, 6-1, 7-6. 

A year later, versus Graf, Sanchez Vicario had reached the top ten. But while Sanchez had demonstrated her giant-killing skills 12 months earlier, Evert at the time was 33 years old and also that day nursing a bone spur in her heel.  Graf was 19, in full charge of her massive forehand and Olympic sprinter-like movement. When Graf went ahead 5-3 in the third, it appeared that Sanchez Vicario had made a valiant, Rocky-like effort—a contender giving the champ a good go before succumbing.  Not quite. Sanchez Vicario quickly—well, not so quickly, for this was clay—took the next four games to win the match, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 7-5. One newspaper story ranked the upset alongside such major moments as the New York Jets’ triumph in Super Bowl III and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviet Union. 

Five years later, Pierce was confident, powerful and clearly the crowd favorite.  Seven months later, she would handily beat Sanchez Vicario in the finals of the Australian Open. But that was on a fast hard court.  On this day in 1994, Pierce started strong, holding a point to go up 3-1 in the first set. But once Sanchez Vicario fought that off, the bumblebee began to sting, patrolling the court superbly to earn a 6-4, 6-4 win.   Said Sanchez, “I wasn't nervous at all. I was ready to have the crowd against me. I was patient. I took my opportunities, and that was the key to winning.”

Sanchez Vicario after defeating Mary Pierce to win the 1994 French Open- Getty Images

By 1998, Sanchez Vicario’s resume had become quite lengthy. Besides those two Roland Garros titles, she’d won the ’94 US Open, reached the finals Down Under, been a runner-up twice at Wimbledon (’95-’96) and three times in Paris (’91, ’95-‘96).  Yet in 1998, as successful as she’d been on the dirt, once again the crowd was not in her corner. 

Given all Seles had been through by this point, Sanchez Vicario too would likely have rooted for close friend had they not been opponents.  ut they were, and once again, as she had versus Graf, Sanchez Vicario covered miles and miles of court, winning the match, 7-6 (5), 0-6, 6-2. “I’m so sorry that I beat you,” Sanchez Vicario told Seles during the post-match awards ceremony. “I have so much respect for you.” 

Sanchez Vicario at last finished her epic Roland Garros ride in 2002.  All told, she’d won 72 of 85 matches—three wins, three times to the finals. Reflecting on her relationship with the event a year ago in an interview with journalist Reem Abulleil for the tournament’s website, Sanchez Vicario said, “You have to be very patient, you have to slide well, to move well on this surface. You need to prepare well the point, you can defend but at the same time attack. Conditions are changing every time.  It can be sunny, it can be raining and really heavy, so you have to be mentally very strong, and if you have all the conditions together and you play well enough with your game, you can have chances to win.  I've done that and that's why I've had so much success here.”