My tennis nightmare
She stormed on to the professional circuit at the tender age of 14, then suddenly quit, burned out at 26. Janice Turner asks Gabriela Sabatini why - and what she did next
Monday June 16, 2003
A couple of Gabriela Sabatini's friends smile and wave as we cross the lobby of her Knightsbridge hotel. After our interview, they will take her for lunch; later, perhaps, she'll succumb to the lure of Gucci next door.
From the age of 14, when she joined the professional women's tennis circuit for the next 12 years, Sabatini lived solely in gleaming five-star hotels like this. The difference being that there were no friends and no relaxed lunches or strolls around foreign cities to enjoy. A spontaneous hour frittered away for pleasure was an unimaginable luxury.
In 1996, when Sabatini announced her departure from tennis in New York's Madison Square Gardens, many suspected she would return. Surely, at 26, the former world No3, who had netted £6m in prize money, won 27 singles titles, including the 1990 US Open, would pause, regroup and make a comeback. But instead she didn't touch a tennis racket for the next two years and the exhibition match she will play at the pre-Wimbledon Boodle and Dunthorne Champions' Challenge this week is a rare return to the court.
"Tennis keeps you in this bubble," she says. "I wanted to experience life outside it. Remember, I used to wake up, have breakfast, practise for two hours, have lunch, rest a little, practice again for two hours then after that do some training for another hour.
"In the beginning it was a lot of fun, but after a few years it was work - like going to an office. You can't say, 'Today I don't feel like playing', you can't afford to do that.
"You have to eat right, you have to get nine hours sleep a night. My friends would go out late but I had to eat early and go to bed. I couldn't hang out, go to a movie or get up late."
Tennis, unlike most sports, has no off-season, just a relentless global calendar of tournaments. "The only free month was December but because matches start again in January you have only 10 days off then you have to train," says Sabatini.
"I didn't have a home, I was living in hotels. Today, if I have to pack, I hate it. But before I had to do it every week. With all the clothes - tennis clothes, normal clothes - you have to wash them or send them somewhere."
It is a miserable picture, the celebrated young champion leaving a cheering stadium to contemplate her mountain of dirty kit. But she travelled without a retinue, just a coach, her brother - to whom she is very close - or her parents.
On the circuit she was regarded as aloof, even arrogant, barely greeting her fellow players, her striking dark looks and stature adding to the picture of a sulky Latin diva. But she was shy, she says, and very, very young in a game which requires intense, gladiatorial concentration.
Today there is no sign of such reserve in Sabatini's warm, unguarded manner. She poses for pictures with professional ease, neither seeking nor recoiling from the attention of watching guests. At 5ft 8in she has a rangy elegance in her well-cut jeans and Dolce & Gabbana bodice. Her face is a handsome hybrid of masculine and feminine: a lantern jaw and broad cheek bones are softened by glittering, kohl-heavy eyes and the sudden eruption of a stellar cover-girl smile.
"It's hard to make friends within the tour. It's an individual sport - you play your match and you leave," she says, her voice deep yet soft, her English, learned mostly from travel and pop music, spoken in an unplaceable international accent.
Are there any former players she calls for dinner if they are in the same town? She frowns. Well, she speaks to Steffi on the phone, but everyone is always on the move. It is clear she keeps her emotional attachments well away from the game, with family in Buenos Aires, or with the friends she loves travelling with now.
She has toured Europe and the States since she left tennis, in an unstructured, carefree way, a week's visit stretching into a month if she felt like it, in contrast to the rigorous itinerary of her former life. At 33 she has something of the unhurried ease of the visiting foreign language student.
It was loneliness which drove her from the sport she had played since she was six and which was "my passion from the first time I held a racket". Alone after victory, alone after defeat, she became so well-recognised in public she once wore a wig to deter the legion of fans - many of them infatuated young men - who followed her around the world.
By 1993, her growing feeling that there was a life beyond the game was effecting her tennis, tempering the inner hunger necessary to win. After her triumph at the US Open she had a couple of good years, including finishing runner-up in the 1991 Wimbledon final to her great rival Steffi Graf. But in 1993 at the French Open she had Mary Joe Fernandez at 6-1, 5-1 and then, in a monumental loss of bottle, the match was snatched from her 6-1, 6-7, 8-10 in a marathon three hours and 36 minutes.
"I changed coaches three times in 93," she says. "I wasn't satisfied, couldn't find the right person. The next year I started to get worse and worse. I'd wake up in the morning and think, 'God I have to go and practise and I don't want to do it. I want to do something else'. I had a strong feeling that I just wanted a normal life."
She spoke with a psychologist and decided she no longer had total commitment. Her relaxed air suggests she is comfortable with her present life yet her eyes well up when she recalls announcing her retirement: "It was probably one of the toughest moments. I was so emotional. But when I made the speech it was such a relief."
Life after tennis has been eased by the looks which made her a favourite of the "totty and botty" breed of sports photographers. It is easy to see why sponsors love her, yet it seems a travesty of her unnarcissistic charm to see the website of her perfume line on which she poses in sexy evening wear besides the words: "Each of my perfumes has a soul, something honest which is part of me."
Yet while she was playing, tennis came first, glamour second. She is cautiously scathing about Anna Kournikova for whom the reverse is true. "She likes better the outside and the attention from her looks rather than her tennis," says Sabatini, but adds generously. "Even though she has the right game to be in the top five if she focuses."
Sabatini's lack of vanity helped her deal with the media scrutiny of her looks and clothes. She can see why teenage girls like Daniela Hantuchova, about whom rumours of an eating disorder have been doing the rounds, may find that the desire to succeed in tennis collides with the desire for an ideal female body shape. "She looks very thin for being a tennis player," Sabatini says. "It is a fight you have. There is a contradiction when you are 16: you want to be slim, but for tennis you have to be strong. You can't eat salads if you want to win."
Yet today Sabatini's looks have enabled her to continue earning with a successful range of perfumes. Not in the least girlie by nature, she had little thought of her appearance when playing, a neat ponytail being the limit of her centre court grooming. She is amused by the notion. "My name in a perfume! I mean wow! I wasn't into makeup or perfumes. But they sent me 20 or 30 scents to see which one I liked so I gave it a try."
And, although one might wonder who wants to smell like a professional sports player, she has launched around eight of them and they are huge in Germany, eastern Europe and Brazil. Her new one, Private Edition, comes with the cringe-making PR
blurb: "The perfume reveals a truly personal side of the charismatic Argentine and divulges the secret of an attractive, self-assured and modern woman who takes the time today to enjoy the private moments in life."
The "vitalising essences of mandarin and pineapple, together with aquatic elements of melon", apparently represent in olfactory form Sabatini's wish "for a partner for life, for children and a family of her own".
She does, she says, long to find a husband. Men, particularly in Argentina, are fazed by her fame. She isn't seeing anyone at the moment and hasn't had a serious relationship for several years. Having spent 12 years protecting herself from outsiders, it is now less easy to let them in. So does she regret the sacrifices in her early pursuit of success? "Tennis was a wonderful thing, it gave me the opportunity to become what I am," she says. "All the things you have to do on the court you can apply to life."
She still maintains a presence in world tennis - presenting the prize for the French Open last week - and will attend Wimbledon. To her there is no question the women's prize money should be equal to the men's - "the effort men and women put into the competition is exactly the same."
I ask why she doesn't, like John McEnroe, try commentating. Her face clouds slightly. "Well, maybe in a casual way," she says. '"But I wouldn't want to be committed to going from tournament to tournament."
Gabriela Sabatini, having left the circus, has no desire to return. She would rather stroll into the sunshine and find her friends for lunch.