Grass is whole lot greener in Sanchez Vicario's book WIMBLEDON


WIMBLEDON, England -- In the past, grass was her opponent.

Arantxa Sanchez Vicario was raised to play on red clay, but when she came to Wimbledon, all she could see was green grass, and all she could do was hang on the baseline, executing the same old shots that would bring her victories at Roland Garros in France but defeats in England.

This year was different, though. She decided to beat the English grass, attacking and improvising, advancing steadily through a draw, defeating reigning champion Conchita Martinez and reaching her first Wimbledon final.

But to win today, Sanchez Vicario won't only have to beat the grass, she'll have to defeat her nemesis, Steffi Graf.

On paper, this year's women's final has all the makings of a wipeout. Graf is a five-time Wimbledon champion in her seventh final. Overall, she has won 16 Grand Slams. She holds a 25-8 lifetime record against Sanchez Vicario. She plays a baseline game, but she also knows how to attack and charge on grass.

Yet Sanchez Vicario can be a dangerous opponent. She is like the pesky kid who won't go away. She returns everything. She runs down everything. She grabs hold of points and simply will not let go.

Her baseline style has enabled her to win two French Opens. Sanchez Vicario also showed at last year's U.S. Open that she can hang around in a match she has no business of winning. Down a set in the final, she pounced when Graf's back gave out, and won the title.

And now, she has adapted to grass-court play.

"I think my attitude is different," Sanchez Vicario said. "I'm having much more fun on the court, playing grass. I decided to be aggressive. I am the No. 1 player in the world in doubles, so I believe I can go to the net and do well there. So that's what I've been doing so far and doing all tournament."

Suddenly, grass isn't so bad after all.

"My thinking on grass now is completely different," Sanchez Vicario said. "And I am fit. These qualities give me the opportunity to play better and I'm glad to do so well at Wimbledon this year."

Her goal was simply to get past the quarterfinals for the first time. But her expectations have now changed.

A win would elevate her into a new class. Sanchez Vicario has always yearned for a respect that has somehow eluded her. She has often had to make do as a tour co-star, a constant runner-up to Graf and relatively unknown player in America.

She often plays as if she has a chip on her shoulder, glaring at linesmen after nearly every close call, prodding her opponent to often rush her play.

And in the past week she has been dragged into the simmering dispute over what to do about Monica Seles' ranking. When Seles returns to the tour later this summer, she will likely be awarded wild-card entries into tournaments and receive a co-No. 1 ranking with Graf. That will mean that Sanchez Vicario's No. 2 ranking will be slightly devalued.

Asked about the possibility that her place in a draw might change, Sanchez Vicario snapped: "We're in the middle of the tournament of a Grand Slam. I have other things to concentrate on."

Such as beating Graf and adding to her family's tennis legacy. Her two older brothers, Emilio and Javier, compete on the men's tour. At the 1992 Olympics in her hometown of Barcelona, Sanchez Vicario won the silver medal in doubles with Martinez and the bronze in singles.

Her mother, Marisa, is a constant presence on the women's tour, guiding the daughter on and off the court. It is the mother's voice, clear and distinctive, which can be heard at key points in a match, shouting: "Go Arantxa."

"My family is very important to me," Sanchez Vicario said. "They give me good support, and they are always there. I can hear my mother always on the grounds, even though the court is so big. I want them to always be by my side."

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