Conchita, Arantxa and the art of winning Billie Jean King Cup finals12/11/2023 02:44
Conchita Martinez and Arantxa Sanchez Vicario were a dymanic presence for Spain during the nation's golden period in Billie Jean King Cup. Molly McElwee catches up with the revered duo and relives those special years
By Molly McElwee
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Conchita Martinez are both smiling broadly, reminiscing about the good old days. Both find it hard to pick their favourite Billie Jean King Cup (then know as Fed Cup) title run with Spain. When you have five wins to your name, there are just too many memories to choose from it seems.
They settle eventually on 1991, the year they began Spain’s incredible dominance in women’s team tennis. Together, they took the nation to heights those involved had never imagined.
Lifting the trophy in Nottingham that year and being presented with it by Princess Diana was one of her career highlights, says Sanchez Vicario.
"I think that it's hard to pick only one, but probably I will say the first one that we won in Nottingham, because we were not the favourites," Sanchez Vicario tells billiejeankingcup.com.
"We didn’t play on clay where we like to play, but the situation worked out really well for us. We felt at home, the crowd was behind us all the time. Conchita and I played the doubles together for the deciding point. Who was it against?"
"Gigi [Fernandez] and Zena [Garrison-Jackson]?" Martinez offers.
"Yes," Sanchez Vicario confirms. "So we were the underdogs for sure."
Martinez adds: "We didn’t play that many doubles together before that."
"We ended up surprising them, they were getting very nervous," Sanchez Vicario says. "We just kept doing our job. We were so happy, I was crying, emotional. And to do it in front of Lady Di, who gave us the trophy, was a unique experience. I’ll always remember that moment. That was the beginning of our success in the competition."
It has been more than 30 years, but that win against the USA sparked a hot streak within Spanish tennis, which continued to blaze throughout the 1990s. That was thanks in great part to the dynamic duo at the heart of the team.
Between 1989 and 2002, Sanchez Vicario and Martinez's Spain team made 10 out of 14 Billie Jean King Cup Finals, and won five (1991, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998).
Martinez, 51, was known as Señorita Topspin, with variety from the baseline to disrupt opponents. Meanwhile her compatriot was nicknamed the Barcelona Bumblebee, on account of her relentless tenacity and chasing down of shots. Together, and along with their various teammates over the years, they were close to unstoppable for over a decade.
"I think that the good thing is that we connect very well, we have always had very good communication when we play," Sanchez Vicario, 51, says. "Conchita was excellent on the forehand side, I was excellent on the backhand side. We combined both our games together, from the back and the net. I think we supported each other very well."
They both brought their individual success into the team environment. Martinez received worldwide acclaim when she won Wimbledon in 1994, and went on to become a three-time Olympic medallist, world No. 2 and won 33 singles titles during her 18-year career. She played 53 ties for Spain in Billie Jean King Cup from 1988 to 2004.
Meanwhile Sanchez Vicario is a former world No. 1 and was one of the most consistent players of her era, appearing in 12 major singles finals from 1989 to 1998, winning four. She has the distinction of being one of just 14 women in history to appear in the singles finals of all four majors.
Her Billie Jean King Cup individual record put her top of the all-time list for years played (16), series (58), total matches (100), wins (72) and singles wins (50). But it was always about the team's achievements.
"I think the most difficult thing we did together was in a 14-year period we won five and lost five finals," Sanchez Vicario says. "I don’t think many countries can say that. We were a very strong team. For us this competition means a lot."
Another highlight was 1995, when they lifted their only title at home in Valencia. "Valencia was great, it was special winning at home," Martinez says. "We played in Club Tennis Valencia and they put really nice crowds, it was fully booked.
"We played the US and it was really special to win it there. Of course, every time you win in Spain, in your country it’s extra special. To see the crowds all cheering for you in Spain, having a great time, you feel it in your heart."
Though the current crop of Spanish talent were unable to replicate that success this week in Seville at the Billie Jean King Cup by Gainbridge Finals, Martinez and Sanchez Vicario's legacy has been ever-present in the last two decades of Spanish tennis, with two-time major champion Garbine Muguruza and more recently Paula Badosa's rise to world No. 2.
Both Martinez and Sanchez Vicario are confident that their team experiences helped push them in their individual careers and have remained committed to the tournament. Both have previously served as Billie Jean King Cup captains for Spain, and Martinez is now the tournament director of the Finals event in Seville.
They shared the stage with King herself at the Estadio de la Cartuja on Saturday, as they paid tribute to the 60th anniversary of the Billie Jean King Cup.
Martinez hopes hosting the event in Spain could inspire a new generation of players to emulate her and Sanchez Vicario's achievements.
"For sure, when you have good players, it’s going to inspire younger players in Spain to do very well," Martinez says. "Our goal would be for kids [watching the action in Seville] to go and say I want to play tennis in clubs.
"I think it’s very important for Spain to have such an unbelievable event, the Davis Cup in Malaga too. Whether it’s men or women, in the end it’s tennis and that’s what we want."