It's been four years since No. 13 seed Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario appeared in a final of a Grand Slam other than the clay-court French Open, and it's been five years since she held the No. 1 ranking. But the 28-year-old Spaniard showed in a 1-6, 6-0, 7-5 victory over Barbara Schett at the Australian Open today that she can still put on a pretty good show--even if it takes a while for her to get into character.
"It was a very tough match and I kept fighting, even though I lost the first set very easy," said Sanchez-Vicario, who has made a career out of being determined and consistent. "In a match like that, having experience is very important, but you also have to play good to beat her, because she's a very, very hard opponent."
In fact, Sanchez-Vicario lost to Schett here in the second round last year, and this year it initially appeared she would go down in similar fashion. Even after she charged through the second set, things looked shaky, but she was able to get some key breaks on the sixth-seeded Schett as the match wore down. When Schett finally hit a ball into the net to seal the match, Sanchez-Vicario dropped to her knees, holding her fists in the air.
She is hoping the win will propel her to a better season than she had in 1999, when she dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in a decade.
"Tennis is my passion," said Sanchez-Vicario, who noted that Steffi Graf's retirement last year had no effect on her. "Each person knows when that time is going to come, but I still think that I can learn and play better."
The band of blond wig-wearing fans who have followed Mary Pierce around ever since she won this tournament in 1995 was sorely disappointed Sunday evening when its heroine was ousted by Japan's Ai Sugiyama in the fourth round, 7-5, 6-4. They weren't the only ones.
Pierce, who also reached the final here in 1997, looked thoroughly shocked when her forehand slammed into the net on Sugiyama's second match point, ending her hopes of another run. As the No. 4 seed, she had what had appeared to be a relatively easy draw, first finding Sugiyama in the round of 16 and then, if she had won, meeting the unseeded Jennifer Capriati in the quarterfinals. Now it will be Sugiyama meeting Capriati, although after her match today Sugiyama was still so stunned to have defeated Pierce that she hadn't even looked to see whom she was playing next.
Sugiyama, 24, came into her postmatch news conference believing that she would face her doubles partner, Julie Halard-Decugis of France, in the next round, but Halard-Decugis will be facing Lindsay Davenport. When informed of her draw, Sugiyama smiled.
"Okay, so Jennifer," she said. "It's so far, so I didn't know."
Sugiyama had a chance to close out her match against Pierce much earlier than she did, but leading 5-2 in the second set, she froze up on match point and served a double fault. Even when she was serving for the match again at 5-4, she fell behind 15-40, drawing a groan from the crowd that had been cheering her. But Sugiyama put together four straight winning points, closing the match and earning her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal berth.