When Arantxa Sanchez Vicario smashed the golden idol that was Steffi Graf in the finals of the French Open last June, mouths of worshipers hung open in disbelief. The seemingly invincible Graf had, at age 19, won five straight Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and 117 of her past 121 matches. The numbers for Sanchez Vicario, 17, weren't even close: two tournament victories and three thrashings by Graf in as many tries. Yet Sanchez Vicario didn't go into the match cowed. "I win because I have good mentality," she says in her delightfully splintered English. "Everybody else lose to Steffi in their head before they step on court. I say, 'I beat her. It is possible, no?' They say, 'Arantxa, you crazy.' I say, 'No, it is all in the mentality. I come to play her, not pray to her.' "
Arantxa (pronounced ah-RAHN-cha) is not bragging or boasting. She just has a lot of confidence. "No matter what, I always smiley," she says, smiling. She has about her a continual buzz of energy—an energy contained and used, not frittered away. "Arantxa is from Spain," says tennis couturier Ted Tinling. "It's a bullfight nation. Nobody can sit still."
For a Spaniard, Sanchez Vicario uses a lot of body English. When not skidding into her shots, she often swings her hips and teases the ball along with little bumps and glides. Her exuberance sometimes threatens to burst her seams. "I don't want to be so controlled that I won't let anything in," she says. "If you don't let things in, nothing touches you. When you're like that, you lose some of the spirit that makes you want to go out and play."
That's the sort of spunk you might expect from someone who once pooh-poohed Wimbledon by saying that "grass is only for cows," and who last year began using her mother's maiden name—Vicario—because, "I wanted both sides of my family to see their names in the paper." Sanchez Vicario bustles about in diamond earrings, half a dozen gold bangles and bangs so bouncy they threaten to cut a crease in her forehead. She's built low to the ground and has big goofy cheeks that make her look like a happy Volvo. Her mouth is large, reddish and very mobile—a witty mouth and exceptionally expressive. "Arantxa is absolutely wonderful," says Tinling. "She's feisty and fiery and laughs back at the public when she misses an easy shot. But beneath all the fun and the giggles, she's a lion."
Or, perhaps, a rabbit, the sobriquet hung on Sanchez Vicario by Juan Nunez, her coach until early this year. Nunez was inspired partly by the cottontaillike ball holder she wears around her midriff, and partly because her canniness reminded him of Conejo de la Suerte, Bugs Bunny. "I wait, and the opposition of me exhausts herself with aggression," says Sanchez Vicario, who carries a stuffed Bugs with her on the circuit. "She must then do things my way."
Down match point last year in a third-round match at Wimbledon, she caught Raffaella Reggi behind the baseline and squeezed off a prayerful drop shot. "She look tired a tiny little," says Sanchez Vicario. "I think, if she good, she win the point. And then I think, ptttrrr—if she run, she run."
A drop shot isn't a high-percentage play. You shouldn't be able to get away with it against a world-class player, and surely not on match point. But Sanchez Vicario delicately dumped the ball a foot or so over the net for a winner. Stunned, Reggi lost the game and, eventually, the match. "It was an incredible shot, a combination of luck and timing," recalls Chris Evert. "If a player without Arantxa's confidence had tried it, the ball would have bounced eight times before reaching the net."
"So perfect I play the ball that Reggi cannot run," Sanchez Vicario says. She laughs. "It took a lot of...." She hunts for the right word, which turns out to be a simple one—"guts"—and pops open her palms as if she were powdering the air with fairy dust. "To me, tennis is funny little ride. If you don't practice and you don't want to play, you go down. But me, I run all the balls and really enjoy playing. Now that I'm Number 5 in the world, I want to go higher even. I like the feeling of up."
Her climb began in 1974. Marisa and Emilio Sanchez had just moved with their children, Marisa, Emilio, Javier and two-year-old Arantxa, from Madrid to Barcelona, where they rented a cramped, three-bedroom apartment near the aristocratic Club Real de Tenis. "The family should take up skiing," said Mama, a schoolteacher. "If we're lucky, the children will become skiers."
"I say tennis," said Papa, a civil engineer. "If we're luckier, they will become tennis players."
They did, and they are pretty good ones. Marisa, now 26, went to Pepperdine College, and she still competes on the satellite tour. Emilio, 24, is ranked among the Top 10 on the men's tour. Javier, 22, who was the No. 1-ranked junior player in the world in 1986, is hovering around No. 13. Arantxa began playing at two. "She was always crawling on the court," says her mother, "always getting in the way." To keep Arantxa out of the way, Mama gave her a Slazenger racket.
"Arantxa never played with dolls," says Emilio. "Slazenger was her closest friend."
Slazenger accompanied her to the playground, to the dinner table, on family outings. They even shared the same bed. "That racket my first partner," says Arantxa. Their first opponent was a country-club wall. "We won," she says.
The clay courts of Club Real de Tenis swallowed her for days. Arantxa admired Evert, but idolized Emilio, Jimmy Connors and later Stefan Edberg.
"Emilio, because he's so steady and my brother," she says. "Connors, because his game is spectacular."
"Because he's cute."
Early on Sanchez Vicario decided she wanted to be No. 1 in the world. By age 13 she was Spain's top-ranked female. A year later, in 1986, she turned pro. As a wild card in her first pro tournament, she beat three established players. Less than a year later she nearly upset Martina Navratilova.
Sanchez Vicario does best on clay. Her favorite is the red clay of Barcelona, where last year she won her hometown tournament, the Spanish championships. "Next I like the green clay of Houston, Tampa and Amelia Island," she says. As for the red clay at Roland Garros, where the French Open is played, "Ugghhh!" she says. "It stay in my shirts and my mother she can't get it out." If all goes well at this year's French Open, which starts next week, Arantxa's mother will once again be doing battle with two weeks' worth of tennis shirts. One suspects she won't mind.
Arantxa's mother has supplanted Slazenger as her daughter's constant companion. As well as doing Arantxa's laundry, she fixes her meals and attends all her matches. "She's my mother, but not my mother superior," Arantxa says. "It's not like I'm a nun."
Still, she leads such a cloistered existence that until the night she won the French Open, she had never been allowed to go to a disco. Even then she had to plead with Papa. "You can go," he told her, "but you have to be back by three in the morning."
He did let Arantxa keep the two dogs she received from admirers after her victory at the French. She named the Yorkshire terrier Roland. The Samoyed she calls Crac. "No, not like Crack Head," she says. "I not name it after any drug. In Spanish, crac is like a boom! It means big champion. My brother Emilio tell the newspapers, 'Arantxa is Crac!' "
Arantxa has had several coaches, but she looks to Emilio for guidance and inspiration. It was Emilio who brought her the talisman she sported while warming up for last year's French Open final: a soccer jersey just like those worn by members of her beloved Barcelona Barca in their recent victory in the prestigious European Cup Winners Cup. It was Emilio who provided the lucky sweatband she wore against Graf. And it was Emilio who told her to open up Graf's backhand by playing to her fearsome forehand.
At first the match looked like the sort of accelerated Ping-Pong that Graf revels in. But Sanchez Vicario showed she could run with Graf, if not hit with her. She anticipated Graf's shots, chasing them down and slicing off daring returns that knuckled barely inside the baseline. "I play Steffi very sneaky-smart," she says. "Top-spin lobs she really doesn't like too much." Behind 5-6 in the first set, Sanchez Vicario fended off two set points and forced a tiebreaker, which she won.
Though discomfited by the combined effects of menstrual cramps and a bad pizza, Graf took the second set and led 5-3 in the third. However, while serving for the match, she became as tense as a drawn bow. "I knew I don't lose even before then," says Sanchez Vicario. "I was gonna run down everything."
And she did—breaking Graf at love. Sanchez Vicario won 16 of the last 19 points and became the first Spanish woman ever to win a Grand Slam event. "I am very joyed," she said after somersaulting through the French dirt and bounding tearfully into Graf's arms. "I am so exciting to win Steffi."
Sanchez Vicario's soccer-mad countrymen reacted as if Spain had won the World Cup. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia gave Sanchez Vicario, her parents and Nunez a private audience at Zarzuela Palace. "It was neat, kinda," she says, "but I feel uncomfortable a little bit." Not, it turns out, because she was in the presence of royalty. "She had trouble bowing and curtsying in her leather skirt," says Nunez.
All that seems quite remote on a warm night at a seafood joint on the Rambias, Barcelona's pedestrian promenade, where Sanchez Vicario has come to relax after practice. "Often I go here to eat some fish and see some ships," she says.
She looks out to the statue of Columbus that guards the port. "Paris was the big first stop on my voyage," she says. "I can't stop sailing now, I hope."
Not while there are still new worlds to conquer.