It was a quarter-century ago, an eternity for some. Now, it’s important for the youngest among us to grasp how sublime Steffi Graf’s backhand slice was and how Spain had raised an absolute reference in court coverage and mindboggling defensive returns in Arantxa Sanchez Vicario years before the King of Clay’s accession to the throne.
For us tennis aficionados who are old enough to remember the two champions, August 21, 1994, is loaded with vivid memories. In its 40 years of history at Parc Jarry, the event has seen its share of episodes, exploits, disappointments, surprises and tours de force, but never has a match—a final, to boot—taken on such proportions.
The showdown, which got underway around 2 p.m., ended six and a half hours later in a stadium that had suddenly started showing its age, battered by inclement weather and snubbed by fans. Because tennis is a contest between two, it can sometimes take a dramatic turn, and the Expos’ old home base was a rather fitting theater for this final scene on which it seemed the curtain would never fall.
Elevated by the uncertain forecast and tenacity of the two protagonists, the script was extraordinarily suspenseful. Sanchez Vicario, who was defending her title earned in Montréal two years earlier (7-5), was the star of the opening act. She laid the first stones of a huge coup against the World No.1, who was undefeated on cement all season.
In the second set, unmistakably diminished by a back injury, Graf showed what a tremendous champion she is (1-6). In the face of rain delays (all four of them) and her opponent’s laudable combativeness, she was unflappable.
Then, the match swiftly descended into the epic and irrational: imposed breaks, shifting skies and calls for the trainer by Graf, who still managed to chalk up the first match points (four of them, again). Because things couldn’t end without a winner—even if fans would have gladly celebrated both players—Arantxa finally claimed victory at nightfall, at the end of a tiebreaker that left Steffi in tears.
In defeat, Graf was magnificent. She never let her physical concerns become an excuse and refused to give up, even with her back to the wall and the crown at her fingertips. The valiant spectators who had stayed until the end made no mistake when they tried to comfort her with their loud cheers.
Naturally associated with the ovation, Sanchez Vicario proved once again that hard work and determination can move mountains. Despite the match’s truncated denouement at such a late hour, her love for the local crowd, which she acknowledged, en français, in her winner’s speech, never wavered.
Beyond its dramatic arc, the battle harkens back to a time in which women’s tennis and its most illustrious ambassadors—Graf, Sabatini, Seles, Sanchez Vicario and Navratilova in the twilight of her career—often upstaged their male counterparts, fueled by rivalries that make up the lyrical narratives of our sport.
Featured photo : US Open