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saki
Jun 16th, 2003, 11:17 AM
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
The Guardian

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.

irma
Jun 16th, 2003, 11:21 AM
steffi and sabatini are still in contact?

that's nice afterall they were partners for so long:)

saki
Jun 16th, 2003, 11:27 AM
I was a little suprised by that too, Irma, but it is nice to know!

seldom83
Jun 16th, 2003, 12:11 PM
yeh they're friends, good deal!

Sonja
Jun 16th, 2003, 01:35 PM
I miss her! But, I'm so glad she's happy now. That's what's most important.

Thanks saki for posting the article.

Greenout
Jun 16th, 2003, 01:36 PM
Ahhh. What a wonderful article. It's Gabby
in a nutshell. :)

ToeTag
Jun 16th, 2003, 01:48 PM
Well I'm very surprised to hear her say that she has any contact with Steffi...I thought those two couldn"t stand each other? Other web sites had her hooked up with some guy named Mariano but I guess they split.

TheBoiledEgg
Jun 16th, 2003, 01:50 PM
another one from the Daily Telegraph (London)

Philip on Monday: Sabatini smiles again after tennis misery
By Robert Philip (Filed: 16/06/2003)


It is dark. The close-up shows a match being struck. The flame lights up the picture, reflecting the passionate eyes of Gabriela Sabatini. Your eyes are led to her uncovered shoulders and, briefly, into a room where her tango dress is draped over a chair. Gabriela's look is ardent and seductive. She lets down her hair and it smoothly falls over her delicate neck; passion unfolds. The flame flickers and the silhouette of a man approaches her. Tense anticipation creeps under the skin. Gabriela determines the course of events - self-confident, seductive, she blows out the flame - the picture falls into darkness . . .
Caption: Devotion, the new fragrance from Gabriela Sabatini

Gabriela Sabatini does not need the visual inspiration of an advertising agency to stop the traffic in Paris; strolling through the Place de la Concorde on a drizzly June morning, she all but causes a pile-up as heads turn in immediate recognition accompanied by a cacophony of blaring horns and screeching brakes. With her wild and wanton gypsy tresses, smouldering eyes and languorous gait, she could be a latter-day Esmerelda who broke the heart of Quasimodo on the steps of Notre Dame.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/graphics/2003/06/16/strp160603.jpg

Globetrotter: Gabriela Sabatini enjoys the sights in Paris


It is seven years since Sabatini fled tennis at the age of 26 to seek sanctuary in a 'normal' life; she had been a regular visitor to Paris, competing in the French Open at Roland Garros on 11 occasions (becoming the youngest ever semi-finalist at 15 years and three weeks in 1985 when she lost to Chris Evert), but it is only now that she can sit in a pavement cafe on the Champs Elysees idly watching the world go by through a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or pay a leisurely visit to the Louvre and gaze upon the Mona Lisa.

"It's lovely to return to Paris as a tourist," she agrees. "It was nice to come here as a player because Paris always had a special place in my heart as a tennis venue - the crowds made me so welcome - but it's wonderful to have the time to see everything now. Even walking the streets of Paris is a treat. As a tennis player, you go from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the courts, from the courts to the hotel, and, when you are finally knocked out, from the hotel to the airport. But you never have the opportunity of visiting a museum, for instance, unless you lose in one of the early rounds.

"A couple of years ago a friend and myself came over from Argentina and rented an apartment in Paris. Our plan was to stay two weeks; we stayed three months, hiring a car and driving around the south of France, Italy and Switzerland. Strangely, for someone who became accustomed to living out of a suitcase, I now find travelling incredibly relaxing."

Her life will never be what most of us would consider 'normal'; Diego Maradona, apart, she remains her nation's most beloved and photographed sporting icon. As a multi-millionairess she now traverses the globe promoting Gabriela Sabatini Perfumes (Private Edition being her most recently launched fragrance) and Gabriela Sabatini Watches. But it is as the one-time 'sex symbol' of women's tennis that she is best remembered, a raven-haired beauty who was once sent 500 red roses by an admirer at Wimbledon where her sweat-stained towels sparked a frenzied black-market industry under stairs in the ballboys' den. Oh, but Sabatini could play tennis, too, winning the US Open in 1990 and coming within two points of seizing the Wimbledon singles the following summer before losing 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 to Steffi Graf. She earned the sobriquet 'Miss Whiplash' for the force of her groundstrokes, but she was also an elegant artiste blessed with a touch as soft as gossamer.

Although she seldom picked up a racket following her retirement, of late Sabatini has rediscovered her love of the game, now playing twice a week and giving serious consideration to appearing in exhibition matches. "I wouldn't describe tennis as a prison, more of a harsh workplace; it's fine when you are enjoying it because it's your passion. But I spent 11 years in what was a very demanding profession, dedicating myself 100 per cent to becoming a champion. When you stop enjoying playing, then it's tough. During the last couple of years of my tennis career, I was suffering, oh, how I was suffering. I would waken up in the morning and think 'God, I have to go practise and I really don't want to'. I was miserable but I didn't know what was wrong with me so I consulted a psychologist who told me, 'You either go in this direction - tennis - or that direction - a new life - it's up to you'. And I realised I wanted to go in 'that direction', away from tennis which I had grown to hate."

With Martina Navratilova still competing - and still winning Grand Slam doubles titles at the venerable age of 46 - does Sabatini never suffer a minute's regret that she walked away prematurely? "One minute's regret? No, not even one second. From the moment I stopped playing I felt this overwhelming sense of relief, release even. I wouldn't say I feel younger, but without the pressure, the tension of having to win, I now wake up every morning as a free woman. I can now go out for dinner with friends, take in a movie, go dancing or partying. I have even had time to decorate my apartment in Buenos Aires and fill the walls with paintings by Argentine artists, all the simple pleasures I was denied before.

"Martina is amazing, absolutely amazing but I can not see myself competing at 46, even in the seniors' events. To be two points away from winning Wimbledon then lose, as I did, is not an experience you greatly miss. Then again, I almost lost in the first round that year, so I was very proud just to reach the final against Steffi. These things happen." Que sera sera? "Exactly."

For a few, fleeting years, the Graf-Sabatini rivalry threatened to become as enthralling as any that had gone before - Court-King, Evert-Navratilova - and Gaby regrets that such was the heat of battle, the two never became close friends. "We had a good relationship, we won the Wimbledon doubles together as teenagers in 1988, and we would share some things with each other off the court. But it's hard to become close friends on the Tour which is a pity because I think Steffi is a really good person. We still see each other occasionally but she's a wife and mother now whereas I am kept busy with all my various projects."

On top of her role as a businesswoman, Sabatini is a tireless worker on behalf of children's charities in Argentina, where she is also heavily involved in a tennis programme to develop the stars of the future. "With the state of the economy, it's hard for the kids back home and tennis gave me so much, it's nice to be able to give something back."

With Navratilova considering a career in US politics, those sentiments sound as though Sabatini might harbour a secret ambition to become the new Eva Peron? "Oh, no, no, no. I like to know what's going on in my country but I don't like politics. It's not a very clean world, is it? I am more than happy doing what I do."

As someone who came to hate the game which bestowed untold fame and fortune upon her, Sabatini remains something of a reluctant spectator. "Everyone hits it so hard today you don't see the same variety. Sure, I could hit the ball hard but I could also play drop-shots and attacking lobs. To beat the Williams sisters you must play with the mind, constantly changing the rhythm. The level of tennis is incredibly high but, yes, I think tennis is more attractive as a spectacle when you see different styles out there."

And does Sabatini have any advice for the current 'glamour girl', Anna Kournikova, who, unlike her pin-up predecessor, has yet to win a single tournament, let alone 27 titles worldwide? "Being the centre of such attention is not difficult providing you keep your goals in focus. It was always nice to hear those compliments but first and foremost I was a professional tennis player; of course, it's lovely to be told you look attractive off court, but on court it's the next point that matters."

Gabriela Sabatini will serve as the ambassadress at the Boodle & Dunthorne Champions' Challenge at the Stoke Park Club in Buckinghamshire this week where Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mark Philippoussis and 2002 Wimbledon runner-up David Nalbandian (another Argentine) will be among those competing; but all eyes, I suspect, will be upon the young woman who can still bring Paris to a standstill.

irma
Jun 16th, 2003, 01:58 PM
squawk box
even when their fathers hooked them. I doubt you play for 5 years when you can't stand each other even when there is less communication from what I heard;)

isa1016
Oct 4th, 2003, 08:48 AM
Well I'm very surprised to hear her say that she has any contact with Steffi...I thought those two couldn"t stand each other? Other web sites had her hooked up with some guy named Mariano but I guess they split.


Well, you're right, she's going out with a guy called Mariano for 2 or 3 years but they don't want to talk about their relationship publicly. They prefer to live their own private life quietly. Gabriela is a very discreet person, she never liked to talk about her private life and romances and never admitted any romance while she was going out with a guy. That's why she always says she is single in interviews... :hearts:

Now she is happy with Mariano, he was with her in London at the Boodle & Dunthorne and they will probably talk about that relationship the day they will be ready to. Just wait and see... ;)

Bероника
Oct 4th, 2003, 07:58 PM
Thanks for those articles!!!

:hearts: :hearts: :hearts: Gaby