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Graf Wins French Marathon Final

By William Drozdiak
Washington Post Foreign Service

PARIS, JUNE 8 — Steffi Graf, reaching down for reserves of strength that she feared would not be there, vanquished Arantxa Sanchez Vicario today in a heart-stopping marathon, 6-3, 6-7 (7-4), 10-8, to successfully defend her title in the longest French Open women's final in history.

For 3 hours 3 minutes on a humid afternoon, Graf and Sanchez Vicario traded high hopes and low despairs as momentum see-sawed. Just when Graf looked most vulnerable, she summoned great gulps of determination to suppress the Spaniard's bid to gain revenge in a rematch of last year's title match.

Graf looked like she was rolling toward a comfortable straight-set victory when she went up 4-1 in the second-set tiebreaker. But then she inexplicably fell apart and Sanchez Vicario leaped back into the fray. She exploited Graf's errors to close out the set and seized the momentum at the start of the final set.

"I really felt let down at that point because I kind of thought I was letting it slip away," Graf recalled. "I kept saying to myself that she had to get tired at some point. Then the crowd started cheering my name: and that really seemed to get me going again."

The German recovered her poise and even became relaxed to the point of giddiness. "It was such a big joy out there. I don't remember exactly, it was 7-6 or 8-7 but I thought the moment was so special that I just wanted to laugh. And I don't usually like to laugh in the middle of the match."

Sanchez Vicario managed to pull ahead in the final set and served for the match twice, but she could not convert.

"It was very emotional, all the tension and all the nerves," Sanchez Vicario said. "I came so close. We both played our best out there, but in the end she pulled away from me."

Sanchez Vicario chased down balls with reckless abandon, hopping around the clay like a terrier and living up to her promise to make Graf struggle for every point. Until the final, the German star had breezed through each match, demoralizing her opponents so thoroughly that she never had to spend more than an hour on the court in each of her matches on the way to the title. Today, the third set alone lasted 81 minutes.

It was the longest women's final at Roland Garros, both in duration and games. The 40 games surpassed the 38 of the 1955 final, won by Angela Mortimer over Dorothy Knode, 2-6, 7-5, 10-8.

For the 26-year-old Graf, winning her fifth French Open championship — and 19th Grand Slam title — provided special satisfaction in a year when many tour experts thought she would be toppled from her pedestal by recurrent back problems and the improving form of her nemesis, Monica Seles.

Graf also has been distracted by the tax troubles of her father, Peter, who has been in jail. But by displaying remarkable concentration and dedication to staying on top, she has applied herself almost obsessively to honing her tennis as a way to keep her mind off any problems off the court. For now, she says, she has no intention of retiring before she reaches the age of 30.

As she soaked up the cheers after her victory, Graf struggled in French to express special gratitude to the French spectators, who have always treated her as something like the queen of modern tennis.

"I want to thank you all from the bottom of my heart for all the encouragement you have given me over the years," she said, hoisting the winner's silver trophy in the air for all to see.

She also paid a gracious tribute to her foe, whom she has met now 15 consecutive times in tournament finals and who seems the only player on the tour, apart from Seles, who can push her to the limits of her extraordinary talents.

"Don't worry, Arantxa, your turn will come."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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