PARIS -- From ferocious to fragile and back again, Steffi Graf, the defending champion of the French Open, retained her title yesterday in a 3-hour, 3-minute epic confrontation with fourth-seeded Arantxa Sanchez Vicario of Spain.
Graf's 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 10-8 victory, the longest women's final ever played at Roland Garros, reduced Sanchez Vicario to tears of exhaustion and Graf to tears of joy, and delivered the resolute German her 19th Grand Slam singles title. The dramatic victory moved her into a tie with Helen Wills Moody for second place in her sport's most prestigious record book behind Australian Margaret Court's 24 titles.
"I think it's incredible, but I'm so happy that I won this match today that I can't focus on that record right now," Graf said.
"It was such a big joy that sometimes when I was standing out there at 7-6 or 8-7, I don't remember when it was, I almost didn't know what to do, because I wanted to laugh, it felt so special. And I don't usually laugh."
Now a five-time champion at the French Open, the Slam event played on her least favorite surface, red clay, Graf improved her record in Slam finales to 19-8. But this one she deemed "spectacular."
She hadn't felt spectacular at the start of the final set.
Graf had come undone in the second set's tiebreaker, in which she sprinted to a 4-1 lead and then didn't win another point, and Sanchez Vicario took the initiative in the third set. Twice, the Spaniard served for the match, in the 10th and 14th games.
"I came so close," said the loser, a two-time champion here.
But Graf finally endured in their ace-less final by breaking Sanchez Vicario in the 18th game of the third set. At deuce, a backhand blooped out of bounds by the fatigued Spaniard gave Graf the first and only match point of the duel, and Graf earned her victory when the loser pushed another weary backhand into the net.
"They had to come sometime," Graf said of Sanchez Vicario's three errors in the final game. "Today, at the end, I was thinking, 'She has to get tired, she has to get tired.' The way she fought, if I would have to run the lengths she did, I probably would have been gone at the end."
After hoisting her silver trophy, Graf stumbled through a speech in French. She then promised the downcast Sanchez Vicario that her turn would come. Graf also thanked her father, Peter, who has been incarcerated in Germany since last August on tax evasion charges.
Graf also took special care to thank the fans for supporting her after her second-set collapse in the tiebreaker. "At the beginning of the third set, I felt pretty down because I knew I'd kind of let it slip away," Graf said. "It was really difficult to motivate myself, and the crowd kind of helped me get a bit of life in myself."
Sanchez Vicario was just 17 when she stunned Graf here in three sets in the 1989 final, and at the 1994 U.S. Open, the Spaniard captured her third Slam title with a 1-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 comeback against Graf.
In the end, though, Graf took a page from last year's Wimbledon final between the two that included a seesaw 32-point game late in the third set of what turned out to be a memorable Graf victory. It was a battle of wills between the risky, sideline-skimming style of the powerful Graf and the run-around, run-them-down tenacity of the clever Sanchez Vicario.
"It was very emotional, all the tension and all the nerves," said Sanchez Vicario. "As a matter of fact, we both played our best, but at the end, she pulled away."
"These kinds of matches give you such satisfaction and emotions I know I'll never have after my tennis career," said Graf, 26, who intends to retire at 30. "I don't think they're going to make me play longer, but they kind of tell me the reason why I'm still there."
Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia, and Daniel Vacek, Czech Republic (7), def. Guy Forget, France, and Jakob Hlasek, Switzerland (5), 6-2, 6-3.
Steffi Graf (1), Germany, def. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario (4), Spain, 6-3, 6-7 (4-7), 10-8.
Patricia Tarabini and Javier Frana, Argentina, def. Nicole Arendt, Gainesville, Fla., and Luke Jensen, Atlanta, 6-2, 6-2.
Pub Date: 6/09/96
The featured matches today at Roland Garros Stadium. The men's final will be shown on channels 11 and 4 at 9 a.m.
Yevgeny Kafelnikov (6), Russia, vs. Michael Stich (15), Germany
Lindsay Davenport, Murrieta, Calif., and Mary Joe Fernandez (4), Key Biscayne, Fla., vs. Gigi Fernandez, Aspen, Colo., and Natasha Zvereva (2), Belarus