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Pushed to Limits, Graf Pulls Out Wimbledon Win

By J.A. Adande
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 9, 1995

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND, JULY 8 -- By 3:48 this afternoon, Wimbledon had been stripped of all the accessories. At this point, the screaming tabloid headlines and all the people with their important-sounding titles gathered in the royal box were irrelevant. Even the first 27 games of this match seemed as much a part of the past as the 126 other competitors who filled the women's field when it started almost two weeks ago. All that mattered was that the top two seeds and the two highest-ranked players in the world were on Centre Court, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario serving against Steffi Graf, tied at 5-5 in the third set.

What followed was 19 minutes 40 seconds of exquisite tennis, two women playing as if more than just the championship were on the line. They produced delicate drop shots and powerful forehands, aces and return winners and an astounding 13 deuce points.

When the clock reached 4:07, top-seeded and top-ranked Graf had captured this memorable game, a 6-5 lead and -- for all intents and purposes -- her sixth Wimbledon singles championship. A series of errant shots by Sanchez Vicario gave Graf the 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory, earned as much by her 20 minutes in that 11th game of the third set as in the six victories it took to get to that point.

After all of that, it didn't seem fair that Sanchez Vicario had to settle for half of the prize money that goes to the winner, along with the 10-inch dish for the runner-up, while Graf held the glistening, 18 3/4-inch champions' dish and prepared to add another $442,615 to her bank account. Sanchez Vicario even briefly switched trophies with Graf, feeling worthy of holding the larger dish, at least temporarily.

"I think this match could have gone one way or the other, and it finally went to her side," Sanchez Vicario said. "But I just think that it was very good tennis, and either one could win, and I'm pleased with the way I played."

Sanchez Vicario never seemed to run out of energy, even though Graf kept her shuttling back and forth along the baseline like a metal duck in a shooting gallery.

Graf had just 11 forehand winners in the first two sets, although many of Sanchez Vicario's efforts to reach the balls resulted in desperate lobs that Graf soundly put away.

Sanchez Vicario was the better server this afternoon, recording six aces to Graf's one; Graf double-faulted four times. Sanchez broke Graf's serve in the seventh game of the match on her way to winning the first set.

After Graf cruised through the second set, she broke Sanchez Vicario in the third game of the third set and seemed ready to finish off another victim. But she uncharacteristically lost her poise, double-faulting at break point to give Sanchez Vicario the game and level the score at 2-2.

From there, the two locked into a duel with mounting tension. They played through four deuces and Sanchez Vicario fought off two break points in the fifth game, but that was nothing compared with the 11th game.

Sanchez Vicario hit a drop shot from deep in her own territory, and the ball barely avoided the net in its journey across the court to give her game point. Graf answered with a forehand cross-court winner to bring it to deuce.

Sanchez got two more game points before Graf reached her first break point, yet neither player was ready to yield to the pressure. Sanchez Vicario had a total of eight game points and Graf had five break points before she finally won it on her sixth, when Sanchez Vicario hit a backhand into the net.

The crowd gave both players a standing ovation as they walked to their chairs for a well-deserved break during the changeover.

"I think that definitely produced the best tennis of both of us," Graf said. "I think neither of us really played any loose points and nobody gave up. We really tried and both of us -- we weren't really nervous or anything. We were going for it. There was some great tennis. It felt great."

Sanchez Vicario had 45 serves during the game, and she apparently had nothing left for the last one, in addition to the emotional letdown that must have come from losing the 11th.

"The game took energy from both of us," Sanchez Vicario said. "Even though I lost that game, I tried to break her serve, because I did that sometimes when she was a break up."

Graf wasn't about to let up after what winning what she called the most important game of her career. She served decently and let Sanchez Vicario make the mistakes: a forehand into the net, a backhand long, a forehand long and finally another backhand long.

"Maybe I went for it too much, maybe a couple of shots at the end," Sanchez Vicario said.

Like Jana Novotna before her, Sanchez Vicario had the misfortune of playing Graf when the No. 1 seed had to elevate her game to meet the challenge.

"Definitely, we both played our best, and I lost against the number one player in the world," Sanchez Vicario said. "Sometimes, it's hard when you lose this match, but if you play your best . . . I mean, there's nothing you can do."

If you can't be the best, at least you can lose to the best, and that's usually what Sanchez Vicario has found herself doing in tennis's biggest events lately. She has reached the final of the past four Grand Slam tournaments and six of the past seven, but she won only the French and U.S. opens last year. This was her first Wimbledon final and at least erased the doubts that she can play on grass.

No one has beaten Graf on any surface this year, a record that now extends to 32 straight matches. Graf also picked up her 17th title in 25 Grand Slam final appearances.

She said that each of her Wimbledon victories has been special, but this one seemed to provide an extra degree of satisfaction. She faced so many questions in the beginning, with a sprained wrist and an aching back that caused her to drop out of the doubles competition.

As the carpet was laid out and the ballboys lined the entrance to the court for the traditional trophy presentation by the Duke and Duchess of Kent, Graf took the opportunity to run into the hallway and up to the players box, where she hugged her parents.

"It's really tough sometimes to see what's happening, and you cannot imagine sometimes that things are going to work out," Graf said. "I've had some great support."

Graf disappeared back into the catacombs of the Centre Court complex, and a yell emerged from the tunnel.

"That was me," Graf sheepishly admitted later, adding: "I didn't get stabbed, no."

It was a surprisingly light-hearted reference to the incident that helped Graf regain the top spot in the women's field, when a man who called himself a fan of Graf stabbed Monica Seles in the back during a changeover in a match in Germany in 1993.

But even Graf admitted this week that the women's tour needs Seles back, and she welcomed the news that Seles is supposedly returning -- although Graf is not willing to immediately vacate her No. 1 ranking.

Graf is only 26, but one doctor has described her back as being more appropriate for a 60-year-old. She said she wants to play here again, but didn't exactly guarantee it. After 13 great years, it would be hard to come up with anything better than the 20 minutes of drama she provided today.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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