Sabatini, Gabriela (1970—)

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Sabatini, Gabriela (1970—)

Argentinean tennis player. Name variations: Gaby Sabatini. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 16, 1970; daughter of Osvaldo Sabatini (an automotive executive) and Beatriz Sabatini.

Began playing tennis at age six; moved to Florida at age 12 to continue training; dropped out of school at 14 in order to devote herself to professional tennis; joined the professional tour, became the youngest semifinalist in the history of the French Open, and was named Rookie of the Year (1985); won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea (1988); ranked number three in the world (1989, 1991, 1992); won the U.S. Open (1990); won the Australian Open (1995); retired (1996).

Born into affluence in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on May 16, 1970, Gabriela Sabatini was learning how to swing a tennis racket and place a serve by age six. Her early display of talent and drive was nurtured by her parents, Osvaldo and Beatriz Sabatini . Osvaldo, an automotive executive, enrolled her in private tennis lessons by the time she was seven.

When she was ten, Sabatini was ranked first in her nation's twelve-and-under division. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Florida to continue her tennis training. In 1985, she joined the professional tour and quickly accelerated to the top of the rankings. In that same year, she became the youngest person ever to reach the semifinals of the French Open, attaining a 17th-place ranking in the world, and was named Rookie of the Year by Tennis magazine.

Despite—or because of—her success, several of her advisers worried that Sabatini was trying to accomplish too much too soon. Dick Dell, a sports agent who signed her just after she turned 14, acknowledged his concerns to Sports Illustrated's Bruce Newman (May 2, 1988): "I am for anything that would give her an outlet outside tennis. Instead of being in school every day with girls her own age, she was thrown into an adult world." Sabatini did not take correspondence courses or continue her schooling after moving to the United States. In addition, she did not speak English during her first three years in Florida, and her natural shyness often was interpreted as aloofness. However, she could not be dissuaded from her rigorous schedule of training and touring, playing 20 out of 27 weeks on four continents her rookie year.

Over the next several years, Sabatini continued to progress in the sport until she was ranked 5th in the world in 1988. This final leap into the top ranks occurred, in part, because she changed coaches and playing styles. In 1987, Sabatini hired Angel Gimenez, a former Davis Cup player from Spain, to improve her conditioning and stamina. Her new training included running up to an hour each day and increasing her practice time on court in order to offset her problem of tiring too easily during matches. That year, she beat Martina Navratilova in both the Italian Open in May and the Virginia Slims championship in October, although she was unable to make it past the semifinals in the French Open or the quarterfinals in the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. In 1988, her hard work paid off. Steffi Graf , the German tennis player who had long been Sabatini's rival, had won all of their 11 matches. At the 1988 Virginia Slims tournament in Boca Raton, Florida, Sabatini upset Graf by winning their final match in two sets. Several weeks later, she beat Graf in another tournament, proving that the powerful teenager had

been replaced by an experienced professional whose endurance and variety of strokes had taken her to the top.

Despite setbacks in 1988—Sabatini lost both the U.S. Open and the Summer Olympics finals to Graf—she earned $1 million and won the silver medal at the Summer Olympics. She continued strongly in 1989, winning tournaments and more money, but was unable to capture the major titles. Fans and foes alike began to wonder if the Argentinean tennis player could ever be ranked #1. With her failure at the 1990 French Open, Sabatini decided to switch coaches again. This time she hired Carlos Kirmayr, a former top-ranked Brazilian. She stopped working with weights—which had added bulk when she needed speed—and began seeing a sports psychologist. Kirmayr diagnosed Sabatini as overthinking her game, and urged her to pursue other interests, such as photography, French, and sightseeing. She also ended her longstanding doubles partnership with Graf that had won them the women's doubles championship at Wimbledon in 1988.

The change was a large factor in her outstanding victory in the U.S. Open in 1990 against Graf; she beat Graf again at the Virginia Slims championship later that year, although she ultimately lost the tournament to Monica Seles in a historic five-set final that lasted nearly four hours. While Sabatini continued to beat Graf into 1991, she found a new rival in Seles, who defeated her again in the finals of the Lipton International Players championship in Key Biscayne, Florida, in 1991. The pair traded wins throughout the year, with Sabatini ranked just behind Seles. By April 1991, Sabatini's career earnings reached $4 million, the 5th-highest total on the women's tour. (Like other tennis players, Sabatini endorsed various products; she was the first woman athlete to sign a multimillion-dollar contract with Pepsi and the first to have a perfume named after her.) But the year ended on a shaky note for Sabatini, as she lost to Graf at Wimbledon, to Jennifer Capriati at the U.S. Open, and to Seles at the Virginia Slims championship.

The year 1992 proved more promising, as Sabatini rallied from her defeat at the Australian Open to win five tournaments in the first five months. However, she was bothered by tendinitis and had several disappointing losses that year, including dropping Wimbledon to Graf and the U.S. Open to Mary Joe Fernandez . Sabatini would not win another major tournament until 1995, when she took the Australian Open. During these years, Sabatini suffered from injuries and motivation problems. Though she was committed to the game, she had a difficult time keeping up with some of the younger players on the tour. In 1996, after another long year of injuries and tough competition, Sabatini retired from the sport at the age of 26. While still playing exhibition matches, she concentrated more on her endorsement deals, and by 2001 was marketing some seven internationally popular perfumes.


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Dictionary of Hispanic Biography. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1996.

Graham, Judith, ed. Current Biography 1992. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Johnson, Anne Janette. Great Women in Sports. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1992.

Andrea Bewick , freelance writer, Santa Rosa, California