When the former tennis champion walked into the lobby of the Trident Hotel in Mumbai last week, hauling her suitcase, and even standing in the queue for check-in all by herself, nobody blinked an eyelid.
Fifteen years ago, things would have been different. That was a time when the world was at Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario’s feet.
Before Spain’s Rafael Nadal—winner of 14 Grand Slam men’s singles titles—even played his first professional match in 2001, Sánchez-Vicario, also from Spain, had already been ranked No.1 in singles as well as doubles (both at the same time and the first Spanish player ever to do so). She had amassed a fortune of around $16 million (around Rs102 crore now) in prize money alone, besides winning four Grand Slam singles titles.
But now, retired since 2002, looking much slimmer than during her playing days, Sánchez-Vicario, who had just landed from Delhi, took about 10 minutes to freshen up before meeting for a chat, ahead of a hectic day and a late-night flight that would take her back home to Miami, Florida. She looked just as energetic as she had in her playing days.
Sánchez-Vicario was in India to promote the Rendez-vous à Roland-Garros, a junior tournament in which the winners (of the boys and girls event) get selected for a chance to play in the wild-card tournament for juniors at the French Open in May. The winners of that wild card tournament will earn a direct entry in the juniors draw of the French Open.
The Indian tournament was played at the Delhi Lawn Tennis Association from 17-19 April.
The question, however, is: How do you encourage children to pick up a tennis racket and play tennis consistently to get a good shot at making it big internationally?
“It’s important to have a dedicated programme where your country could have junior-level tournaments consistently. The more junior-level tournaments we have, the easier it is for children to transition to the professional circuit," says Sánchez-Vicario.
Could this come at the cost of schooling? “Academics is important, of course, it’s important that you finish your school. You can practise tennis after school hours. If you’re really good at tennis, then you can take up tennis as a full-time career. But it’s just as important to finish your schooling because in case you don’t get there or don’t have the opportunity to become a tennis player, you can always have a career that comes out of your studies," says the 45-year-old.
She herself didn’t play much junior tennis—she made her debut on the professional circuit when she was barely 14.
Roland-Garros, she says, has special memories. In 1989, when she beat the then world No.1, Steffi Graf, in the French Open final, she became the youngest women’s tennis Grand Slam champion at the time at 17 years, six months.
In all, she would go on to win three titles at Roland-Garros. Sánchez-Vicario says she is still in touch with her fellow players, especially Monica Seles, a former world No.1 whom she played against 22 times, Mary Pierce and Mary-Joe Fernandez.
“We were rivals but we had—and still have—respect for each other. Everybody had their own group of friends, but we got along well," she says, adding that they try and meet each other, particularly Seles and her, often.
Now married and with two children (a daughter, 8, and son, who will turn 6 this year), Sánchez-Vicario is happy playing the role of mother. Will the next generation of Sánchez-Vicarios get on the tennis circuit?
“I don’t know about that," she says with a big smile.
She doesn’t think about the possibility of her children squaring up against, say, Graf’s two children some years down the line, perhaps playing in a Grand Slam final. “I don’t dream about any such things. I don’t think Steffi thinks about that….
“I just let my children enjoy tennis whenever they play. We’re here to give them the best of education and support them and if they ever want to take up playing tennis as full-time careers, they have good teachers in the house to help them. But it’s their choice; we’re happy to watch them grow," she says.
Does she ever plan to return to tennis as a coach, like some of her peers, Stefan Edberg, Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker, have done recently? “Not at the moment but I never close the door. Players want me and many have approached me. Right now, my priority is my children. Once they are old enough and maybe I can spend more time on the circuit, I might consider coaching."