Re: The Gabriela Sabatini Thread!
TENNIS: Sabatini Shifts Gears and Learns to Enjoy the Ride
New York Times
Published April 13, 1992
AMELIA ISLAND, Fla., April 12— Fresh from volleying her way to a championship on Hilton Head Island, S.C., where she successfully defended her 1991 title a week ago, Gabriela Sabatini shrugged into her black leather jacket, mounted her black-and-hot-pink Honda motorcycle and made a happy solo traverse through Georgia on the black ribbon of I-95 toward this Florida resort and yet another title to defend.
This afternoon, she revved up and roared away from the Bausch & Lomb Championships happier still after fending off her fiercest rival, Steffi Graf, in the final for the second consecutive year. Sabatini's 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 victory brought her a third title here and a fourth championship for 1992, confirming her position as the Kraft Tour's hottest player.
But that didn't happen. Instead, Sabatini beat Graf for the seventh time in their last eight meetings by finessing her way past the disconcerted German with a combination of confidence and net-side aggression, two qualities not in evidence in Graf's present repertory.
'Unbelievable Shots and Confidence'
Although Graf's power earned her the second set, her predictability cost her the other two. Sabatini knew just when to exploit Graf's backhand and break down her forehand.
"She started the match with unbelievable shots and confidence, and she finished it just the same," said Graf, who, along with Sabatini, had to absorb a double dose of tennis today because of Saturday's washout of the semifinals. "I let her take control."
Graf began her day by losing a 9 A.M. tie breaker before defeating Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, 6-7 (7-3), 6-4, 6-3, a tenuous semifinal that was followed by Sabatini's less taxing 6-3, 6-3 dismissal of Conchita Martinez.
"It made it more special, and harder, that we had to play two matches," said Sabatini. "In the third, I felt like fighting a lot, every point. I said to myself, 'I have to live my life here,' and I did it."
In the Family Circle Magazine Cup, Sabatini won a car along with cash and a trophy, but she left all that in the care of others. These days the cycle has taken up where her family and friends left off and become a cherished buffer from the tennis stress zone.
At home in Buenos Aires, where it no longer bothers her that patrons applaud whenever she enters a restaurant, her idea of the perfect nightcap is a 3 A.M. cruise on her motorcycle through the city with her brother and a friend or two.
"We don't even talk to each other while we're riding," said Patricia Tarabini, a fellow player, "and it can be freezing cold, but it doesn't matter to Gaby. She says that is what she loves most in her life, those moments when she feels free. Before, she didn't know how to make them happen. Now she does."
'I Wasn't Having Any Fun'
In her teens, Sabatini was known for a reticence that bordered on muteness and a shy scowl that, on the court or off, said the rest; she was not interested in learning English, not interested in making connections with anything but tennis balls, and left the solace of her hotel suites about as often as she left the baseline.
"I was sad, I wasn't having any fun, I was feeling pressure from everywhere, and I went into a black hole, very deep," she said. "But I think you have to go through that worst moment, that darkest moment, before you can come into the light on the other side. Now I think I am there."
Today, ranked behind Monica Seles and Graf, the 21-year-old Sabatini is the tour's resident glamour girl, and feeling it. She has hobnobbed with celebrities like Mickey Rourke and Michael Bolton, played Late Night Tennis with David Letterman, and, as the toast of host Arsenio Hall, almost lived up to her nickname -- Gaby.
Beloved in Argentina and beyond, she has joined an echelon of stars so luminous that, like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, she has had a rose named in her honor. It's a coral-hued flower, a color she approves, and if it happens to be more noticeable for its looks than its scent, that's not a problem: Sabatini has her own signature perfume line.
Once a wallflower, Sabatini has danced a tango on a Buenos Aires stage and shared the microphone with Donald, an Argentinian Sinatra. Eager to improve her English in order to better understand the pop songs she enjoys singing, she carries a dictionary along with her racquets. And besides being the only woman to receive a multimillion-dollar contract from Pepsi, she's undoubtedly their only spokesperson handy and humble enough to sew her own Pepsi logo patch on her tennis shirts.
"Before, I had no life apart from tennis because I couldn't separate the two, but now I've learned to do it," said Sabatini, lounging in black jeans and lizard boots, and her cascade of blue-black hair -- which she fluffs to perfection before leaving the house for errands or galas -- floating above equally flawless olive skin.
'Tennis Was Like a Toy'
Although her tennis bloomed early -- she was the world's No. 1 junior in 1984 -- Sabatini's grasp on a personal life only recently caught up with her professional laurels. In fact, by age 19, she was so miserable on the tennis circuit, where she was maligned for not keeping up pace with Graf, that she considered quitting.
"When I first started to play, tennis was like a toy to me. Instead of having dolls, I was playing tennis," she said. "At first it was fun, but later it wasn't because I began feeling so much pressure to win, and I was afraid of losing. I wanted to be perfect in all things. I wanted a normal life. So I started to blame everything on tennis and I let myself feel pressure from everywhere, sometimes pressure that was not even really there."
Sabatini hit her low at the 1990 French Open, where she cried after her fourth-round loss to Jana Novotna and cried again the next day when she fired her longtime mentor, Angel Gimenez, and went looking for a different kind of coach.
She found exactly what she needed, her social and spiritual antithesis, in Carlos Kirmayr, a chatty Brazilian with an optimistic bent and a history of living out the two dreams to which Sabatini related best: playing tennis and performing pop music in a band.
"I met my opposite, and he really helped me open up and see life in a different way," said Sabatini. "He's the kind of person who wakes up every morning and feels happy to be alive. And he helped me open up my game, get off the baseline and be more aggressive. The attacking style was something that was always inside of me, I just never knew how to bring it out."
Belief Turns Into Reality
With Kirmayr's encouragement, Sabatini won the 1990 United States Open. It turned out to be a breakthrough event that not only recommitted her to her career but spilled over into her private life.
"That was the answer to all the questions I had about my tennis and myself," said Sabatini. "During the Open, I believed I was going to win, and I did it, I played the aggressive game and had the confidence I never had. After that, it's hard to put the feeling into words, but I felt like doors opened up everywhere."
According to Kirmayr, who insists Sabatini has the most weapons of any of the top women, that process is ongoing. "Maybe she's a late bloomer who had the big dream and then saw it get grayish," he said. "But she has come to understand the strength of her position, she understands the meaning of the sacrifices she made for tennis, she understands the value of money and yet she's maintained a peaceful aura. She doesn't do harm to anybody."
Except, of course, to her opponents.
"What's different about Gabriela now is that she has confidence in herself -- you can see it -- and that's the most important thing to have at this level," said Graf, Sabatini's longtime nemesis. Sabatini is now 8-1 versus Graf in Florida, where the German is 67-0 versus all other opponents since 1986.
There's Plenty of Time
Unlike Graf, who was No. 1 a record 186 consecutive weeks, Sabatini has yet to complete her climb to the top spot. But she thinks there's nothing amiss in taking her time to get there.
"I still want to prove to myself that I really am the best," said Sabatini, who is, according to her friends, fiercely competitive in everything from backgammon to Argentina's periodic ranking of its most beautiful women. "But I don't feel like it has to happen now. I've overcome that pressure. I'm still very strict with myself, I get that from my father, but I'm not trying all the time to be perfect in everything I do. You can't be. I know when I have to be perfect on the tennis court, and as long as I try, I'm not afraid of losing anymore."