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Talk About Net Gains
Bruce Newman
May 02, 1988
At 17, Gabriela Sabatini is starting to realize her vast potential on and off the court At 17, Gabriela Sabatini is starting to realize her vast potential on and off the court
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May 02, 1988

Talk About Net Gains

At 17, Gabriela Sabatini is starting to realize her vast potential on and off the court At 17, Gabriela Sabatini is starting to realize her vast potential on and off the court

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More than any of the game's other top players, Sabatini can hold a gallery with her brooding good looks. "She'll be walking around the court with her head down," says Shriver, "and suddenly she'll look up and smile, and she has this incredible aura around her." Sabatini says she is comfortable with her looks and the effect they have on people. At many tournaments her practice sessions are haunted by scores of lovesick boys who follow her every move with shining eyes.

It is easy to forget that a woman as glamorous and successful as Sabatini is not yet 18. She was born only one year before a ponytailed Evert reached the semifinals in her first appearance at the U.S. Open. Sabatini is one of the three most popular people in all of Argentina, along with soccer god Diego Maradona and president Raúl Alfonsín. Back home recently for a two-month visit to Villa de Parque, a suburb of Buenos Aires where her family now lives, people came to their windows and cheered as Sabatini went by on her daily run. When she goes out with her family, she is routinely mobbed. "It's like suffocating," says Sabatini's mother, Beatriz, who occasionally accompanies Gaby on the circuit. "You get scared and so you must hide."

Sabatini's emergence as an international tennis star in 1984 came as Argentina was still struggling to recover from the loss of the war in the Falkland Islands, as well as the realization that most of "the disappeared"—those who had vanished during a succession of military juntas—had been murdered. "Suddenly in the middle of all the depression and bad news, when everything seemed to be wrong in Argentina," says Apey, "there comes this little angel who makes only good news. I think that is what made her an idol."

Sabatini has made only a modest fortune from endorsement and marketing contracts, although that could easily become a large fortune over the next several years. "It's as rare to find world-class looks in athletics as it is to find world-class intellect," says Art Kaminsky, a leading sports-marketing agent. "Hollywood develops good-looking women to become stars, but sports doesn't work that way. Gabriela is so good to look at—she has great legs and a striking face—that if she can continue to improve as a tennis player, she can be a long-term hitter in terms of marketability. The only things that might hold her back are the language barrier and how much personality is actually there. If she can put all that together with her looks and talent, she could be the most valuable female athlete in the world."

Sabatini, of course, isn't the first physically attractive female athlete. Golfer Laura Baugh, who has never won a professional tournament, was willing to do enough cheesecake modeling in Japan, where her blonde hair and blue eyes set her apart, to become a big star there. "The difference between Laura Baugh and Chris Evert," says Kaminsky, "is Baugh has made a very nice living because she's good-looking, and Evert has made a huge living because she's a great player and she's nice looking."

When a West German company releases her signature scent next year, Sabatini will become, as far as anyone can determine, the first female athlete in history to have a line of perfume named after her. "If she should win a Grand Slam event in the next two years, I don't know how high is up," says Dell. "She's one of those rare athletes who have the potential to transcend her sport." Even Dell acknowledges, however, that Sabatini's personality is not yet fully formed. "There's a certain growth she still has to go through," he says. "She needs to gain an awareness and a comfortableness with who she is."

Last year Sabatini made the finals of the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden and the Italian Open. In both tournaments she defeated Martina Navratilova. "When I beat Martina in Rome, that was the best moment I ever had," she says. "That gave me a lot of confidence." She was 0-5 against Evert until she beat her 6-1, 7-5 last month on Evert's home court in Boca Raton.

The wins over Navratilova and Evert may well signal a changing order in women's tennis, but for Sabatini they led inexorably back to Graf and the recurring nightmare their alleged rivalry had become. Sabatini was 0-11 against Graf, and though she had extended her to three sets in seven of those matches and, according to Evert, "tested Graf more than any of the top players," she was faced with the daunting prospect of spending the rest of her career in Graf's imposing shadow. Before Sabatini broke through in Boca Raton, a lot of players wondered if she had the temperament to challenge Graf regularly.

"Gaby still has a tendency to go through mood swings on the court," says Dell. "You watch Steffi and she has no mood swings. She wants to kill you on every point." Consequently, Graf has been more consistent. This year she has lost only to Sabatini. On the other hand, Sabatini has been beaten by Larisa Savchenko of the U.S.S.R., Shriver, Mary Joe Fernandez and Navratilova (twice) in 1988. While losing to Martina is no disgrace, Sabatini won only two games against her a day after defeating Graf at Amelia Island.

Sabatini still lacks the temperament to approach tennis as a blood sport, although her two victories over Graf may now give her a taste for the kill. With Graf leading 6-2, 3-2 with a service break in Boca Raton, Sabatini began to tire, just as she always had. But she won 10 of the last 11 games of the match. In the third set at Amelia Island she was even more exhausted, but she rallied to win seven of the last nine games. "A lot of the matches I was leading and didn't win," said Sabatini of the Boca Raton match. "I said it won't happen today. When I was tired, I hit the ball harder. I felt that this was the time."

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