NEW YORK -- Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini did not merely produce the longest match in the modern history of women's tennis yesterday. Nor did they merely team up in the most dramatic final ever in the Virginia Slims Championships. More important than any reference to the past was the glimpse they provided of the future.
Not since they dressed for the sport in ankle-length skirts at the turn of the century had two women participated in a five-set match. That they happened to be named Seles and Sabatini not only was a tribute to their endurance, but also to their promise. Enter the young.
"I think we proved something today," Seles said. "We have some great players coming up." She failed only to mention she is foremost among them.
Indeed, Seles' 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory gave her another measure of respect, in addition to the $250,000 first prize. Two weeks shy of her 17th birthday, Seles confirmed her ranking as the No. 2 player in the world this year, while Sabatini, four years older, finally proved during the 3 hours, 47 minutes of play that she could provide quality as well as quantity.
That was news. Sabatini has a history of faltering in matches. Then again, the tournament itself on three previous occasions ended with finals that lasted four sets and yet were devoid of much drama.
"We had one of the most exciting matches ever, I think," Seles said. "I played great. She played great. It was a hard match, but I enjoyed every minute."
So, too, did the Madison Square Garden crowd of 17,290, and with good reason. Never in the event's seven years had the Slims finalists locked in a battle as long and thrilling. Not since Elizabeth Moore defeated Myrtle McAteer in the U.S. Nationals in 1901 had two women spent themselves over five sets.
For both Seles and Sabatini, though, it was worth the effort. In becoming the youngest player to win the tournament, Seles improved her record to 54-6, won her ninth title and increased her earnings for the year to a staggering $1,628,725. What Sabatini won, however, money could not buy.
Winning the U.S. Open rescued her career. Saving triple match point in the first round this week against Jana Novotna proved her mettle. Upsetting top-ranked Steffi Graf in the semifinals established her as a player to be reckoned with again. In effect, Sabatini said, "Thanks, I needed that."
"It has been an exciting week for me," she said, "and I won't forget it."
She turned the match around by breaking Seles when her opponent was serving for the second set at 5-4. Then Sabatini held serve and broke Seles again.
"I was mad at myself when I let that set get away," Seles said. "I didn't like it."
But Sabatini won the next set, too, breaking Seles for 5-3, serving out the set with an ace and flashing a pump of her fist. But then Sabatini's serve, erratic all match, deserted her in the fourth set. After saving two set points to break Seles and pull to 4-5, Sabatini was broken herself. The set concluded on a double fault, one of six on the day.
In fact, Sabatini had to save triple break point to hold her serve for 1-1 in the fifth set. She was trying to play aggressively, but Seles' rocket forehands kept passing her at the net and, ultimately, kept Sabatini pinned to the baseline.
"She never gave me a chance," Sabatini said.
Seles, suddenly rolling, strung together three consecutive games to go up 4-1. Two games later, at 15-30, Sabatini had an opportunity to grab back the momentum again. But she netted a return, flubbed a backhand and then netted another return. Seles led 5-2.
Moments later, with Sabatini serving to stay alive at 15-30, Seles smashed a blur of a service return to the corner and Sabatini sprayed a running forehand wide. And at double match point, Seles slammed a backhand crosscourt and shrieked in triumph.
That shriek may remain her trademark the rest of the decade. And with 1990 behind her, Seles warned: "I can't wait until next year."
If nothing else, it promises to be noisy.