Spanish Tennis Legend Still Chasing Her Dreams
BARCELONA, Spain - Eight individuals and four teams will go to battle this week in Madrid, but in another of Spain's major cities lives one of the greatest and most decorated fighters of all time; and to this day, five years after retiring from the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario - who will be honored at the Sony Ericsson Championships this coming Thursday - is still going strong.
Sánchez-Vicario's legacy is well-known - born and raised in the eastern city of Barcelona, her talents were augmented by her warrior spirit. For over 17 years she drove opponents to distraction with unparalleled tenacity, tireless retrieving and impressive shot variety, which made her one of the most dangerous players on the doubles court as well. When she called it a career she had 102 titles to her name (29 singles, 69 doubles, four mixed doubles) and had held the No.1 spot in both singles and doubles, even simultaneously for a time.
In light of that then, it should come as no surprise that Sánchez-Vicario is still driven and still achieving. Earlier this season, one of her projects made its debut on the Tour - the Barcelona KIA event, for which she is Co-Tournament Director.
"The truth is that I was really excited. Since I stopped playing, my goal was to help women's tennis in my country and to have a tournament in Barcelona; it had been 13 years since we had a tournament there," Sánchez-Vicario said. "I really wanted to run a Tour event. It's a lot of work, a lot of meetings, and you've got to take care of all the details, but it's all worth it. I've always been a fighter and I was determined to do it, just this time I did it off the court!"
The tournament's inaugural roster included Italian No.1 Francesca Schiavone and recent title winners Agnes Szavay, Virginie Razzano and Flavia Pennetta; but it was American Meghann Shaughnessy who came through to capture the title.
"The field was strong. Apart from Medina Garrigues all the Spaniards were there, which was great for the fans. Gallovits had a great week - she was the newcomer of the tournament and new faces are always exciting. The tournament went really well and everyone, including the players, was really happy."
First nights almost never go on stage without miscues, and for pending editions of the Barcelona KIA, Sánchez-Vicario addressed areas of potential improvement.
"We had lots of sponsors that helped - Kia, Ricoh, the Federations and even the city of Barcelona itself - but to help the tournament grow, we'll need more. It would be easier to get more attention if we had a big Spanish star too, like in the Top 10 or something. We were still able to pull off a successful tournament this year without that; the crowds weren't that big the first few days, but the stands were full on the weekend. I'm optimistic about the future of the tournament."
They didn't get their first choice for the tournament venue, but it didn't stop them from providing a successful backdrop for one of the Tour's newest events.
"We originally wanted to have it at the club where they hold the ATP tournament, but we ended up getting the site where they held the Olympics in 1992. The only time it had been used since those Olympics was for one Davis Cup match; we were the first people to use it for a tournament since 1992! We renovated it and had to make a lot of changes. So far it's perfect. I'm not sure if we'll be staying there long-term, but it has everything we need, including a big centre court."
But all the planning, logistics, public relations and more that go into running an event isn't all Sánchez-Vicario has been upto since leaving the Tour herself. She has dabbled in commentary for Spanish television - and will be commentating for TVE during the Championships - and has maintained a professional mentorship of Svetlana Kuznetsova, who travels to Barcelona regularly to train.
"I've been working with Svetlana since she started; anything she needs she asks me and I'm happy to help. She's like a little sister to me - whenever she needs someone to talk to, I'm there. She's working very hard. She's No.2 in the world and still improving. Her dream is to be No.1 - I want her to get her dream."
And what does Sánchez-Vicario think of Justine Henin, the current world No.1, a multiple Grand Slam champion who has enjoyed her biggest successes on the terre battue of Roland Garros, and has been one of the grittiest competitors the game has ever known - much like herself?
"We are pretty similar," the three-time Roland Garros winner said. "For Justine, playing at Roland Garros is like playing at home. She raises her level when she goes there much like I used to. We're both fighters and we both give everything. She has had lots of difficulties in her life, but when she goes on the court she separates herself from it and she is at her best. We both also had to deal with being small compared the rest of the top players. She's fast, smart, consistent, and the best player in the world at the moment."
Although Sánchez-Vicario won a total of 14 Grand Slams in all three disciplines, it is her singles triumphs in Paris that she holds dearest looking back.
"My favorite tournament was Roland Garros and it always will be; for a Spaniard to win the French Open, or even to be in the final, is a dream come true. After that, I would say my other Grand Slams were pretty amazing."
But five years into her new life, does Sánchez-Vicario miss playing on the Tour, and does she still even step onto the court at all?
"I don't play that much, maybe once a week with friends. I go running or get on the bike a little bit - I'm always trying to stay active - but I don't play too often. I actually don't miss the competition at all. Of course I miss the court and having 19,000 people watching and screaming my name, because I always liked playing in front of a crowd - the bigger the better! But I have adapted to a new life with less tension and pressure, and I'm more relaxed now."
As one of the greatest players of all time goes deeper into retirement from the grind of the Tour, new faces emerge, not just immediately but also further away in the distance, perhaps a few years from truly arriving. Sánchez-Vicario has a lot of insight into the current state of Spanish tennis and its future.
"At the moment Medina is our best player, and we have Domínguez as well; but no one is in the Top 10 or Top 20. There is one who I think has a lot of potential, her name is Carla Suárez - she's 19 now and has a very similar game to Henin, a one-handed backhand and everything. She trains with the Spanish Federation just a few hours from Barcelona. We've got a lot of young players coming up actually, and I look forward to seeing their progress in the years to come."
While her eyes are on her nation's prospects, everyone else's eyes have been on her throughout her career, and even to this day. One of Spain's sport icons, she has always had a strong fan following, something she is thankful for still.
"Wherever I go, people want to know what I'm doing and tell me they miss me. I get all kinds of nice comments, even now. I always felt a special connection with the crowds I was playing for. Even now, I still feel all of the love and support."
Sánchez-Vicario was one of the figureheads of Spain's tennis revolution back in the 1990s alongside the likes of Conchita Martínez, Sergi Bruguera, Carlos Moyá and Alex Corretja; in July, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, and they will honor her again with a dinner in Madrid this Thursday.