After Rafael Nadal and Chris Evert, TTI looks at another player who excelled on the red clay, conquering Roland Garros thrice in her career. Of course, we’re talking about — to borrow a moniker from Bud Collins — the “Barcelona Bumblebee” and first Spanish WTA No. 1: Arantxa Sanchez Vicario.
When Arantxa Sanchez Vicario first picked up a racquet as a four year old, she hit balls against a wall while her two older brothers practiced on courts. The Vicario brothers both became solid tennis players in their own right, but it was their younger sister that proved to be the family’s biggest success.
At 14, Sanchez Vicario turned pro. At 15, she reached the quarterfinals of the French Open in her main draw debut. A mere two years later, she captured her first major title, upsetting heavy favorite and winner of the previous five majors, Steffi Graf, who suddenly found herself in the position of the hunted after spending years as the hunter.
Over the course of her career, the Spaniard went on to collect two more French Open titles in addition to a lone US Open trophy in 1994. With the exception of 1990, Sanchez Vicario reached the second week in Paris every year between 1987 and 2000 — making her one of the most consistent performers on the surface, with 19 of her 29 titles coming on clay.
Looking back at the four-time Slam Champion’s game, it’s not difficult to see why she succeeded so much on red clay. One of Sanchez Vicario’s strongest on-court traits was her immense endurance and quick feet across the court. Seemingly able to go on for hours, the archetypal counterpuncher could return an innumerable amount of balls, her fighting spirit often keeping her in matches when even the scoreline was against her.
When push came to shove, the former World No. 1 was also able to finish points aggressively, though she succeeded more in drawing errors out of her opponents. A mixture of depth on the backhand, loopier balls off of the forehand, and frequent change of spins made her for a difficult costumer and often uncomfortable to play.
The woman with a trademark ball velcroed to her back never had the most overwhelming power in her shots but her sheer grit, determination and perseverance put her into position and proximity to Grand Slam glory time after time. With the exception of 1997, she or Graf featured in every Roland Garros final over a thirteen year period — a testament to their shared dominance on the surface.
In a time that saw more and more aggressive baseliners emerge, Sanchez Vicario’s game was hardly commonplace towards the end of the 90s and it was largely thanks to Graf and Monica Seles that the Spaniard finished with a 29-48 record in finals – on clay, however, she ended up with a winning record of 19-18.
This week, both tours returned to Spain for the Premier Mandatory/Masters at Madrid’s Caja Mágica, where the second show court is named after the country’s most successful female player of all time. That the court is largely reserved for men’s matches is a story best saved for another day.
Having joined the coaching leagues, the former No. 1 has been working with Caroline Wozniacki since Miami. The Dane has struggled on clay in previous years, a surface that should pay dividends with her Sanchez Vicario-esque investments in defense and endurance.
“It’s more about the mentality going into the game and going into the surface,” Wozniacki said. You have to hit more balls into the court, you have to run more balls down and change up the pace and that’s really it. My game really should fit to the clay but I haven’t had the results that I’ve wanted the last few years. So, I’m trying to do my best to change that.”
If there is one person who knew about clay court mentality — fighting for every point, playing the extra ball and getting ready to grind it out on the red dirt — the Spaniard is certainly an excellent starting point.
And who knows, going by Wozniacki’s performance (and headband) in Stuttgart and this week in Madrid, maybe she has already imparted some clay wisdom into the Dane.