Gabriela Sabatini may have won a Grand Slam title in both singles and doubles, but the Argentine’s name is not one many remain familiar with. But is it time that she received her due?
Last Word on Tennis look back at one of South America’s finest:
Gabriela Sabatini’s breakthrough
Born in Buenos Aires in 1970, Sabatini’s talent was obvious from a young age. Indeed, in 1983, she became the youngest player to win the prestigious Orange Bowl at just 13 years old. She continued to impress as a junior, winning the girls’ singles at the French Open and holding the #1 ranking, and it did not take long for her to make an impact in the senior ranks.
Only two years after her Orange Bowl triumph, she reached the French Open semifinals, losing there to eventual champion Chrissy Evert. In 1988, she went one step further, reaching her first Grand Slam final at the US Open. But, she proved unable to withstand the power of Steffi Graf, who won in three sets to complete the Calendar Grand Slam.
Graf denied Sabatini again later that year in the gold medal match at the Seoul Olympics. But the 1988 season was not without significant successes for Sabatini, who won the Wimbledon women’s doubles title with Graf and triumphed in singles at the year-end WTA Championships.
Grand Slam success followed by semifinal agony
She proved unable to capitalize on that in 1989, although she did reach the semifinals at both the Australian and the US Open. But in 1990, her moment in the sun arrived as she won her first Grand Slam title in singles, beating her nemesis Graf in straight sets at the US Open.
It was her first victory over the German at a Major and it also proved to be her last. But she did beat Graf again at the year-end championships, before losing to Monica Seles in the event’s first-ever five-set final.
The following year Sabatini reached the Wimbledon final in singles for the first time, where Graf once again awaited her.
Despite serving for the match twice, Sabatini’s nerve failed her as she lost in three sets to the German, 4-6 6-3 6-8. She would not return to the final at a Major.
That is not to say that she never again came close, but time and time again, Sabatini would fall just short in the later rounds at the Grand Slams.
In 1992, Sabatini made a solid start to her campaign in Melbourne reaching the semifinals, but was well-beaten there by Mary Joe Fernandez, who lost just five games in a 6-1 6-4 win. At Roland Garros, she again reached the last four, but threw away a third-set lead against Seles. She followed that with another semifinal showing at Wimbledon, but could not seriously challenge Graf, losing 3-6 3-6. Fernandez then beat her in straight-sets again in the quarterfinals at the US Open.
Those losses came as part of a run of last-four defeats, with Sabatini losing seven of the ten Grand Slam semifinals she contested in her career. Sabatini later admitted to deliberately losing due to her shyness, with the defeats sparing her the inevitable speech and press commitments that came with winning a Major. The same problem afflicted her doubles career, with Sabatini losing in a further seven Grand Slam semifinals in that discipline, including for four straight years at the US Open between 1986 and 1989.
Impressive victories and embarrassing defeats
But away from her heartache at the majors, Sabatini remained a force to be reckoned with on all three surfaces. She won the Italian Open on four separate occasions, beating Seles in back-to-back finals in 1991 and 1992.
The latter win was a particularly impressive victory, with Seles having arrived into that match having won four of the last five Slams and in the midst of a run that saw her reach 33 finals in 34 tournaments.
But Sabatini still proved unable to return to a Major final. In 1993, Seles thrashed her 6-2 6-1 in the last four at Melbourne Park, before Sabatini collapsed against Fernandez in Paris, squandering a 6-1 5-1 lead and five match points to lose 8-10 in the decider. Sabatini managed to recover from that disappointment in time to reach the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, but yet again, contrived to lose there to Jana Novotna, despite having beaten the Czech in their last six meetings.
At the final Major of the season, she lost to Graf at the same stage in New York, 1-6 in the third.
Her final competitive matches
After a consistent run of titles, Sabatini’s form tailed off somewhat and she failed to lift another trophy until beating Lindsay Davenport to win the 1994 year-end finals. But 1995 brought another humiliating defeat as Sabatini lost from 6-1 5-1 up for the second time in her career, wasting three match points and hitting 18 double faults in a 6-1 6-7 6-7 loss to Japan’s Kimiko Date in Miami.
Again, she rebounded impressively, reaching the French Open quarter-finals, where she lost to Graf in straight-sets. She lost at the same stage at Wimbledon to eventual champion Conchita Martinez before reaching her last Grand Slam semifinal at the US Open, where she once again lost to Graf.
It was their 40th and final competitive match with Graf claiming her 29th win in a rivalry, that for the most part, the German dominated. Yet it is important to remember that Sabatini’s 11 wins versus Graf were more than anyone else scored against the 22-time Grand Slam winner.
The surprise retirement of Gabriela Sabatini
Surprisingly, Sabatini announced her retirement in October, 1996, aged just 26. Citing the effects of starting at such a young age with 13 seasons and 250 tournaments behind her, it still took most by surprise.
Another factor may well have been her loss of form which saw her win only two titles in the last four years. Plummeting from a career-high #3 world ranking to #31 in the top 50. And although one may feel that Sabatini might have achieved more, it was unquestionably a career she could look back on with real pride.
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