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Graf Defeats Sanchez, Captures French Open

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service
June 11, 1995

PARIS, JUNE 10 -- She says she likes to daydream about the day when she can just hang out with her New York boyfriend, indulging in her hobbies such as photography and listening to CDs.

No more jet lag from rushing around continents to play on the global tournament circuit. No more hassles with umpires or exasperating demands from pesky fans. And no more of the wrenching back pain that has plagued her as she grows older, a whiplash relic from the furious ground strokes she has employed to dominate women's tennis for most of her 12-year career.

But at the ripe old age of 26, Steffi Graf still shows no signs of joining the shuffleboard crowd. Playing with a ferocious determination, Graf won her fourth French Open title today and regained her No. 1 ranking in the world as she ruthlessly exploited mistakes by her long-time rival Arantxa Sanchez Vi\cario in powering her way to a 7-5, 4-6, 6-0 victory.

As she hoisted the Suzanne Lenglen Cup in front of 15,000 cheering fans, the usually phlegmatic German broke into tears. "I did not think I could even be here a couple of weeks ago," she said, her emotional response revealing the personal tribulations of an injury-ridden year.

Graf, who has won 25 of 33 career encounters against Sanchez Vicario, took merciless advantage of the Catalonian star who had become the queen of the circuit after sweeping the French and U.S. Open titles last year. Sanchez Vicario, 24, was clearly weakened by a bout with a nasty stomach virus. She showed none of her customary zip around the court, and her energy was flagging so badly by the third set that it seemed a crime to prolong her agony through a second rain delay.

In doing so, Graf gained revenge for her loss to Sanchez Vicario in the 1989 final that thwarted her from winning a third straight French Open. She also recovered the top-ranking that she had surrendered to the Spaniard earlier this year.

Even though she fell short of her best form, all of the classic trademarks of Graf's game were in evidence today: the blistering forehand, the wicked backhand slice and, most of all, the dazzling footwork that pays such rich dividends on the slow clay surface.

Graf has been suffering vertebrae problems and doctors have told her that the only cure is more rest from tennis. But even though she has fulfilled all of her main goals in the sport, she says she is still driven to compete by her sheer love for the game.

"Clay is the toughest surface for me and things will probably be easier now," she said. "I hope it's going to continue like that. I still love the game so much that I hope to continue for a little while."

Nonetheless, Graf has taken the medical prescription to heart. She stayed off the courts for three months after getting beaten by Sanchez Vicario at last year's U.S. Open. Then, after getting hurt again at the Australian Open, she restricted herself to four tournaments ahead of the French -- winning them all -- before abandoning the tour for six weeks to recuperate from a bad case of flu.

Graf said her 16th Grand Slam title was all the sweeter because of her physical troubles. "I wasn't able to practice much before this tournament so I never really expected that I could make it to the final," she said. "That's what makes it all the more special."

Sanchez Vicario also has endured health problems. She sprained her ankle in March, which set back preparations to defend her title here. She wanted badly to win the year's second Grand Slam after losing in the final of the Australian, but her luck started to run out early in the second week when she succumbed to the virus and a high fever that sapped her strength.

Sanchez Vicario managed to earn her berth in the final by slipping past the rising Japanese star, Kimiko Date, but her weakened physical condition left her in no shape to cope with Graf's high-octane game.

"I was not even sure that I could finish playing the tournament because of my illness. So I have to be happy," she said.

The rivalry between Graf and Sanchez Vicario has intensified as they swapped the No. 1 ranking six times in the past five months. Today's match started out as a classic showdown that demonstrated their respective abilities, but soon became a stamina contest that Graf was bound to win over her ailing rival.

After playing through the first rain interruption and winning the first set 7-5, Graf seemed ready to cruise to an easy victory by taking the first two games of the second set. But then her game and her concentration inexplicably collapsed, much to the relief of the fever-ridden Sanchez Vicario. She appeared for a while to gain a second wind, but she was spending her last reserves as she chased down every ball.

"The first three games of the third set made all the difference," Sanchez Vicario said. "She put on more pressure, she was on a roll and not missing so much. I was four down and falling apart.

Graf also attributed her early success in the third set to clinching the victory. "It took her a lot of energy in the second set to win it. There was a lot of running she had to do. It really paid off for me in the third set."

With nobody else on the circuit proving a match for their skills, Graf and Sanchez Vicario seem destined to carry their battle for No. 1 into Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Both of them seem to feel lonely at the top. They say they would welcome more competition, especially if Monica Seles, the former top-ranked woman who retired two years ago after she was stabbed by one of Graf's overzealous fans, can make a long-awaited comeback.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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