From the sprawling family apartment high above the Diagonal, a sprawling boulevard that cuts through the heart of sprawling Barcelona, Emilio Sánchez can see as far as...well, almost as far as that older bronze gentleman who towers over the harbor downtown and who once envisioned a whole new spherical world. But whereas Christopher Columbus, 541 this year, sailed off with three ships to seek fame and fortune, Sánchez, a quiet, unassuming engineer in his mid-50's, has been content to stay home and send three of his children—Emilio, 27; Javier, 24; and Arantxa, 20—off to discover the universe on their own. The irony is that suddenly, after Sánchez's human versions of the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria have been out for the better part of a decade exploring the international tennis circuit and winning more than 90 singles and doubles titles in all, the mountain is about to come to Muhammad. "Ah...the Olympics...in our city.... You cannot imagine what a feeling," says the elder Sánchez.
Señor Sánchez's offspring handle the English translations in the family, as if the sparkle in the eye of the paterfamilias were not enough to convey the joy and wonder they all feel as the Games prepare to open just around the corner. But to understand the excitement enveloping the household, you need only recall that in all of the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Spain won just four medals. In Barcelona the Sánchez family by itself may win four.
"You must be very proud to have three accomplished tennis players as children," a visitor recently said to the elder Sánchez.
"Gracias, pero tengo cuatro [Thank you, but I have four]," he answered, quickly including Marisa, 28, his oldest child, who once went off to play tennis at Pepperdine in Malibu, Calif. Scattered throughout the Sánchez apartment, in fact, are nearly as many framed photographs of Marisa on the occasion of her wedding last fall as there are trophies and awards won by her siblings.
Tennis nonaficionados may recognize the younger Emilio Sánchez as one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in the World in 1992. But in the family lodge, Emilio is a shaky number two. Many of the pictures of the glorious Marisa are reflected in the spectacular mirrors decorating the living and dining rooms, giving the illusion of two brides, or four, or six. When all the children are home, the family does seem enormous. But too often Sánchez the father is home alone and must connect with his brood, he says, by "watching the tennis results on TV."
When Marisa left for Pepperdine in 1983, her father was so devastated by her absence that he vowed not to let little Arantxa do the same thing. Alas, she became a better player at an earlier age than any of the other kids. At 13, Arantxa (pronounced ah-RAHN-cha) was the best women's player in Spain. At 14 she turned pro. At 17, in 1989, she won the French Open, upsetting the then unupsettable Steffi Graf. Because Arantxa's mother, another Marisa—pay attention, it's not that confusing—had left hearth and home to chaperone Arantxa on the tour, Emilio the elder ended up not so much gaining another champion as losing a wife and what remained of his family.
As if that weren't hardship enough, Emilio has had to sit through seven matches in which his two sons opposed each other—all of which the young Emilio has won. The patriarch will have no such problem in Barcelona, inasmuch as Javier did not make the Spanish Olympic team. "They make the selections too early," Javier says. Indeed, Javier, currently ranked 33rd in the world, had as good a spring on clay (the surface at Vall d'Hebron, the Olympic tennis venue in Barcelona) as his older brother, who is ranked 18th. Javier reached this year's finals in Nice and the semis in Madrid, and he leads in career matches against Spain's other two Olympic singles players, Sergi Bruguera (ranked 20th) and Jordi Arrese (ranked 37th). "But is all right," Javier says. "This way during Olympics I can go out late, have fun, watch my brother and sister, and go to the basketball, too."
To understand how close the family Sánchez is, simply multiply the love of the Huxtables by the loyalty of the Kennedys by the warmth and support of the Von Trapps, and you'll be close. Growing up, Emilio was Javier's tennis role model, and Arantxa, sucking on lollipops while slugging balls against a backboard, so copied Emilio that she even walks like him. Early on the brothers practically vowed to play the same tournaments so as to always have an automatic support group. They practice together, eat meals together and unfailingly monitor each other's matches. When Arantxa joins them at the Grand Slams, the togetherness is in triplicate. Some tour analysts say this arrangement has hurt Javier, who has a natural hard-court game that has never been fully developed because of Emilio's affinity for clay. But, Javier replies, "this is the only way for all of us."
Similarly, while Arantxa has gone through several coaches during her career, Emilio is the one she turns to in a crunch. "He knows my game best," she says. Sure enough, on his sister's breakthrough afternoon at the '89 French Open, Emilio flew into Paris, parceled out some tips to Arantxa, sat in the competitors' box with their parents, gave Arantxa a kiss after she won the championship, and hurried out of town. Following that, Arantxa announced that she would thereafter be known as Arantxa Sánchez Vicario—the way she is known back home, using not only her father's surname but also her mother's maiden name. For closeness, even Ozzie and Harriet couldn't beat that.
It is hard to imagine a more fervent celebration than the one that would greet a gold medal won by Spain on the clay courts of Vail d'Hebron. "For us, this is bigger than Paris, than Wimbledon, than Davis Cup," says Emilio. "For me to win in Barcelona would be the highlight of my life." Similarly, Arantxa says in her delightfully fractured Anglo-excite-speak: "I am trying so difficulty to win golden."