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When Arantxa Sanchez Vicario smashed the golden idol that was Steffi Graf in the finals of the French Open last June, mouths of worshipers hung open in disbelief. The seemingly invincible Graf had, at age 19, won five straight Grand Slam titles, an Olympic gold medal and 117 of her past 121 matches. The numbers for Sanchez Vicario, 17, weren't even close: two tournament victories and three thrashings by Graf in as many tries. Yet Sanchez Vicario didn't go into the match cowed. "I win because I have good mentality," she says in her delightfully splintered English. "Everybody else lose to Steffi in their head before they step on court. I say, 'I beat her. It is possible, no?' They say, 'Arantxa, you crazy.' I say, 'No, it is all in the mentality. I come to play her, not pray to her.' "
Arantxa (pronounced ah-RAHN-cha) is not bragging or boasting. She just has a lot of confidence. "No matter what, I always smiley," she says, smiling. She has about her a continual buzz of energy—an energy contained and used, not frittered away. "Arantxa is from Spain," says tennis couturier Ted Tinling. "It's a bullfight nation. Nobody can sit still."
For a Spaniard, Sanchez Vicario uses a lot of body English. When not skidding into her shots, she often swings her hips and teases the ball along with little bumps and glides. Her exuberance sometimes threatens to burst her seams. "I don't want to be so controlled that I won't let anything in," she says. "If you don't let things in, nothing touches you. When you're like that, you lose some of the spirit that makes you want to go out and play."
That's the sort of spunk you might expect from someone who once pooh-poohed Wimbledon by saying that "grass is only for cows," and who last year began using her mother's maiden name—Vicario—because, "I wanted both sides of my family to see their names in the paper." Sanchez Vicario bustles about in diamond earrings, half a dozen gold bangles and bangs so bouncy they threaten to cut a crease in her forehead. She's built low to the ground and has big goofy cheeks that make her look like a happy Volvo. Her mouth is large, reddish and very mobile—a witty mouth and exceptionally expressive. "Arantxa is absolutely wonderful," says Tinling. "She's feisty and fiery and laughs back at the public when she misses an easy shot. But beneath all the fun and the giggles, she's a lion."
Or, perhaps, a rabbit, the sobriquet hung on Sanchez Vicario by Juan Nunez, her coach until early this year. Nunez was inspired partly by the cottontaillike ball holder she wears around her midriff, and partly because her canniness reminded him of Conejo de la Suerte, Bugs Bunny. "I wait, and the opposition of me exhausts herself with aggression," says Sanchez Vicario, who carries a stuffed Bugs with her on the circuit. "She must then do things my way."
Down match point last year in a third-round match at Wimbledon, she caught Raffaella Reggi behind the baseline and squeezed off a prayerful drop shot. "She look tired a tiny little," says Sanchez Vicario. "I think, if she good, she win the point. And then I think, ptttrrr—if she run, she run."
A drop shot isn't a high-percentage play. You shouldn't be able to get away with it against a world-class player, and surely not on match point. But Sanchez Vicario delicately dumped the ball a foot or so over the net for a winner. Stunned, Reggi lost the game and, eventually, the match. "It was an incredible shot, a combination of luck and timing," recalls Chris Evert. "If a player without Arantxa's confidence had tried it, the ball would have bounced eight times before reaching the net."
"So perfect I play the ball that Reggi cannot run," Sanchez Vicario says. She laughs. "It took a lot of...." She hunts for the right word, which turns out to be a simple one—"guts"—and pops open her palms as if she were powdering the air with fairy dust. "To me, tennis is funny little ride. If you don't practice and you don't want to play, you go down. But me, I run all the balls and really enjoy playing. Now that I'm Number 5 in the world, I want to go higher even. I like the feeling of up."
Her climb began in 1974. Marisa and Emilio Sanchez had just moved with their children, Marisa, Emilio, Javier and two-year-old Arantxa, from Madrid to Barcelona, where they rented a cramped, three-bedroom apartment near the aristocratic Club Real de Tenis. "The family should take up skiing," said Mama, a schoolteacher. "If we're lucky, the children will become skiers."
"I say tennis," said Papa, a civil engineer. "If we're luckier, they will become tennis players."