Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1985–1996
Major titles: 1 (1990 US Open)
If any player’s career can be summed up in a single result, it’s Sabatini’s. It came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. She won the silver medal. Steffi Graf beat her for the gold.
Sabatini was one of the most popular players in tennis history. Her stylishly rangy all-court game was highlighted by a full-loop one-handed backhand, and she was doing the “Saba-tweeny” long before Roger Federer tried his hand at the tweener. Couple that with her good looks and John Wayne swagger, and the Argentine enjoyed a worldwide following like few others.
Sabatini’s sensational debut run to the 1985 French Open semifinals, where she lost to Chris Evert, marked the 15-year-old as a future Grand Sam winner. While she would eventually make good on that promise, it was the 15-year-old whom Evert beat in the fourth round in Paris that year—Graf—who would become the game’s next great champion.
The German won 11 of their 12 Grand Slam meetings, and kept Sabatini from ever reaching No. 1. The best of their matches, the 1991 Wimbledon final, was also the most painful for Sabatini. She had won her previous five meetings over Graf, and she would win the two that came after. On Centre Court she served for the title twice, but her biggest weakness, her soft and short first delivery, caught up with her and Graf survived again, 8-6 in the third set.
Sabatini’s lone Slam win over her friend and sometime doubles partner, Graf, in the 1990 US Open final, was her finest hour. She not only vanquished Graf, she did it by using the additions that she had made to her game over the years. Like Mats Wilander on the men’s side, Sabatini transformed herself from a defensive-minded clay-courter into a more-than-competent net-rusher who had success on all surfaces. Sabatini had done all she could to finally taste gold.
Her moment may have been short-lived, for her and her many fans, but nothing could have been sweeter.
Defining Moment: You might say Sabatini was born into the wrong era—the Graf era. She would go 1-11 in Grand Slam matches against the German, and never overtake her for No. 1. The upside was that Graf forced Sabatini to improve, and to become a fully-rounded all-court player. That work finally paid off with her masterful win over Graf in the 1990 US Open final, one of the most popular victories ever at Flushing Meadows.
Watch: Sabatini wins tiebreaker to claim her only Grand Slam title