Born: May 16, 1970
in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Tennis success came fast and furious for a young Gabriela Sabatini, launched into a pressure-cooker of high expectations to achieve major championship greatness at a time in the women’s game where any one of 15 players could win a tournament at any time.
Sabatini was like a thoroughbred race horse that blasts through the gate and storms past the field with immense power and speed, only to realize when peaking backwards that the competition can easily gain ground because it shares a commonality of talent. Like so many of her contemporaries in the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s, Sabatini started tennis as a young kid. She began playing at age 6, won a tournament two years later and in 1983, at 13 became, the youngest player to win the prestigious Orange Bowl, a veritable stage of the world’s finest players – which the Argentine had become. In 1984, Sabatini was the world’s No. 1 ranked junior.
At age 13, Sabatini left her native Argentina to train in the United States for a professional career that oozed with potential. Her strokes were beautifully groomed; she possessed a thunderous topspin forehand and a sweeping one-handed backhand that cracked winners from anywhere on the baseline. Her game was baseline-based, her groundstrokes so polished and powerful that she rarely needed net play to win matches. Matching stroke-for-stroke against Sabatini was an arduous proposition; her balls were solidly struck and a chore to return. Sabatini hit long and with her heavy topspin kept her opponents camped out with her on the baseline. She was a notorious fast starter – not easing into matches, but bombing away from the outset. That strategy and athleticism would exhaust her opponents. Just ask Zina Garrison, Manuela Maleeva, and Pam Shriver, all three World Top 10 ranked players that Sabatini polished off as a 14-year-old playing at the Hilton Head Tournament to advance to the finals against Chris Evert in April 1985.
Her first significant dent in the women’s game came at the 1985 French Open, where the No. 14 seeded Sabatini advanced to the semifinals – at age 14 the youngest female semifinalist in history at Roland Garros at the time – falling to eventual champion Evert, 6-4, 6-1.
Sabatini’s era was jammed packed with sensational women’s players; there were no easy routes to championships. But before she turned 20, Sabatini reached the semifinals of all four major tournaments, an accomplishment no female player from Argentina had ever accomplished. She capably carved out her niche with 27 career singles, eight of which came before earning her first major final appearance at the 1988 US Open. Notably, in December 1986 she dispatched Arantxa Sánchez-Vicario at Buenos Aires, 6-1, 6-1 and defeated Steffi Graf – the first time in 12 attempts – at Boca Raton in March 1988, 2-6, 6-3, 6-1. Throughout her entire professional career, Graf would loom large for Sabatini, as both her major singles nemesis and major doubles winning partner.
She headed into the 1988 US Open with momentum, having easily defeated Natasha Zvereva, 6-1, 6-2, at Montreal in August. As the No. 5 seed, Sabatini won her first four rounds in straight sets and bounced Garrison from the draw in the semifinals, 6-4, 7-5. She split the first two sets against No. 1 seed Graf in the final, but the German hitting machine turned her game up a notch and with the prospects of becoming the third woman in history to win a calendar year Grand Slam at stake, completed the task, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1.
Sabatini returned to the US Open final in 1990 with a different result. The No. 5 seeded Argentine reached the final with a superb all-court effort against Mary Joe Fernandez in the semifinals. In registering a huge 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 victory, Sabatini chipped and charged, pounced on short balls and attacked the net more than usual. Against Graf in the final, Sabatini hit the ball as cleanly as ever, her forehand relentless with pace and power, her backhand sliced deeply and smoothly. Playing with precision, she won the first set 6-2 and the second set went into a tiebreaker, where Sabatini had won 6 of 8 sets that season. Graf went ahead 3-1, and looked primed to play a third set. Sabatini surged ahead 4-3 by nearly jumping out of her shoes with a blistering forehand down the line winner, followed by a Graf error and then a punchy crosscourt volley. At 5-4, she may have made the biggest shot in her career, a lunging backhand volley at net to punch back a driving Graf forehand, and after spinning herself back into position, saw Graf’s return shot float wide to her forehand side. She closed out the match with a forehand winner after Graf’s return of serve clipped the net, allowing Sabatini the time to pound the ball down the line, earning her the coveted US Open championship.
Sabatini met Graf in every one of her biggest career matches. Graf defeated her at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul; Sabatini earning a Silver Medal. In 1991, the pair met at the Wimbledon Ladies Singles Championship, one that held true to seeding as the No. 1 Graf defeated No. 2 Sabatini in three brilliant tennis sets, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6. Fittingly, when Sabatini was enshrined into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006, Graf was her presenter. The two faced one another 40 times, and Graf held a 29-11 lead.
Sabatini and Graf collaborated to reach four major doubles finals (the 1986, 1987, and 1989 French Open) and won the 1988 Wimbledon Ladies Doubles championship with a hard-fought 6-3, 1-6, 12-10 victory over the Russian duo of Larisa Savchenko and Natasha Zvereva. In her career, Sabatini won 14 doubles titles.
Sabatini had more rivals than just Graf. She met Monica Seles (a friend and foe) 14 times, the most memorable of Seles’s 11 victories coming at the Virginia Slims Championship held at Madison Square Garden in November 1990. The pair played the first women’s five set final in the modern era – and the first in 89 years – in a match that lasted 3 hours, 47 minutes. Seles won the marathon encounter 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. On March 10, 2015, twenty-five years since that historic event, Sabatini and Seles returned to MSG to play each other as part of the BNP Paribas Showdown.
Sabatini closed out the 1988 season by winning the year-end Virginia Slims Championship in November over Pam Shriver, 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 (she would win a second year-end title in 1994 over Lindsay Davenport, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4). Sabatini won six tournaments in 1989, helping her to achieve her highest career world ranking at No. 3. Winning a major cemented Sabatini in tennis annals, but her greatness on court transcended her entire career, witnessed by her winning four of six Italian Open titles in 1988, 1989, 1991, and 1992 over Canadian Helen Kelesi, Sánchez –Vicario, and Seles twice.
In October 2014, Sabatini was named the sixth most influential Hispanic female of all time by espnW and ESPN Deportes. She retired from the professional tour in 1996.
Sabatini was glamorous both on and off the court, her Latin American beauty attracting a legion of followers that would cram her practice sessions to watch her play. In the late 1980s she launched a line of fragrances, her signature scent Gabriela Sabatini, debuting in 1989, and in retirement she has forged a successful business career promoting her line of perfumes and cosmetics.
In 1994 she published a motivational autobiography, My Story.