Tennis still fun for improving Vicario, and those who watch her

The girl was born with ground strokes, which is only a slight exaggeration considering she first picked up a tennis racket at age 4. If it wasn't sister Marisa pushing the ball back to her, it was brothers Emilio and Javier, all older and, ultimately, professional players.

Still, there was a weakness in her game when she turned pro at age 14. On the slow clay courts of Spain, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, like most European players, favored the view from the baseline.


It wasn't as if she had any fear of advancing on the net where volleys can come at you at the speed of bullets. After all, here is someone who ran with the throng in front of the bulls through the streets of Pamplona a couple of years ago. Needless to say, Mom (a teacher) and Dad (an engineer) weren't aware of her plans.

"As a junior player and before," explains Vicario, seeded second in the Virginia Slims of Washington tourney beginning Monday, "it was just all singles at tournaments. Actually, I was dying to play doubles."


And since playing with a series of partners, both for women's and mixed doubles, Arantxa's game has soared. "It's perfect practice for the things I have to improve on, serving, return of serve and the volley. And I like playing as many matches as I can at a tournament," she says.

By age 16, Arantxa had her first tourney victory, the Belgian Open. That same year, 1988, she knocked Chris Evert out of the French Open. Two years ago, she won the French, beating Steffi Graf, 7-6, 3-6, 7-5, in the final.

Since then and while taking up permanent residence in the top 10, Vicario has developed an all-court game that can match nearly everyone's on the women's tour. She made the semifinals of the U.S. Open last fall, losing to Graf. She's now a factor on grass, winning at Newport and reaching the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last month.

"I have worked hard to round out my tennis. Maybe they won't say I'm just a clay court player anymore," she says.

What frightens her competition most is, still four months shy of her 20th birthday and ranked No. 4, Arantxa is still improving, she's ecstatic any time she's on a tennis court and she's a glutton for work.

"I'm scheduled to play halfway through November," she says, "and I'm looking forward to going on holiday. But when I'm away from playing for only a week or so, I get itchy and I'm anxious to get back."

Mike Estep, who coached Martina Navratilova for years, works with Vicario these days and he's a nut on strength and conditioning. He's found a willing pupil in Arantxa, who has to be dragged away from the weight room.

While many of the women use each other as hitting partners, she has Estep and other hard-hitting men hammering a shopping basket full of balls her way when it comes time to work on return of serve.


Conversely, it was the ease with which men and the better women players were handling her serve that convinced Arantxa she had to improve this aspect of her game dramatically. "Say my serve was 50 percent last year. I think I've got it up to about 75 percent now," she says.

As a result, the only women she has lost to this season while cruising to a 45-10 record in singles are the biggies -- Monica Seles, Gabriela Sabatini and Jana Novotna twice apiece, Graf, Navratilova, Mary Joe Fernandez and Manuela Maleeva once each.

Only the Fernandez setback came before a tourney semifinal and that was in the quarters at Wimbledon. Vicario got some measure of revenge for that, whipping Mary Joe in both singles and doubles while leading underdog Spain to victory in the Federation Cup, 8-0.

A beaten finalist in four of 10 tourneys this year, Arantxa has won three doubles titles, two with new partner Helena Sukova, one with Navratilova.

But enough of the numbers. The thing that makes Arantxa one of the most popular women on tour and a joy for tournament organizers and the media is her personality. "It's funny," she admits, "but I like being a little bit famous. I don't play tennis because I have to. No one forced me. I play because I want to and all that goes with it is fun for me."

Same goes for the people watching.