It was supposed to be one of sport’s most nailed-on victories: A tennis great taking on a teenager.
Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario was supposed to do little more than enjoy her day in the spotlight at the 1989 French Open final, play a few shots and then politely succumb to the seemingly invincible Steffi Graf.
Even the Spanish press gave the Barcelona-born prodigy no chance — most other experts gave her even less.
“At the age of 17 I came in as an underdog and nobody was picking me to do well,” Sanchez-Vicario tells CNN’s Open Court show, ahead of Saturday’s 2016 title match between her compatriot Garbine Muguruza and top-ranked defending champion Serena Williams.
“Just getting to the final was a big thing but everybody was saying that Steffi is going to ‘kill her,'” she added.
Graf was the world No. 1 and had dominated the grand slam scene, winning five consecutive major titles.
A year earlier, the German had required just 32 minutes to demolish Natasha Zvereva 6-0 6-0 to win her second straight crown at Roland Garros, and she went on to claim all four grand slam titles that season — a feat no tennis player has since repeated.
By the time she reached the 1989 final, having overcome Monica Seles in the last four, Graf was the outstanding favorite.
“I always remember when I went to do my press conference,” Sanchez-Vicario recalls.
“I was just happy to be going to the final, I was so excited. I remember the Spanish press asking me, ‘How many games do you think you are going to win tomorrow?’
“I looked at them and said: ‘You have to be kidding me.'”
While her friends back home were busy preparing for their school exams, Sanchez-Vicario was dealing with anxiety on another level.
The night before the final, she barely slept.
At that time, only one Spaniard had ever won the tournament in the pro era — Andres Gimeno was men’s champ in 1972.
“I was so nervous,” she says. “I was in the final of the French Open, and for a Spaniard that is a huge.
“I think the whole of Spain had shut down and was looking forward to the final.”
Sanchez-Vicario had grown up playing on clay, and this was the tournament she had always wanted to win.
The first set was a tight affair but it was the “Barcelona Bumble Bee” — as she was affectionately nicknamed by legendary commentator Bud Collins — who administered the first real sting.
A first-set tiebreak went the way of the young challenger, as Sanchez-Vicario took advantage of a series of rare mistakes by her opponent.
The second set was a rather different affair as Graf, riled by her inability to close out the opener from a 6-5 lead, leveled the match.
Having squandered a couple of set points at 5-2, she soon made amends to win the set 6-3 and set up a decider.
There was an air of expectation that Graf would take control of the contest and cruise to an inevitable victory.
That outcome appeared certain as Graf moved into a 5-3 lead. And yet, perhaps only one person in the entire stadium truly believed otherwise.
Sanchez-Vicario, determined to derail Graf’s coronation, rallied to level at 5-5 after breaking her opponent to love.
“I was the underdog but the crowd always goes with the underdog,” she says. “They supported me so much in the whole match because they saw I was playing really well and had a chance to win.
“They liked my personality and my game. I was fighting until the end.”
The defending champion was rattled. Sanchez-Vicario broke again with a forehand winner to move 6-5 ahead; Graf reacted by walking off court with what she would later tell reporters were “menstrual cramps.”
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Sanchez-Vicario says of the incident.
When Graf did come back, there was only one thought on Sanchez-Vicario’s mind — hit to her backhand.
It worked — the return hit the net, and Spain had its first women’s champion at Roland Garros
“I was crying — I couldn’t stop crying,” Sanchez-Vicario says.
“I just wanted to hug my coach and the people who were there. All my emotions came out — I was 17 and you can imagine how this changed everything in Spain.”
Life would never be the same, and it began a golden period for Spain at the only clay grand slam.
“When I got back there were maybe 4,000 people at the airport with flags. I then went and visited the royal family and they had a big reception there. Suddenly I was like, ‘Oh my, what is going on here?'”
Sanchez-Vicario would win two more French Open titles plus the 1994 U.S. Open, becoming the first Spanish player to top the world rankings as she also reached the final twice at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open.
“You always remember your first grand slam,” she says. “Beating Steffi Graf there — I always wanted to beat the best and beating Steffi couldn’t have made me prouder and happier.
“It was the best match ever and when you watch the replay you can still see it was a good game.
“Everybody still remembers it and I’m so happy to be the first person to open up tennis in my country.”
Sanchez Vicario’s achievement was all the more remarkable given Graf’s run after their encounter.
The German won her remaining 47 matches of the season while also triumphing at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
She went on to win 22 grand slam titles and remains the most successful woman in the history of professional tennis.
Graf would also gain revenge on the Spaniard in Paris, winning both the 1995 and 1996 finals and matching that on the grass at Wimbledon.
Looking back now, Sanchez-Vicario remains content with her achievements — having also won four women’s doubles grand slams and 16 in mixed doubles.
“I had a very successful career. I fought, gave my best and that’s why I was very hard to be beat because I never gave up,” she says.
“I can be very proud and am happy to be part of the history of the game.”
On Saturday, Muguruza will seek to become Spain’s first female grand slam singles winner since Sanchez-Vicario’s 1998 Paris triumph.
If she succeeds, the 22-year-old will prevent Williams from matching Graf — who else — in the all-time title stakes.