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Grand Dame
Alexander Wolff
June 15, 1998
Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Carlos Moya reigned for Spain, but the story of the French Open was Monica Seles's run to the final, three weeks after her father's death
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June 15, 1998

Grand Dame

Arantxa Sánchez Vicario and Carlos Moya reigned for Spain, but the story of the French Open was Monica Seles's run to the final, three weeks after her father's death

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In the final Seles won more games than Sánchez Vicario. More points, too. Alas, winning the popular vote doesn't count, for tennis matches are decided by the electoral college—although the heavens seemed to interject their commentary on the result when, minutes after the end of the match, rain began to fall.

To be fair, Sánchez Vicario, 26 and the victor at Roland Garros in 1989 and '94, has scaled obstacles of her own. For two years she had looked in vain for her form, struggling with the first serious physical ills of her career, among them wrist and thigh injuries suffered after winning the first tournament of this season, in Sydney. The attention that has turned the teens' way "can help me," said Sánchez Vicario, whom trophy presenter Ilie Nastase called Vieja (Old Lady) during the awards ceremony. "You don't have any pressure, you know. You can sneak around." Losing the second set of the final at love, constantly being pressed against the baseline by Seles's flat, angled ground strokes, she kept points in play with sliced retrievals, humpbacked saves and other conjurings, forcing Seles to rip many more responses than she would have liked and ultimately tuckering her out.

Sánchez Vicario is from Barcelona, which deserves credit for the ascent of the Spanish men. Too many computer points and too much prize money were going elsewhere as a result of Spain's emphasis on clay court play, so in recent years the country's tennis federation established a hard-court training center in the Catalonian capital and installed a nationwide feeder system to identify and develop promising prospects. The French Open champion of 1993 and '94, Sergi Bruguera, might be dismissed as "a Spanish clay courter," but neither Carlos Moya nor Alex Corretja, whom Moya beat 6-3, 7-5, 6-3 in a final on Sunday that had all the tension of a practice session back in Barcelona, can be so easily clay-pigeonholed. Moya reached the '97 Australian Open final and beat four of the Top 5 either indoors or on hard courts last year; Corretja nearly beat world No. 1 Pete Sampras in the quarterfinals of the '96 U.S. Open and reached the semis in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March.

For all their newfound versatility, Spanish men haven't forgotten how to win on clay: Of the 19 Spaniards who qualified for the draw in Paris, six made the round of 16 and three reached the semis. "I'm surprised that we're not four in the semifinals," said Corretja, referring to Alberto Berasategui, who got knocked out in the fourth round. Semifinalist Felix Mantilla says he dyed his hair blond on a dare from Argentina's Luis Lobo, but he could hardly be blamed if he took the bottle simply to distinguish himself from his many dark-haired compatriots. So thoroughly were Spanish men dominating every category at the French that a 20-year-old righthander from Barcelona, Julian Alonso, has become Hingis's steady. (Alonso is 1-10 since the two started seeing each other in March, encouraging speculation that "Julian Alonso" is Spanish for "John Lloyd.")

There's an old-school gentility and camaraderie among the Spanish men. After Corretja, Mantilla and Moya had qualified for the semis, a paparazzo caught them at a cafe on the Champs-Élysées, sharing the same dish of ice cream, and each of the countrymen freely swaps tips with any of the others who's about to play a non-Spaniard. "We didn't need the umpire or the linesmen today," Corretja said after the final. "Every time we were giving the call to each other. I just trust him. I never check the mark, and neither does he."

In her own earthy charitability, Seles too is something of a throwback. During her quarterfinal loss to Hingis, Venus left to change her skirt as Hingis was preparing to serve for the match. "I was dirty," she sniffed later. "I can't appear that way." Compare and contrast: In beating Novotna in the quarterfinals, Seles got sullied while lunging for a ball. She took a moment to towel off her shirt, her hands and her racket handle and turned to resume her position on court. "Derriere!" cried a helpful voice in the stands. Seles smiled and then dusted off her hindquarters. There'd be no rushing off to wardrobe by this woman, who knows calamities much worse than a soiled skirt.

Compare and contrast again: Four times in her match with Williams, Hingis appealed a line call, and three times she got her way. But when Hingis and Seles hooked up a round later and the chair ump stood ready to make a critical reversal to her benefit, Seles conceded the point. "It's better to be honest and move on," she said later. She wasn't going to risk the snare of a guilty conscience when she had finally found the security of the here and now.

Early in the tournament, as her courtesy car turned into the grounds of Roland Garros, Seles saw Arantxa's mother, Marisa, through the window. She was cradling Roland, the Yorkshire terrier that Arantxa had acquired nine years ago after winning the French for the first time. (Garros, her other pooch, is too big to travel, so he stays home.) Seles asked the driver to stop, rolled down her window and got in some quality chitchatting with Marisa and petting with Roland. The scene illustrated how at odds Seles's instincts are with the imprisonment that has been an abiding part of her life.

With Seles savoring each stroke of her racket as she hadn't since she herself was an on-the-make teenager, that chapter ended in Paris with a kind of serenity. Consider the evidence: When her effort fell just short of a Grand Slam title, she didn't seem nearly as disappointed as everyone else.

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