Wasn’t it just yesterday when Gabriela Sabatini was 14 years old, playing in the nationally-televised Family Circle Cup final on NBC against Chris Evert in 1985. Well, she’s all grown up now and is 40 years old (Sunday, May 16, 2010). Here’s her bio as it appears in my book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS ($35.95, New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com).
Which do you prefer? The Divine Argentine? Or Pearl of the Pampas? Descriptive noms de racket befitting a gorgeous gem. Or just plain Gaby, as her friends call her. Doesn’t matter. It can only be one person whose name rolls across your tongue like fine wine:
Gabriela Beatrice Sabatini.
As the most extraordinary Latin American lady since Brazilian Maria Bueno was winning Wimbledon and U.S. titles back in the 1960s, making her own way to the Hall of Fame, Gaby had a different style. She adored life at the baseline, her heavy topspinning groundies coming in like a high tide.
“It was so hard, so much work playing against her shots,” said Chris Evert. “Gaby was terrific, and so good so young.”
As a 14-year-old pro, she made her first impact, playing three matches on the last day at Hilton Head, S.C., in 1985, a tournament backed up by rain. It was a Sunday made for TV drama, and Gaby made the most of it, first finishing up a downpour-interrupted quarterfinal over No. 8 Pam Shriver, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 then knocking off No. 5 Manuela Maleeva in the semis, 6-1, 7-6(11-9). Evert, No. 2, the defending champ awaited in the final. It was explained to Gaby that the rules allowed her to put it off until Monday and rest.
No thanks, she said. Bring on Evert and the cameras. The kid was sensational for a set, then an empty tank and Chris took over, 6-4, 6-0.
Soon enough, the following year, 1986, she was in the world’s Top 10, No. 10, and stayed in that select company for 10 straight years—No. 3 in 1989, 91-92—before retiring in 1996. Everybody liked and respected dark-haired Gaby, a splendid sportswoman in a highly competitive profession. Presenting her for Hall of Fame induction in 2006 was her leading rival, Steffi Graf.
It was Graf whom she beat for her major singles title, the U.S. Open in the 1990 final, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4). “I’ll never forget the last shot,” she says of a massive forehand passer. “It had been a hot, tiring match. I put everything into that shot…a third set would have been too much for me.”
Nobody who was there will forget it either. In a desperate semifinal, she notched a 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 win over Mary Joe Fernandez. She did it by attacking the net and volleying. Continuing that Bueno-like approach, she reached the Wimbledon final in 1991, building a 6-5, 30-15 lead in the third set—two points from the title—but strangely hung back. Graf won, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 but she and Steffi did collaborate for a major, grabbing the 1988 Wimbledon doubles as teenies away from Natasha Zvereva and Larisa Savchenko Neiland 6-3, 1-6, 12-10.
Rare consistency: from the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1990 through the semifinals of the Australian in 1994, she was no worse than a quarterfinalist in 15 straight majors.
Gaby got a silver at the 1988 Olympics because she couldn’t stop golden Steffi, 6-3, 6-3. Steffi got a 1988 Grand Slam because Gaby couldn’t win their third set of the U.S. Open final, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
A right-hander born May 16, 1970 in Buenos Aires, she grew to 5-foot-9, 130 lbs., spent formative tennis years on Key Biscayne, Florida, coached by Pato Apey. She turned pro in 1985.
Among her prominent titles were the year-end WTA Championships over Shriver, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2, in 1988, and over Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4, in 1994. She also won in Key Biscayne in 1989 over Evert, 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 and the Canadian Open in 1988 over Zvereva, 6-1, 6-2. The Italian Open was a particularly joyful gig. She was in six finals, winning four: 1988 over Canadian Helen Kelesi 6-1, 6-7 (4-7), 6-1; 1989 over Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-2, 5-7, 6-4; 1991 over Monica Seles 6-3, 6-2; 1992 over Seles 7-5, 6-4. She lost the 1987 final to Graf, 7-5, 4-6, 6-0; and 1993 to Conchita Martinez 7-5, 6-1.
Gaby was especially adored in Rome where clusters of encouraging signs and banners appeared at Il Foro Italico—even for a few years after she retired. But who wouldn’t love her?
She won 27 singles titles (632-189 matches), 12 doubles titles (252-96) and earned $8,785,850 in prize money.
MAJOR TITLES (2)—U.S. singles, 1990; Wimbledon doubles, 1988. FEDERATION CUP—1984—87, 95; 13-3 singles, 11-3 doubles. SINGLES RECORDS IN THE MAJORS—Australian (29-8), French (42-11), Wimbledon (42-11), U.S. (51-12)