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Lunch with a Legend: Conchita Martinez

opinion

By tennis writer Michael Burgess

Published: 11:40AM Tuesday September 22, 2009 Source: ONE Sport

  • 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez (Source: Getty)
    1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez - Source: Getty

My interview with a true legend of Spanish sport got off to the worst possible start.

After weeks of negotiation, 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez finally agreed a time and date.

After checking and re-checking the time difference, I dialled the Barcelona number.

"Hi Conchita, it's Michael Burgess from New Zealand"

Being early is great on a tennis court, but not so flash on a Saturday morning in Spain. She politely told me to call back in 30 minutes as it was 8.30am!

After that foot (in mouth) fault, the interview proceeded well.

Martinez won 33 WTA titles in a glittering career but will always be remembered for her unlikely triumph at the All-England club. She remains the only Spanish women to know the feeling of holding the trophy aloft on the hallowed centre court.

Dusty clay

Brought up on the dusty red clay of Spain, like most Latin players Martinez struggled with the unpredictable Wimbledon surface.

"It was very different to any other tournaments that I had played before. Sometimes you go with a bad attitude but until you change that you are not going to play good there."

Indeed for Martinez it was all about mindset.

"Not many people are comfortable on grass because it is so different from the other surfaces. If you usually play on clay you like the time that you have to prepare all your shots but on grass you don't have all the time.

"You have to make some changes to start feeling comfortable on it and especially your attitude has to be really positive - if not it will be almost impossible."

Martinez can certainly relate to grass aversion. She turned professional in 1988 but actively avoided Wimbledon for a few years.

"There was some point where I felt I didn't even want to play on grass. It is the best grand slam (because of the history and everything) and I managed to change my mind in time."

Indeed Martinez had played a staggering 19 matches at Roland Garros and made four appearances at the US open before she even set foot on court in London.

Superwoman

She made her bow at SW19 in 1992, making the second round. But the following year she ran all the way to the last four before losing to German superwoman Steffi Graf.

In 1994 she was the third seed and expectations were higher, but surely a Spanish clay courter couldn't actually win at Wimbledon?

The 22-year-old Martinez steadily made her way through the first week, engendering self belief with every match.

"When I was in the quarter-finals for sure I thought I had a chance.

"Once you are in the second week of the Grand Slam obviously that means that you are playing good tennis."

Martinez beat Lindsay Davenport in a classic-three set duel to make the semi finals and then trumped another American, Lori McNeil, to make her first-ever Grand Slam final.

Her opponent was the legendary Martina Navratilova a nine-time Wimbledon champion playing in her 27th Grand Slam final.

Martinez, 16 years younger than the American, took the match in three sets and still retains special memories of that day.

"What comes to mind is winning that last point and lifting the plate - those are my best memories. It was also really special meeting Lady Di and Prince Edward after the game and them congratulating me in the tunnel."

Crazy

Spain went crazy and there were "three or four busloads" of people from her hometown to meet her at the airport.

Her Wimbledon success was a double-edged sword as it raised the bar for the rest of her tennis career.

"People expected you to do well in every tournament. Maybe people expected me to win more grand slams but I consider that my career has been successful - a lot of wins but people always want more.

Like most top-level sportspeople, Martinez struggled at times with the ravenous media.

"I learned later that you should never read the newspaper - while you are competing at least, because there are some comments that can affect you and they are not true.

"You try to do your best [but] you are a human being, a player and also a professional that is trying to do the best that you can in your sport."

Sport is all about focus and with the obenefit of hindsight the Spaniard has some great advice for young sportspeople.

"What you need to do is focus on your career and try not to focus on what people think or what they are going to say.

"Focus on doing your job and doing the best that you can to keep growing as a player and a person. Sometimes that is difficult because you read things and people always have an opinion but that is what I would recommend other people do - try to focus on themselves"

Wimbledon remains the greatest tennis tournament on the planet and arguably the hardest one to win.

Secrets of success

After some probing, Martinez was happy to offer her secrets of Wimbledon success.

"You have to go there with a very open mind and you have to be prepared to change some parts of your game. Go there with time and try to adapt as best as you can.

"Maybe you are not going to play your best tennis but you have to accept that you are going to play the best that you can with what you have at that moment."

Fourteen years on from that iconic victory, Martinez is still stopped on the streets of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia though it is "not crazy like before".

Apart from Wimbledon, Martinez lists four consecutive Italian Open victories (1993-1996) and playing in the Federation Cup and the Olympics as her career highlights.

The modest Martinez failed to mention two other Grand Slam final appearances, at the Australian Open in 1998 and the French Open in 2000.

She retired at the end of 2005 with no regrets, though the decision to hang up the racquet was difficult.

"The decision to stop is difficult and one that you can't force. I was going to stop in 2004 but then decided I was going to play in 2005. By the end of 2005 I was ready to give up, had some injuries and it was easier that way."

Cliche corner

We talked briefly about New Zealand and for once the eloquent Martinez slipped into cliché corner.

"I really liked the country. Obviously I would like to go back and explore without having to play tennis or having to rest for the next match because you really don't get any time to see a lot of things.

"What I did see I liked - it was very laid back and very beautiful."

Martinez remains heavily involved in her chosen sport - she is an expert commentator for Eurosport, tournament director of the Marbella WTA tournament and coaches part time.

She retains a real love for the sport but is outspoken about the direction the game is heading.

"I don't see another sport that doesn't have an off season - like ours.

"The WTA is changing this year at least - it will finish in November and players will have a chance to rest, recover and go into the new year healthly.

"You play week after week, you have all the pressure to win, if you don't defend your points you will go down in rankings - it is a dangerous chain of events."

Certainly this could be one explanation for the unpredictable results in women's tennis this year, with most of the top players crashing out in the recent US Open.

After the awkward beginning, it had been an insightful, enjoyable conversation and her passion for all things tennis remains undiminished.

Conchita left, no doubt off to enjoy some "jamon y queso" in a local Barcelona cafe.

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