Arantxa Sánchez Vicario rises to top

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Arantxa Sanchez Vicario won four Grand Slam singles titles in her career, starting with her unexpected run at the 1989 French Open.

Arantxa Sánchez Vicario answered the telephone in full swing, immersed in the aspect of her life to which she now devotes most of her time.

"I just picked my kids up from school," she said in a friendly tone, before apologizing. "Sorry for the background noise."

The current version of the former world No. 1 tennis player is characterized by calm after a whirlwind of sports triumphs. She has been voted the eighth most influential Hispanic female athlete of all time by a panel of blue-ribbon voters assembled by espnW and ESPN Deportes.

"When I received the news, I was very excited," she said. "The fact that they consider me one of the most influential athletes is great news. I'm thrilled. I'm grateful for the recognition of my athletic accomplishments and also happy that people enjoyed watching me play."

Words are inadequate to describe Sánchez Vicario's impact on the sport throughout the years. An international tennis sensation since she was teenager, her career was marked by her precociousness. The Spaniard won her first Grand Slam event at the age of 17, beating Steffi Graf on clay in Paris in 1989. It was the first of three French Opens she would win, and, for her, the most exciting.

"The moment that defined my career was winning my first French Open at 17," she said. "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.

"It was a historic, unforgettable final, an amazing match that turned out to be one of the best finals ever."

A year later, a 16-year-old Monica Seles stripped Sánchez Vicario of that "youngest" distinction, but the Spaniard's career got better as it aged. In February 1995, she claimed the No. 1 spot in the WTA rankings after winning her second French Open plus the US Open in 1994.

"When you win a Grand Slam, it's great, but when you become No. 1 … it's a very select group and it's an even greater recognition," she said. "There's no one ahead of you. I won't forget those days, either."

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Arantxa Sanchez Vicario arrives for a WTA “40 Love” celebration at Wimbledon this past June.

But Sánchez Vicario also remembers the ones that got away -- especially the 1995 Wimbledon final.

"I played an extraordinary match," she said. "No one deserved to lose, neither Steffi nor I. I lost. One of the games lasted 28 minutes. The final one, and Wimbledon slipped through my fingers. I had two finals, and it makes you feel a little sad, but happy, too, to have made it that far. I lost to the best at that moment."

In addition to her 29 singles titles – four in Grand Slams – Sánchez Vicario also won six Grand Slam titles in doubles and four in mixed doubles.

"Very few players have been No. 1 in singles and in doubles," she said.

She represented Spain at five Olympics, winning two singles medals and two doubles medals. In fact, after announcing her retirement from tennis at the end of 2002, Sánchez Vicario returned to the courts to participate in her fifth Olympic Games in doubles in Athens in 2004.

"It turned out that, in 2004, Anabel Medina didn't have a doubles partner, and so the opportunity to play in tournaments presented itself again," Sánchez Vicario said. "We entered the Olympics doubles competition. It was my last match. I remember it with a lot of excitement. We had bad luck with the seeding, against the Argentineans [Paola Suárez and Patricia Tarabini], who won a medal. Our first match was very tough."

It was then that she decided to go into permanent retirement.

"It's never easy to quit, but I always say that a timely retirement is always a victory," said Sánchez Vicario, who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2007. "I retired very young, at 30. I'd never suffered an injury before and then I had two serious ones. I couldn't play the entire year. When I could play, I gave it everything I had and, well, at the end of the year, I decided to retire. I thought it was the perfect time to do it. The next day, when I woke up, I realized I didn't have to live the life I had before. But, in any case, I was prepared and, when you make that decision, it's final."

She recently stepped down as captain of Spain's Fed Cup team because of disagreements with the president. Her departure reflected her support of a large number of Spanish tennis players, who had made known their displeasure with the conditions of the sport in Spain. But for Sánchez Vicario, that is all in the past. In the present, she concentrates her energy on her family life.

"Now I'm enjoying my kids," she said. "One can always do something for the world of tennis, but these days my family is the most important thing. I leave the door open, because there are lots of possibilities, but only if I can combine it with my family."

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