Arantxa Sanchez Vicario: From Spanish teenage prodigy to No 1

Twenty-three years ago today, February 6, Aranzazu Isabel Maria Sanchez Vicario, or Arantxa Sanchez Vicario as she is commonly known, became the world No 1 for the first time in her career.

In case you had forgotten, the Spaniard won four Grand Slam singles trophies as well as six Grand Slam women’s doubles and four Grand Slam mixed doubles titles during a career that spanned from 1985 until 2002.

With older brothers Emilio and Javier also tennis players, Arantxa was always destined to become a professional.

It was back in 1986 that the teenage prodigy from Barcelona announced her arrival when she reached the final in Buenos Aires at the age of 15, losing in straight sets to local hero Gabriela Sabatini.

Two years later, still just 17, she stunned the tennis community by reaching the French Open final where she would face world No 1 and two-time defending champion Steffi Graf.

And no one gave her a chance against the in-form German, who claimed the Golden Slam the previous year.

“Just getting to the final was a big thing but everybody was saying that Steffi is going to ‘kill her’,” she told CNN.

Yet it was Sanchez Vicario who emerged victorious as she overcame a second-set stumble to beat Graf 7-6 (8-6), 3-6, 7-5.

“The moment that defined my career was winning my first French Open at 17,” she told years later.

“At the time, I was the youngest player in history to win it, and I defeated none other than Steffi Graf. It was a superb match.

“I wasn’t even close to being the favorite, and I beat Steffi, who for two-and-a-half years had been unbeatable. I was the first one able to beat her in that golden era as No 1 in the world.”

And her career and life did change after that as she was no longer the underdog.

The “Barcelona Bumblee” was back in the final at Roland-Garros in 1991, but lost against Monica Seles and she also finished runner-up at the 1992 US Open and 1994 Australian Open.

She had to wait until the age 22 to taste Grand Slam success again as she beat Mary Pierce in the 1994 French Open final while she backed it up with the US Open title a few months later with another three-set win over Graf.

This time she produced one of her greatest comebacks as she won only one game in the opening set before storming back to win 1–6, 7–6 (7–3), 6–4.

The Spaniard would appear in five major finals over the next two years, but finished runner-up on each occasion, four of them against Graf.

Her incredible run of form earned her the world No 1 ranking on February 6, 1996, spending a total of 12 weeks there.

Her fourth and final Grand Slam title came in 1998 when she beat Seles in the French Open final, and again she did it the hard way as she overcame a second-set meltdown to win 7–6 (7–5), 0–6, 6–2.

Sanchez Vicario retired in 2002 with 29 WTA singles, 69 women’s doubles and four mixed doubles titles to her name.

“I had a very successful career. I fought, gave my best and that’s why I was very hard to be beat because I never gave up,” she told CNN.

“I can be very proud and am happy to be part of the history of the game.”