As Steffi Graf clutched the cherished silver winner’s plate Saturday for the sixth time at Wimbledon, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario yanked it away, stealing it a moment, wishing she could take it home.
Sanchez Vicario gave it back ever so reluctantly, for she knew that the giant plate had been within her grasp, that few women had ever played so well, so doggedly, and so long for the championship, and been beaten.
The runner-up plate felt too puny after a match like this, with its epic, 32-point game in the third set highlighting one of the greatest women’s finals in the Open era.
“Oh, you could give me that one,” Sanchez Vicario playfully told Graf, but the German smiled and took it back, yielding nothing now after earning such a brilliant victory, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.
“I thought it was nice to have the big trophy because it could have been mine,” Sanchez Vicario said. “It felt good to have it in my hand. I know now I can play very well on grass. I know one day I can win and hold the big trophy for real.”
For the moment, though, the 23-year-old Spaniard is still second best to Graf, who claimed her 17th Grand Slam title and improved her 1995 record to 32-0. Only a month ago, Graf won the French Open, beating Sanchez Vicario much more easily in the final.
Graf, playing her finest against an inspired opponent at her own best, smashed 10 overheads and 10 volleys, scorched the lines and corners with her forehands, and won that spectacular game in the final set to earn that trophy and the $525,000 that went with it.
If the 18-16 tiebreaker between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe in 1980 defined the ultimate in the men’s game, the 32 points and hundreds of shots Graf and Sanchez Vicario endured in the 11th game of the third set defined the ultimate in women’s tennis. McEnroe won that tiebreaker but lost in five sets. Graf won this classic game to secure the match.
“It’s a game that will stand out for many, many years,” the 26-year-old Graf said. “Never in my career had I played such a long game with so many quality points. We both didn’t give anything to each other. I was really tired at the end. There were some incredible points there. That definitely produced the best tennis of both of us. Neither of us played any loose points. Nobody gave up.”
It was 5-5 in the final set, Sanchez Vicario serving, and they had been panting in humid, 102-degree heat for an hour and a half of breathless rallies. Now they began a game that lasted 20 minutes through 13 deuces, eight game points for Sanchez Vicario, and six break points for Graf.
Far from playing scared, each boldly went for winners, going for the lines, the corners, dusting the chalk all over the court. Graf grabbed her sixth break point with a rally that epitomized the fever of the match.
Here were two players at the height of their game, reminiscent of such classic women’s finals at Wimbledon as Martina Navratilova’s three-set triumph over Chris Evert in 1978, Evert’s three-setter over Evonne Goolagong in 1976 and Margaret Court’s 14-12, 11-9 victory over Billie Jean King in 1970.
This time, the pivotal game began with a long exchange of crisp shots, then rose to another level when Sanchez Vicario hit a daring backhand drop shot crosscourt. Graf raced in from the baseline to scoop it up with a backhand, Sanchez Vicario caught up to that to drill a forehand crosscourt, and Graf leaped out to put it away with a volley.
Sanchez Vicario had wobbled after several points, looking dizzy and weary in the blazing sun, but she had always pulled herself back and came up with winners when she needed them. This time, though, Graf slugged a deep forehand that surprised Sanchez Vicario, and she mis-hit a backhand slice that bounced to the net, giving Graf a 6-5 lead.
One strong shot, one mis-hit, and the match was all but over, the difference between victory and defeat.
Graf surged through the final game in little more than a minute, winning at love when her backhand volley forced Sanchez Vicario to spray a backhand long.
“I have to be very proud because it was very close and I played great tennis,” said Sanchez Vicario, who won $262,000. “I played maybe the best player in the world on grass at this moment …
This match could have gone one way or the other, and finally it went to her side. Either one could win. Maybe I was a little unlucky at the end.”
Though the match turned on that 11th game at the end, there was tension and terrific tennis from the start. Sanchez Vicario abandoned her usual baseline game and rushed the net behind her first serves, while Graf took aim at the corners with pinpoint accuracy. Each held their first service games at love, then settled in for a two-hour affair.
Graf blinked first, getting broken on a forehand wide that gave Sanchez Vicario a 4-3 lead. Sanchez Vicario dropped only four points on serve in that set.
The lopsided score in the second set was deceiving. Graf never had an easy game, either while serving or returning. She broke Sanchez Vicario after two deuces in the fourth game, and after the second break-point in the sixth game, with the help of Sanchez Vicario’s only double-fault of the match.
As the match wore on, Graf attacked the net more and smashed overheads on short lobs. They exchanged breaks in the third and fourth games, then Sanchez Vicario held to 3-2 after four deuces and two break points. Both players were running desperately to chase down so many shots, but the enduring image of that set was of Graf looking up at the sky at defensive lobs by Sanchez Vicario, the crowd murmuring in anticipation then applauding as Graf smashed it for a winner.
There were those transcendent moments when Sanchez Vicario caught up with Graf’s volleys and rapped them back past her. There was the moment in the 10th game when Sanchez Vicario lay stretched flat on the turf after going for Graf’s backhand volley crosscourt. Sanchez Vicario got up slowly, toweled herself off, staggered a bit, then got ready for the next point.
All that turned into just a prelude for the marathon 11th game, a duel of will and skill.
“It was something exceptional,” Graf said. “It was a great, great feeling. I was a little tired, but it still felt incredible. I was fighting. I never gave up.”
MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition.
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