Meet The Tennis Champion Who Bested Steffi Graf At The French Open
This is the story of a four-year-old kid who insisted on accompanying her elder brothers to a tennis court. She was seen every single day thereafter, besting her brothers at matches, and it was evident that her passion for the sport was not merely a passing whim. What nobody could preempt was that she would grow up to dethrone world number one Steffi Graf, making her the youngest winner of the women’s singles title at the French Open. This is not some Balboa-esque movie plot. It is the true story of tennis legend Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, also known as Barcelona Bumblebee for the tenacity, agility, and speed she displayed on the court.
The Spanish player, who is the brand ambassador for Rendez-Vous à Roland Garros, was recently in India to liaise with the Indian players who will be participating in the tournament. We sat down with her and discussed inspirations, motivations, and life post-tennis.
Coping with pressure
“I had my first big victory against Steffi Graf at the impressionable age of 17, following which I moved into other big leagues. The pressure was immense. After you vanquish a world champion, you are expected to win every subsequent tournament. I was still an adolescent and it was hard to not let the pressure get to my head so I stopped classifying games as big or small and concentrated on giving my 100 per cent each time. I realised that it was difficult to get to the top and far tougher to stay there. But I’m glad I did because up until then, soccer was the only popular sport in my country.”
“I don’t think many people understand that sports are played in the mind as much as they are played on the court. You could be in top form physically, but if you are mentally unsound, it affects your game. When I started playing at the age of 4, I had no idea I would come this far. It was like one of those questions you’re asked about what you want to be when you’re older – you respond with the coolest job your mind can possibly conceive. For me, it was clinching the number one spot in both singles and doubles, which actually did happen. How many people can truly say they lived their childhood dream?”
Being an inspiration vs being inspired
“I never imagined that I could be great enough for a legion of women to take up tennis because of me. It always surprises me that I’m recognised around the world and people still say my name with reverence. It reminds me of the time when I was young and would be glued to the television whenever Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe or Stefan Edberg played. I looked up to them and always dreamed of playing alongside them. They were senior to me by around 15 years and when I finally met them, I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
“As the brand ambassador for Longines, I’m highly involved in the Roland Garros. It’s bittersweet; I look back on my time fondly and wish I were young once again. I think Longines is doing a great job associating with these sporting events because athletes bring a certain kind of earnest credibility to a brand. I love their watches too. My personal favourite is a special edition chronograph designed in collaboration with Roland Garros for this season. I love that it’s sporty and light, without compromising on elegance.”
Hanging up her boots
“I started young and retired young. It was the perfect time for me to end my career because I finished at the top of my game and am remembered for the champion that I was. I made the right decision and if I had to go back in time and do it all again, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I had played professional tennis for 16 years and was ready for my next phase of life as a mother. I have two young kids and it’s a full-time job; sometimes it’s more grueling than tennis but it’s the best thing.”
“Whenever you begin to think you’ve practiced enough, go back to the court and play another two games. Don’t be rigid in your techniques; always be open to learning something new. Before playing on a hard court, improve your game on red clay because it prepares your body to adapt better to other surfaces. Practice with players that are not from your country because it will give you access to newer strategies. Most importantly, be humble in victory and gracious in defeat.”