Numbers would be an utterly wrong premise to look back and gauge Sabatini’s prowess by, nor does the limited words she spoke at post-match press conferences define her. She was admittedly shy, but it could be right to infer that Sabatini’s shyness gave her the strength to be decisive. On the flip side, hindsight-hunters may argue it cost her crucial wins. But if her shyness somehow led to those defeats, it’s not perhaps something she regrets. And if she met disagreement for her decision to quit tennis at 26, she stands by that as well.
A contrarian’s view may put the focus on ‘speed’ rather than ‘shyness’ when trying to paint a picture of the Argentine; not the speed of her game but life in tennis, which began at six years old, when she held the racquet to learn the game.
Her maiden tournament victory came as an 8-year-old, and she was only 14 when, it is believed, that South Carolina papers carried the headline ‘Sabatini Sabotage’ after she defeated the home favourite Pam Shriver. Her French Open girls’ singles title made her the world No. 1 junior in 1984. A year on, she was playing the French Open semifinal — the youngest to do so at 15 years and three weeks. Not to forget, the youngest to win the Orange Bowl as well before that, at 13.
(Photo: Philippe Le Tellier / Getty Images)
Those were rapid strides. Especially at a time when the pace of life and the ball coming off the racquet was not the same as it is today. But Sabatini wasn’t complaining, and soon she was the famous rival to the player who joined Martina Navratilova in changing the face of women’s tennis — Steffi Graf. But the toil to get past Graf, mostly unsuccessful, never came in the way of making Sabatini the most marketable and followed tennis star of her time. And that still continues in a way. Her line of perfumes has been successfully running since 1989.
The most quoted reference in that context of Gaby’s tennis life comes from Martin Amis, who once wrote in the Vogue magazine: “Sabatini looks like a (successful) experiment in genetico-aesthetics. Engineered, cultured and conditioned for optimum gorgeousness.”
Who would then blame Roger Federer for admitting that he was once a teen smitten by Sabatini’s grace!
Managing that ‘pace’, Sabatini was doing what she could, as the legend Ashe would have reiterated. Even if Graf remained more than a step ahead of Sabatini — the defeats in the 1988 Olympics final and the 1991 Wimbledon final being the primary cases in reference, she enjoyed the grind for 13 years on the professional circuit. And Gaby’s moment arrived in between those two matches, when, in 1990, she defeated Graf to win the US Open. And that Sabatini and Graf were not just famous rivals but friends as well was showcased by the women’s doubles Wimbledon trophy they won together in 1988.
(Photos: Getty Images)
Twenty-seven titles, 13 seasons and around 250 tournaments later, Sabatini wasn’t enjoying it anymore and decided to hang up her racquet at a young age of 26 in 1996.
Almost two and a half decades from that day, when Timesofindia.com knocked at Sabatini’s door for an interview, the 2006 ‘Hall of Famer’ was very welcoming and spoke her heart out, including her desire to visit India very soon.
You have many ’80s and ’90s generation tennis fans of yours here in India. Do you wish to start by saying something to them?
Hello India! It’s so nice to know that I have so many fans. India is a country that I am looking forward to visiting soon. I have it in my trip list. I hope I can be there in the near future and visit your beautiful country.
Can you share any of your India experiences, something that at times reminds you of the country?
India is always present — your culture, the food, the Ayurveda, the Yoga. Also I loved many Indian movies. So many things remind me of India… inspiring persons like Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi.
One thing your fans often discuss is that 26 was too early for Gabriela Sabatini to quit professional tennis. How do you reflect on that at this stage?
Now, looking back, 26 years old, it’s a very young age to quit tennis. But at that moment it didn’t feel that way at all. I started playing tennis at the age of 6 and professionally at 14 years old. The demands and the full dedication were quite intense and after all those years, I started to feel mentally exhausted.
Apart from your biggest moment of winning the US Open, what’s one other thing from your tennis career that you have always held close to your heart?
Winning two times the Masters Championship at the Madison Square Garden in New York. I loved playing in that stadium. The atmosphere was always so energizing and the crowd very emphatic. The same feeling I had playing in Rome (Italian Open), where I felt at home. Also it was very special to participate in the (1988) Olympic Games of Seoul, where I played for my country; and the experience to be among other athletes was incredible.
(Photo: Getty Images)
You have been associated with philanthropy projects and launched a line of perfumes since hanging up your racquet. But tennis must still remain an integral part of your present life…
Tennis will always be a part of my life for what it represents and for everything I have learned through it. I love sports in general and although I don’t play much tennis these days, I enjoy watching it a lot.
The once shy Sabatini went on to win the US Open, which kind of broke the glass ceiling for you. Many youngsters face similar beginnings. What will be your advice to them?
To keep trying always, never give up. If you train hard and set your mind to achieve a goal, I believe that sooner or later you will accomplish it.
If you were to pick one player from the current generation to play against, who would it be?
I think it will be Serena (Williams) for her successful career and for what she represents in the history of tennis, for all her qualities and to feel that power. It will also be nice to play with (Roger) Federer in Wimbledon and with (Rafael) Nadal in Roland Garros (laughs).
Some countries have historically produced doubles players largely but not anyone who consistently excelled in singles. What special do you think it takes to become a successful singles players?
It is hard to know the answer, perhaps it is a choice. I believe it’s an individual case-by-case analysis to be able to make an opinion. There are many factors that are involved in becoming a successful tennis player — hard work, dedication, discipline, perseverance, strong mentality.
(Photo: Gabriela Sabatini Twitter)
From the time you played, the world has moved from TV to mobile phones and social media. Do you think life was better during your playing days or now when the world is ruled by gadgets?
I don’t think one is better than another, you adapt to the situation. I believe that if you use technology in a positive way, it can be very helpful. Today, what I find very positive about it is the fact that you can communicate directly with the fans and also that you can be connected to so many people.
Federer admitted he had a crush on you as a kid. But surely he must not be the only one to have confessed that…
I am shy to talk about those things. It is flattering coming from Roger.