WASHINGTON -- After going winless in four championship matches this year, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario hopes her title at the Virginia Slims of Washington gives her a much-needed mental boost going into this week's U.S. Open.
Capping off a week of near flawless tennis, Sanchez Vicario fought off a tough challenge from No. 6 seed Katerina Maleeva in a 6-2, 7-5 championship win yesterday before 6,582 at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center.
Sanchez Vicario earned the top prize of $70,000, but more
importantly she goes into the U.S. Open with her first tournament win since July 1990 when she won the Virginia Slims of Newport.
"I think this tournament gave me a little confidence and was good preparation for the U.S. Open," Sanchez Vicario said. "I played well. I feel confident. [Winning the Open] is a possibility."
With none of the top three ranked players in women's tennis -- Steffi Graf, Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova -- here, the path to the championship was somewhat easier for Sanchez Vicario. Entering the final as the No. 4 player in the world, &L Sanchez Vicario did not drop a set in winning her four matches during the week.
"I did not put any pressure on myself," said Sanchez Vicario, when asked whether there was an added burden of going winless in championship matches this year. "I knew if I continued to play like this, I could win a tournament. If it were not today, I knew it would be by the end of the year."
By the way she started the match, it appeared that Sanchez Vicario preferred to win her title sooner than later. She rallied back from 30-love in the first game to break Maleeva's serve, and then held service in the second game to go up 2-0. Though Maleeva recorded a service break in winning the next two games, Sanchez Vicario settled down and looked strong after winning the first set, 6-2.
Only after Sanchez Vicario took the first three games of the second set -- winning the last two without allowing a point -- did Maleeva decide she did not want to play the patsy in a rout.
"In the beginning I was not playing that well," said Maleeva, who had dropped just one set entering the championship match. "At three-love in the second set I got mad at myself because I was playing terrible. I started going more for my shots."
Inspired, Maleeva capitalized on her more aggressive play and unforced errors by Sanchez Vicario to pull to within 5-4. That set up an exciting 10th game, during which Maleeva had to fight off two match points after starting the game up love-40.
By game's end there were 25 points played and when Maleeva smashed a forehand that struck the net cord and fell well short of a helpless Sanchez Vicario and tied the set at five, she thrust both hands in the air -- with the crowd giving both players a standing ovation.
"I had two match points, but I just couldn't finish it," Sanchez Vicario said. "But I didn't feel pressure. I felt if I could play like I was, everything would change."
Sanchez Vicario won the next game without allowing a point and left no doubt when she ended the match with a smash.
"In the end she started playing her stronger game, and hitting good deep topspin shots," Maleeva said. "You have to feel fit and be very strong to beat her."
As does Sanchez Vicario, Maleeva has to feel good about her game going to the Open. Although she has fallen to No. 13 after starting the year as the world's fifth-ranked player, Maleeva has reached the finals of her last two tournaments (she lost to Seles in the Canadian Open championship). She also recorded a win over Mary Joe Fernandez (No. 4 in the world) in Friday's semifinals.
As for Sanchez Vicario's chances at the Open, Maleeva said they're as good as anyone's.
"She feels she can win it and she played well against Steffi," Maleeva said of Sanchez Vicario's win over Graf in the French Open semifinals. "She's No. 4 -- if she has gotten that high, I think she has a chance."
* In doubles, the second-seeded team of Jana Novotna and Larisa Savchenko defeated top-seeded Gigi Fernandez and Natalia Zvereva, 5-7, 6-1, 7-6 (12-10).