ROOKIES COURTING TENNIS FAME
The Miami Herald
Friday, January 24, 1986
JOSE DE CORDOBA
Off the court, she walks with a bit of a swagger, like a tough guy.
On the court, the toughness shows. She smashes tennis balls with a fast, fluid motion, and after making an especially difficult shot, takes a mock victory half-lap, fist outlined against the clear blue sky of Key Biscayne.
It is 11:30 a.m. Sweat stains 15-year-old Argentine prodigy Gabriela Sabatini's light pink T-shirt. The world's No. 12- ranked female tennis player has been hard at work in the hot sun for two hours.
Standing in the shade, leaning against the wire mesh fence dividing the tennis courts at the Sheraton Royal Biscayne, Patricio Apey, Sabatini's coach and self-described mentor, keeps up a steady murmur of encouragement and advice.
"Hit it there, hit it there," the round-faced Apey, a slight paunch hanging over blue shorts, murmurs in Spanish. "Open yourself more, open more. Come back with the ball, come back." Aside from the constant bop-bop of racket hitting ball, the only sounds are the fierce grunts with which Sabatini punctuates her shots.
Sabatini is the hottest -- and the youngest -- of about a half-dozen aspiring tennis stars, most of them from Argentina, who live and train in a tennis academy run by Apey on Key Biscayne.
Just back from a holiday vacation with her family in her native Buenos Aires, Sabatini is training for the Virginia Slims of Florida tournament that begins Monday on Key Biscayne. The Virginia Slims, with its $40,000 first-prize purse, is the first of about 19 tournaments Apey expects her to play in this year.
The winner of the 1985 Japan Open, Sabatini has taken the tennis world by storm. Last week, along with Wimbledon winner Boris Becker, she was named rookie of the year by Tennis magazine.
"Gabriela is a very special case," Apey said of his long-legged protege, who began her career at 6, hitting a tennis ball against a wall of her family's country club as her father, an automobile executive, and older brother played on center court.
"She is a Martian. She is not normal. That dedication and spirit of sacrifice is unimaginable," Apey said. "She has been called a steel trap."
When she's not on the road, Sabatini lives with her best friend, Mercedes Paz, a 19-year-old Argentine from the provincial city of Tocuman, and three other young women players in an unassuming Key Biscayne house.
It's a little bit of Buenos Aires in South Florida.
A blue and white-striped Argentine flag sticks out of a tennis trophy in the house's sparsely furnished living room. Betina Fulco, 17, laments that it's impossible to pick up her favorite Mar de Plata FM station on the big radio sitting on the dresser. She has tried.
But home for Sabatini and the girls is neither Key Biscayne nor Argentina. It is really on the tennis court. Between tournaments and the constant practices, there is barely time to eat a pizza and little room for formal education, romance or anything else, Apey said.
The girls are up about 8:30 a.m. and at the courts by 9:30 or 10. They practice until 12:30, go off for a big lunch, and resume practice again about 2:30 p.m. They quit tennis at sundown, but then jog and do exercises for about another hour before heading home to a shower and dinner.
Apey tries to keep training informal and fun. "I do not believe in a military regimen," he says. "Whoever is here is here because she wants to be here and make a career. People here like what they do."
On Key Biscayne, evenings are quiet. The girls watch television, listen to American pop music, tape cassettes, read mystery novels or go out to an occasional movie and dinner. Their favorite food might well be pizza. "They are under contract to Domino Pizza," Apey joked as he sat down with them for dinner.
None of the girls attends school. "It is something I can do later on," said Sabatini, who has completed ninth grade and is taking correspondence courses in English. "Right now, I want to play tennis."
Even as they jet to one tournament after another, the girls lead sheltered, monastic lives wholly dedicated to the sport, said Apey, who usually travels with them.
"There's a lot of room service during the tournament. Tennis players tend to be introverted," he said. "The girls do not dare to go out by themselves."
While the money is good, life on the circuit, and especially separation from parents and kin, can be tough on the girls, many of whom come from tight-knit Latin families.
"I miss them, but I am getting used to it," said Sabatini. To keep up family ties, her parents visit her on Key Biscayne or meet up with her on the tour a number of times a year and Sabatini crams vacation visits to Buenos Aires into her busy tournament schedule.
"What they are doing is living life backward," said Apey of his young charges. "They become adults at 15 and 16. On the court, one is alone."
That loneliness sometimes can be tough to bear. This is the second time around at the camp for Gabriela Mosca, a pixieish, delicately-boned 16-year-old from a small provincial city in Argentina.
Last year, Apey saw Mosca play and persuaded her to join his team. She went to London for a tournament, started to miss her family and left.
Apey sweet-talked Mosca into giving it another shot. To assuage the homesickness, he arranged for her mother, Olga, to accompany her for a few months. "She couldn't adapt to wandering around the world," Olga Mosca said, watching her daughter volley with another girl.
This time around, Mosca is doing better and her mother, who has become a sort of den mother for all the girls, feels she will stay the course.
Mosca agreed. "If one gets along well, and sees one's family from time to time, then life is not that difficult."
The financial rewards for sticking to it are substantial. Since turning pro Jan. 1, 1985, Sabatini has played in 17 tournaments and won purses totaling $152,203.
She also raked in "a lot of money, in the six figures," for endorsing Fuji films, Ebel watches, Sergio Tacchini tennis clothes, Prince rackets and, in Argentina, Topper shoes, according to Dick Dell, her agent at the sports marketing firm of ProServ.
Already, Sabatini has received film offers, which, under Apey's guidance, she has turned down. "I am a tennis player, not an actress."
But in Buenos Aires, she is treated like a film goddess and mobbed by admirers when she ventures into the street.
The other girls say they feel no envy toward Sabatini, who is clearly the star of the group. "It's an honor to play with her," said her friend, Paz. "She does the group good and gives us motivation to get better."
What distinguishes Sabatini from his other players, aside from the quickness of her hands, is her mind for the game, her coolness in the heat of competition, Apey said.
"I tell her to work as if she had her head in a refrigerator."
Sabatini is in her element on a tennis court. Off court, where she must deal with constant requests for interviews, sponsors, dozens of fan letters, movie offers -- that's where the pressure starts and where Gabi, as she is called, turns taciturn.
"We have done two commercials, which with the shooting, take eight or nine hours," said Apey. "Then I have to waste a lot of time to keep her smiling."