WIMBLEDON, England -- Third set. Eleventh game. Thirty-two points. The game of their lives and the game of the ages.
For 20 minutes they played on, kicking up dirt, clumps of grass and history, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario grunting and serving, Steffi Graf returning, the shots barely clearing the net, the tennis balls skidding to the chalk lines. The rules of up-right, up-tight Wimbledon came tumbling down with every point, as fans screamed in the middle of rallies and gray-haired women and men dressed in suits and straw hats pumped their fists.
It would finally end in the heat and the dust with Graf muscling one last inside-out forehand to the corner and Sanchez Vicario reaching out and chopping a desperate slice backhand into the net, and the Centre Court stadium echoing with a primal roar.
Graf took the game, served out the match and earned her sixth Wimbledon title yesterday in a 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 victory over Sanchez Vicario.
"I think everything I won has been exceptional," Graf said. "I was a little bit tired out there, but it still felt incredible."
She was exhausted. And emotional. Never before had Graf been pushed like this, forced by an old foe to expand the limits of her game.
The match meant a lot, not just for an athlete, but for a sport. Women's tennis, on the skids since Monica Seles was stabbed in April 1993, needed a boost. So there was this drama at Centre Court. And in America yesterday, Seles announced she was coming back.
"With this match, you can realize that we have good players," Sanchez Vicario said.
In their first meeting on grass and 34th match overall, Graf and Sanchez Vicario gave Wimbledon a day -- and a game -- to remember. This was the John McEnroe-Bjorn Borg 18-16 tiebreaker in 1980 revisited.
They went for the lines the entire match, split the first two sets, traded early breaks in the third, then took the fans and their sport on a journey.
There is a saying that sports does not create character so much as reveal it, and in the 11th game, Sanchez Vicario and Graf showed the world their emotions and their pride.
So there was Sanchez Vicario, youngest in a family tennis dynasty, raised on Spanish red clay to run down every ball, fighting for every shot as if she were battling for a place at the dinner table. And there was Graf, the perfectionist, coolly calculating the angles, turning up the pressure, ignoring the noise and the emotion, taking aim at the ball.
There were six break points, eight game points and 13 deuces. There were images created that will be recalled for years to come.
"It definitely produced the best tennis of both of us," Graf said. "Neither of us played any loose points. Neither of us gave up. We both tried. Nobody let up. It was some great tennis."
Sanchez Vicario was rolling like a freight train and scooping out a volley to save a serve on the 16th point. Graf was all arms and nerves at the net, slamming a backhand volley on the 20th point, drawing a racket wave and a smile from Sanchez Vicario.
The 22nd point, Sanchez Vicario trying to close Graf out, unloading a backhand down the line, waiting for the call, and crouching in disgust when the ball was ruled out.
A voice in the crowd after the 26th point: "Somebody win it."
Finally, somebody did. The 32nd point. The Graf forehand, baseline to baseline, corner to corner, Sanchez Vicario lunging, making contact with the backhand, but too little and too late.
And then, pandemonium.
Graf said she never before played a game that "meant as much at such a stage of the match."
And Sanchez Vicario tried to absorb what occurred when the last, best chance of winning her first Wimbledon was slipping away.
"I had to serve for a long time," said Sanchez Vicario, winner of two French Opens and one U.S. Open, but a losing finalist in the past three Grand Slam events.
Did any point stand out?
"We played so many," she said. "At this moment, it's hard to think about."
L Even after the epic game, there was still a match to finish.
"I was tired," Graf said. "I was so tired."
But nobody closes Wimbledon like Graf. She served out the match and the championship at love. She looked up to the sky and raced off court and into the stands to hug her parents, Peter and Heidi, and her coach, Heinz Gunthardt. Then she skipped through the Centre Court corridors and shrieked.
After weeks of doubt and indecision about her health, she was at last a champion.
"You cannot imagine sometimes that things are going to work," she said.
Graf has now won 17 Grand Slam titles, but at the age of 26, with a bad back and a succession of ailments, the clock on her career is ticking more ominously.
"I was fighting out there," Graf said. "Even from the beginning, I felt a little tired mentally and maybe my legs weren't moving as well, but what I really couldn't believe is that I stood out there and came back."
Neither the champion nor the challenger would go away quietly at Wimbledon. They gave the tournament a ride. They gave each other moments that will last a lifetime.
Women's singles, championship
Steffi Graf (1), Germany, def. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (2), Spain, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5.
Men's doubles, championship
Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde (1), Australia, def. Rick Leach, Laguna Beach, Calif., and Scott Melville, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., 7-5, 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-5).
THE LONGEST GAME
A breakdown of the marathon 11th game of the third set of the Wimbledon women's championship yesterday. Steffi Graf won the pivotal game and went on to win the title over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
Points .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..32
Deuces .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..13
Game points .. .. .. .Sanchez, 8
Break points .. .. .. ...Graf, 6
Aces .. .. .. .. .. ..Sanchez, 1
Double faults .. .. .. .. .. ..0
Time .. .. .. .. .. ..20 minutes