A rose, a doll and a perfume have been named after her, but at the moment her beauty transcends her results. What Gabriela Sabatini really needs is a title with her name on it.
It has been more than two years since Sabatini, the 1990 U.S. Open champion, won a tournament. But what seemed merely a slump became a full-blown crisis at the French Open last week when she could not even win a match. Sabatini, ranked No. 8 in the world, was upset in the first round by No. 108, Silvia Farina of Italy. The loss marked only the second time in Sabatini's 10-year career that she failed to advance in a Grand Slam event.
What has happened to the 24-year-old player who was going to be the biggest star in the game? In 1985, at the age of 15, Sabatini swept to the semifinals of the French. In the fall of '90 she was the most popular player around and also the one who seemed most likely to challenge the reign of top-ranked Steffi Graf, whom she beat in that year's U.S. Open final. By the spring of '92 she had won 25 tournaments and a rose had been named after her, an honor she shares with such people as Grace Kelly, Queen Elizabeth, John F. Kennedy and Pablo Picasso.
But the Sabatini who appeared at Roland Garros last Tuesday has visibly wilted. In their two previous meetings Farina had not taken so much as a game from her. This time Sabatini repeatedly let leads slip away. She chewed on pieces of fruit during changeovers and took the court distractedly, with food still in her mouth. She gave away the final game with three wild unforced errors. The French thus became the 37th tournament in a row that she has failed to win. Sabatini left the red crushed-brick court as mystified by her downward spiral as anyone. Is she sick? Burned out? "People keep asking me that." she says. "They want to know if I'm tired, do I need time off? No. I doubt the solution is in a vacation."
June 5, 1994
The loss was made all the more painful by the fact that it came on the same spot, the number 1 court adjacent to the stadium, where she had lost a devastating match to Mary Joe Fernandez in last year's quarterfinals. Sabatini led 6-1, 5-1 and had five match points before losing 1-6, 7-6, 10-8. Dennis Ralston, her coach al the lime, calls it "the match she hasn't been able to shake." He adds, "The fire went out of her, and she hasn't gotten it back." Sabatini agrees. "Since then I haven't had any good results," she says. "I haven't beaten the top players."
At the root of her decline are some fundamental flaws in her game. Sabatini stands 5'8" and is among the most athletic players on the tour, yet her serve remains ineffective. Her first serve is rarely a weapon, and her second, a topspin whimper, has become a liability in the era of bangers and powerful big rackets. Sabatini doesn't shift her weight properly on her serve and as a result ends up arming the ball. "It's quite easy to move around it and hit a winner," says Farina.
Sabatini has sought a cure from three coaches in the past year. She spent most of 1993 under the tutelage of Ralston, Chris Evert's former coach. In October she mined to fellow Argentine Guillermo Vilas, a former men's champ and a childhood hero of Sabatini's, hoping to recover some of her youthful enthusiasm. That relationship lasted only two months. At the start of this season she was reunited with Carlos Kirmayr, the coach under whom she won her U.S. Open title, but Kirmayr, too, is at a loss. "We have a lot of talking to do," he says.
Ralston thinks Sabatini needs a six-month sabbatical to reevaluate her commitment to tennis. That was his advice before they parted company last summer. "I don't know how motivated she is," he says. "When I was with her, she was trying, but she wasn't really excited about playing."
But Sabatini insists she will play her way out of the malaise. "I love this sport," she says. "I'm happy to be out there. I like to keep trying and I like to work hard. I just don't like to lose."