Gabriela Sabatini turns 50 on Saturday. Are you shocked? I wouldn’t blame you if you were. She doesn’t look much older now than she did when she retired in 1996, at the incredible age of 26.
In the 24 years since, Sabatini has drifted off the sport’s historical radar a bit. To the fans who followed her every stylish move during her heyday, this has probably come as a surprise. The Argentine’s good looks and mix of artistry and athleticism—the tweener was originally called the Saba-tweeny—made her one of the most prominent and popular players of the 1980s and 90s. I can remember, on a couple of different occasions, asking male sports-fan acquaintances in New York if they ever went to the US Open, and getting the same answer: “Oh yeah, my buddies and I always go out to see Sabatini.”
But the record books don’t keep track of your fan base or award extra credit for style points. Despite winning more than 600 matches and reaching the semifinals or better at the majors 18 times, Sabatini won just one Slam, while her primary rival, Steffi Graf, won 22. Sabatini was also never ranked higher than No. 3, and she retired early not because her body broke down, but because her game and her confidence did. By 1996, she was down to No. 31 in the world. These days, if you’re not in the GOAT discussion, you’re lucky to be in the discussion at all.
Still, Gaby reached the sport’s summit and stayed there for nearly a decade. She beat Graf in the 1990 US Open final, and served for the Wimbledon title twice before losing to the German in a three-set final in 1991. Her 11-29 record against Graf was obviously not a good one, but nobody else beat Steffi that many times.
For her birthday, we’re going to rewatch another of Sabatini’s career highlights, one that may qualify as her final hurrah: Her 7-5, 6-4 win over Monica Seles in the 1992 Rome final. Like Graf, Seles was a problem for Sabatini. She won just three of their 14 meetings, and at the French Open in ’92, a month after this match was played, the Argentine led Seles 4-2 in the third set before surrendering the final four games. That said, not many women were beating Monica in those days. The spring of ’92 may have been peak Seles: She was No. 1 in the world, had won four of the last five Grand Slams, and was in the middle of one of the great three-year runs in tennis history. From 1991 to ’93, Seles reached the finals of 33 of the 34 tournaments she played—has that ever been matched? This was one of the few finals that she lost during that time. So let’s roll the videotape on this momentous occasion.
Sabatini vs. Seles Rome final highlights:
If you’re looking to get an idea of how popular Sabatini was, this clip is a good place to start. Rome was a special city for her; as her names suggests, she had Italian roots on her father’s side, and in 2003 the country granted her citizenship. The connection obviously helped on the court. Sabatini had won Rome three of the previous four years, and a packed house at the Foro Italico helped will her to a fourth title in ’92.
At 16 minutes, this is an exhaustive highlight reel, but it gives you an idea of how Sabatini constructed and won points on clay. She liked to use a little, Federer-esque backhand crosscourt chip to draw Seles forward and force her to bend, and she liked to close out points with her down-the-line forehand. I had no memory of how well she hit that shot, but she devastated Seles with it in this match. Time after time, Sabatini found the opening down the line, and despite the riskiness in going over the high part of the net, she hit that forehand with an easy confidence. Maybe the key was that she didn’t seem to feel the need to blast it as hard she could. Placement was enough.
I talked to a pro coach once who said that no WTA player could play like Sabatini anymore because if they tried, they would “get blown through the back fence.” And it’s true, Sabatini’s serve, particularly her second serve, would be a serious liability these days. And you can see that Seles, whose power game is much closer to what the women do today, had an easier time hitting winners with her two-handed strokes than Sabatini did. Instead, Sabatini wins with a Graf-like one-two combination: She hits a low backhand slice, forces her opponent to hit up, and knocks off the forehand.
I had also forgotten that Sabatini knew her way around the net. She began as a rail-thin baseliner sending up high-arcing topspin ground strokes from 10 feet behind the baseline. That was good enough to get her to the semifinals at Roland Garros when she was 15 in 1985, but it didn’t turn out to be good enough to beat Graf. So, much like Mats Wilander at around the same time, Sabatini added a net game to her arsenal, and it helped her win the US Open. On Italian clay, she comes in sparingly, but she pulls off at least three brilliant touch-volley winners that would make Mansour Bahrami proud.
By the end, Sabatini looks like she’s floating. She breaks at 4-4 and fist-pumps as the crowd roars. Then she closes out the world No. 1 by coming over her backhand and hitting a rare winner with it. It took a lot to beat Monica Seles in 1992; Sabatini did it, as always, with style.