'I opened up the sport to women in my country'

DOWN MEMORY LANE: Former tennis starArantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain, the event ambassador of the TCS World 10K, addressed the media in Bengaluru.DH PHOTO/ S K DINESH

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario remembers the day before the 1989 French Open final when a journalist questioned how many games she thought she would win against the near-impervious Steffi Graf.

She remembers because the Barcelona Bumblebee went on to defeat the German 7–6 (6), 3–6, 7–5 to become the youngest, at that time, women's French Open champion. She sought out the journalist and he had no response. She had earned respect. That is Arantxa in a nutshell.

Here in the city as the event ambassador of the TCS World 10K, the Spaniard, in a freewheeling chat, spoke about being inspired by her brothers to take up tennis to the current generation of players. Excerpts:

Talk about the TCS World 10K.

I’m really excited to be here as the ambassador. I know this is a very important run and it has become bigger with each race. Running is sport that people of any age can attempt. Each and every member of the family can take part in running.

You started playing after watching your brothers. How was that dynamic and the transition to winning Grand Slam fairly quickly?

I started playing tennis because of my brothers. That helped me a lot, playing with them or always with men. The power men generate, you have to be more prepared. If you are ready and doing well with them, you are more ready for the circuit. Then you make some goals, try to win Grand Slams. For me it was very young, started at 17 -- that was my first win. Then after I won 12 (actually 14 -- four singles and rest doubles and mixed) Grand Slams. I lost some other finals but I was always one of the favourites.

What was the best moment in your career?

I'm very proud of my whole career. 15 years at the top. It opened up the sport to women in my country because it was always a men's sport. Even in Olympics and Fed Cup I had success. But once you win the Slams, it is to be No. 1. I did it both in singles and doubles which only a few have done.

What about your rivalry with Graf?

For me it was the toughest. I beat her when she was at her top. In 1989, she was unbeatable, already had the Golden Slam. She came to play me in the French Open final and I think that gave me confidence because I had nothing to lose. When she was there I was able to go to No. 1 and that says a lot about me.

What helped you do well on grass?

I adapted myself to improve my game at the net, serve, my return. Doubles helped because I had to serve and volley. I was definitely mixing it (the shots) up. But I adapted, especially mentally, to be more aggressive.

Let's switch focus to the upcoming French Open, who do you think are the contenders?

It's wide open in women's. If I have to pick one player, I think Simona Halep. It depends on how she controls the pressure. Kiki Bertens, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, maybe (Garbine) Muguruza. And if Serena (Williams) is a 100%, it's wide open for the ladies. Men, the favourite I think is Rafa (Nadal) because of all the times he won the French Open but you have to also think of (Novak) Djokovic, (Roger) Federer, (Dominic) Thiem and (Stefanos) Tsitsipas.

On Osaka, can you talk about the pressure of being World No. 1?

The pressure would be even more on her as she was a young player who went on to become No. 1. It’s a transition, once you get that, you know how to handle the situations. Probably she is going through that phase where she is adjusting to the pressures and trying to play at her 100 per cent. 

Did it happen to you when you won at 17?

I was a young player who went on to become the first female Spaniard to win the French Open. It was a big change as the whole country was watching. But after that they expected me to win everything and to be No. 1 straight away. To handle that is not easy when you are young. 

(Angelique) Kerber reached there in her late 20s, she spoke of the pressure too...

When you do good one year, the next year you have to do better. So obviously, the whole year is a long journey. It is easier to go up but to maintain that level is harder. To stay there longer even more (so). That's why some athletes work with psychologists. But everyone is a different personality and they can handle better. But the transition to make is not like one day to another.

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