At the French Open in 1989, something very unique happened. Two 17-year olds won the men’s and the women’s singles titles in an incredible ending to the Grand Slam. Michael Chang, a teenager of American-Chinese heritage, stormed to the title upsetting World No 1 Ivan Lendl in the fourth round before beating Stefan Edberg in a five-set final.

Another very precocious teen who announced her arrival at the big stage was Spaniard Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario, dropping only two sets en route to the final, including one against World no 1 Steffi Graf in the final. Graf would serve for the match at 5-3 in the third set but would be denied by Sanchez-Vicario for the first of her titles.

Graf had gone two and a half years undefeated in a Grand Slam, sweeping all the four majors and the Olympics the previous year, 1988. Sanchez Vicario had barely got any sleep the previous night and her opponent had won her last French Open title 6-0 6-0.

Sanchez-Vicario was stirred into action when asked by a journalist how many games she would win in the final. With her back to the wall in the final set, she won her last four games after which the journalist apologised to her. The Spanish girl would go on to win 29 singles and 69 doubles titles in a glittering career.

It was the first of four singles Grand Slam titles for the ‘Barcelona Bumblebee’, nicknamed for her grit and her never-give-up attitude chasing down a tennis ball down every alley and corner of a tennis court (sounds awfully familiar to another current Spanish player?), rising to the World no 1 in both the singles and the doubles division. Now 45, Sanchez-Vicario was in Delhi for a Roland Garros promotion event as Scroll caught up with the 14-time Grand Slam champion.

With the French Open trophy at Court Suzanne Lenglen (Courtesy: Roland Garros)

She became the youngest woman to win the French Open title, a record which would be beaten by Monica Seles the following year. This was only the first of her three French Open title, the last won in 1998.

It took another 18 years for a Spanish woman to win another Grand Slam, Garbine Muguruza winning the French in 2016. Asked if Spanish talent on the woman’s side has dried up, Vicario responds, “In my time, we had two players – me and Conchita Martinez. Now we have Carla Suarez (Navarro) and Muguruza. But we need to have more programmes as we need more players for the future. The federation is trying from its side as well.”

When asked if the increased longevity of the older generation of players was hampering the chances of the younger generation, she disagreed but praised the elder statesmen of tennis for having enhanced tennis levels.

The Spaniard spoke about major changes in tennis of late, “Now you can play on the baseline. In my generation, when we played on the grass courts, it was very fast. These days, long rallies from the base of the court is common.”

She also emphasised the point of having a junior program, “A significant part (of a tennis player’s career) is from junior to professional. In our days, champions were younger. We turned professionals much earlier. I didn’t play any junior level tennis because I was 14 when I turned pro. I won the French Open at 17 and became no 1 two years later. We made the transition much earlier.”

Among the upcoming crop, she believes that Angelique Kerber is one to look out for because she dislodged Serena Williams from the no 1 spot. Her favourite though seems to be Karolina Pliskova, “She has been more consistent and has improved in the last couple of years. Muruguza, Madison Keys, these players also have the skills to make it to the top spot.” Similarly, Nick Kyrgios and Mischa Zverev were tipped for bigger things in the men’s section.

She had a very good record against most players, but she describes the rivalry with Steffi Graf as her finest, “She is the one that had to be played against most of the times, she was very good and I lost quite a few.”

Aranxta was one of the last ones to be ranked no 1 in the singles and doubles section, “You don’t see that anymore. I miss that, players competing in both disciplines.” She and teammate Martinez also had an exemplary record in the Fed Cup, “We reached the finals of the Fed Cup 10 times, won five and lost five. It is a unique tournament in what is a very individual sport. Very unique, whether you play home or away.”

Sanchez-Vicario also took spoke about two of the more troubled players on the circuit currently, “Monica Seles was a top player and what happened to her was an unfortunate incident. She lost many years of her career. Mentally, it’s the same issue with Petra Kvitova. Her left hand is most dominant and the injury is more serious than what it seems to be. It might take longer than everybody thinks to come back and play at the top. But she is charismatic and it will be good for the game.”

She also believes that Maria Sharapova’s time away from the courts may have done her some good, “She’s spent some time not playing competitive tennis, she’s gone out and thought what can I change in my game? Now she’s going to come back, come back stronger. She is a player after all, still got the game, not going to forget it.”

Retiring for the first time in 2002, she came back to take part in a fifth Olympic games, a record for a tennis player, “The only reason that I came out of retirement was to help. Due to my prior Olympic record (four medals - a silver and a bronze in the singles and the doubles), I was invited to play and I decided to play alongside Anabel Medina Garrigues. When I retired, it was the most difficult time for me but I decide to retire on top and it was the right moment.”

Asked if she would one day like to captain Spain in the Fed Cup like compatriot and current captain Martinez, she says, “Why not? Some day maybe,” she says signing off with a wink and a hint of a smile.