Bharat Sundaresan: In the mid-’90s, Indians rooted for Steffi Graf because everybody else did. Then this little Spanish girl, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, came along and attempted to take over. Also, we’re not used to Xs in names—some of us learnt it much later, that it’s ‘Arancha’ and not ‘Aranta’. But there’s only one ‘Arantxa’ and everybody knows who.
Definitely, my name is difficult to pronounce and I try to tell people it’s ‘ch’, Arancha… In the ’90s, (when) I came in, Steffi Graf was clearly dominating. I came in as a Spanish player with a lot of determination and always fought till the end to turn things around. Nobody thought Steffi was beatable. But from age 17, when I started off, to the peak of my career, I was able to beat Steffi and take the No 1 ranking in the world. It was unusual because she was much taller and stronger. But in tennis, it’s not whether you are tall or not. You need to use your strengths… and I knew what I had to do to beat her. I put her in difficult situations, where I was happy, but she was not.
Bharat Sundaresan: You were the underdog when you started. Then you became World No 1, but that underdog tag didn’t leave you.
When I came in, Steffi had been dominating for so long that I stayed the underdog for long. But when you take the No 1 spot from her, not once, but many times, and when in a year you battle for the No 1 spot six-seven times, people start thinking you aren’t an underdog anymore. But I try not to think of myself as an underdog because in sport there’s enough pressure and responsibility. I had a country that was supporting me all the way. No other woman had done it in Spain… getting on the front covers of papers. And for me, it was an honour because I was happy to be the first Spanish woman—or male—to win the French Open and be No 1 and win in singles and doubles. After that, we have had many more. We had (Carlos) Moya, Juan Carlos Ferrero and now Rafa (Rafael Nadal). At the Olympics, after winning medals, I was maybe a role model, icon for them.
Shahid Judge: How much of an advantage does height give a player? Do you see a player like you doing well in today’s tennis?
As I said, tennis is not about height or power; it’s about the mind. Maybe if you are taller, you’ll serve harder, but in the end, you have to make your point and be comfortable on court. (When you are short) you’ll probably serve 10 centimetres less than the other player but the next shot you hit has to be harder than the other and that’s what counts. Nobody’s going to give you anything for free.
Bharat Sundaresan: You spoke about crying a lot after winning. Roger Federer has done that too. What is the kind of pressure you go through during each Grand Slam?
People don’t understand that we are not machines; we are humans. Some cry more, others less, but you can’t imagine the tension. You cannot cry in the middle of the match… so after the match, it comes out even if you don’t want to. I know when women do that, it always looks more natural because they seem more emotional. But it’s the same with guys. Roger is special in that he came out and cried. It’s good that men also do that. So I say thanks to Roger… With his body getting fine, for me, he still is the best player to continue winning. It’s good to see that he is real and not fake.
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Shahid Judge: At 17, you had already won a Grand Slam and beaten the World No 1. How did that change you in terms of your mindset and goals?
As a Spanish player, you always want the French Open. For us, it is a huge thing and you always want to win that and then you look at the other Grand Slams. For me, the US Open has always been my favourite Grand Slam after the French Open. Nobody likes the US Open because it’s very crazy, very loud. You feel like you are playing football or NBA, with music. I like it because the crowd is always behind you. They can scream and back you.
Shivani Naik: What do you remember of the 1995 Wimbledon final?
It was the quietest I have played in all my life. I wished someone would scream (for me). My family or friends shouted ‘C’mmon!’, and then I looked at them and said, ‘Yes, finally! C’mmon!’. It was so quiet. I think more the adrenaline, the better… I just went to Steffi because we had very good relations and said, ‘You already have five (Wimbledon trophies), you should let me have one’. I was just kidding. I was happy because I played my best. But at the same time I was a little sad because I lost. I did not have the trophy so I asked Steff if I could hold it for a minute and then took a picture. So I have a picture but not the trophy. I still have runners-up trophy.
Bharat Sundaresan: Do your children believe you won the trophy?
No, no. They know. I told them that I only have a picture. They are very smart, they know.
Alaka Sahani: Monica Seles was attacked on court. Did you ever get any hate mails or has anyone said anything unpleasant to you? How shocking was that incident?
That was the most shocking thing that I ever saw (On April 30, 1993, during a match in Hamburg, Günter Parche, a fan of Steffi Graf, stabbed Seles). It could have been me. This fan of Steffi Graf (Parche) didn’t want her to lose the No. 1 ranking. And in those days, Monica and I were the ones who could beat (Graf). I got some letters from this guy (Parche)… After that, every time I went to Germany, I had to have security because this guy was telling me, ‘If you come to Germany, you’re next’. I had to have four bodyguards everywhere I played because they were afraid that this guy would show up.
Shivani Naik: What do you remember of that feisty match with Serena Williams at the 1998 French Open?
We played in the quarterfinals. I remember she had the set at 5-2, and she was serving for the match. I broke her and then after that, we played a very long point. I played a drop shot and she came to the net. And I had a shot to play backhand and she decided to go to the left. I hit it hard, like a winner, and I hit her on the body. She wasn’t too happy and she started to complain that I did it on purpose… But I broke her again and I won the second set 7-6 and then I beat her 6-0 in the third. She was not too happy. The next day, she was cheering for her sister (Venus), but I beat her in straight sets. Then in the finals, I beat Monica. Since then, I had the respect of the (Williams) family because I beat both sisters. But it was always hard to play the Williams sisters. They were very young, but you could tell that they were going to be champions and do whatever they are doing now because they were already showing that they were going to be very good.
Rohit Alok: How often does nostalgia about your playing days kick in?
I do not get nostalgic at all. When I took the decision to stop playing, I was very clear. I don’t miss the game or the competition at all. I have other things that are more important than tennis now. You need to know what things are, because tennis isn’t forever. Like they say, life goes on. Maybe what I miss a little bit is that adrenaline rush you have when you have 25,000 people watching you on the tennis court because I had that feeling for many years. But now I watch as a spectator and it’s even better because you don’t have the pressure and you can enjoy the game. I don’t know about other players but I don’t miss tennis at all.
Devendra Pandey: When you decided you don’t want to play the game anymore, what played on your mind?
When you wake up the next day, you realise that a lot of things are gone. But you can enjoy it if you realise you have other motivations. You need to have an idea about what you’re going to do afterwards. I knew I wanted to get married and have kids and enjoy life. And later, start working around tennis—like I’m sitting here in India, as an ambassador, representing Roland Garros. I am still involved with the game and… inspire kids to try and achieve all that I managed to. I also do commentary for TV. You can coach too if you want, but I don’t want to do it. My priority is my family.
Shivani Naik: Do you see a bit of yourself in Carolina Marin (badminton World No 2, who defeated P V Sindhu in the 2016 Olympics)?
Well, she’s a great player, a great person. She has done so much in a sport that is not so popular in Spain. With soccer and tennis getting all the attention, she doesn’t get as much attention as she might have got in other countries. So (her success) is amazing because we get to know more about badminton in our country. She has been a champion and World No 1.
Alaka Sahani: Serena Williams was two months pregnant when she won the Australian Open.
First of all, I’m happy for her. To be a mother is a wonderful experience. For any woman, it’s good. At the same time, (to win) the Australian Open while being pregnant is amazing. She’s a superwoman. It’s good for her and I’m just wishing her all the best. And I know that if she comes back, she will come back stronger than ever because she wants to continue making more history. But it has left the door and window open for women’s tennis now because she has been clearly dominating all this while. Now it’ll be good to see who will be the most consistent after her. And who will be Number 1 at the end of the year.
Shivani Naik: Was there a particular player, not among the top 5, whom you found difficult to play against?
I liked to play all players. But sometimes, when I played on a faster surface, I found it difficult to play Lindsay Davenport because she served very well and she played very hard and very flat. She’s very big, so she covered a lot of the court. So it was difficult on the fast surface; on the slow surface, there was more time to play. On the hard court, it was very difficult for me because (the ball) came much faster. At the same time, if I was losing on hard courts, then I’d win on clay so I wouldn’t feel that bad and I’d give it back to her afterwards.
Alaka Sahani: You made that statement too: ‘Grass is for cows’.
Yes, that was me. All the Spaniards thought so, but never said it. But I said it once because I lost the Wimbledon final in 1995. It was so fast, and because we never played on grass, we never thought we could play. But after a few years, I thought grass was not that bad. So I changed my mind and said it’s not true—we can play and win (on grass). I said it in a nice way, so they (British) were never offended. Even before I won, they were hoping for me to win so that I’d change my mind. So they were happy.
Devendra Pandey: Would you recommend that Indians play more on clay?
Clay helps a lot. It improves your skills, values and patience. The points are much longer so you can adapt your game and skills from that to hard court.
Shahid Judge: What are the other things you’re passionate about?
I’m a big fan of soccer. Since I come from Barcelona, it’s my favourite team. I like watching NBA, I like cars. But I’m just enjoying my time with my kids now. I’m a good cook. I have time now. I love to cook for my kids and my husband and my friends. It’s important. I cook good Spanish food. I missed it a lot so I cook it a lot.
Pooja Pillai: Do you get photographed a lot more now than during your playing days?
Yes, because earlier people would ask if they could take a picture. Now they just (stick an arm out) and take a picture automatically, a selfie. In my generation, the phone was a thick one that you only used to make calls. Now, this is amazing because you can take pictures yourself. You could live without a phone before, but not now. If you don’t have it, you miss it.
Shivani Naik: What has changed the most for you while interacting with fans?
They have seen me during my playing days so they recognise me. But I’ve changed my hair now—I’ve gone blonde; it used to be dark. I live now in Miami. There’s always good, warm weather throughout the year. But with all the sand, it’s better to go blonde. After I stopped playing, I wanted… a change, and that’s how it is. Women, you know, we like to change things and make it look better. I couldn’t do it when I was playing.