World's No. 3 player finds happiness that eludes others on tour

SABATINI HAVING A BALL

November 22, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Brady Anderson.

The baseball player from Baltimore.

The one with the sideburns.

Gabriela Sabatini considers the name and sticks a fork into a ripe slice of cantaloupe.

Let's see. His agent called her agent. A date was set. New York. A summer night. An engagement party. Small talk.

Chaperones.

"So, people in Baltimore, they think we are going out together?" Sabatini says.

She swallows the melon.

"It was just one date," she says. "That's all. Things like that happen all the time. I think it's good. You meet people. Celebrities. I like that very much."

She smiles.

End of story. Another would-be playboy's dream devoured.

Gabriela Sabatini hits topspins. She wins championships. She breaks hearts, millions of them.

And she's coming to Baltimore Tuesday night to play in the First National Bank Tennis Festival.

Now 22, after nearly a decade of slogging through the year-round global carnival that is the women's tennis tour, Sabatini is in the prime of a career that has produced one Grand Slam title and more than $5 million in prize money.

And she is happy. Honest.

In a business filled with sullen teen-agers and lonely champions, Sabatini is ranked No. 3 -- with a smile.

"I value very much where I am," she said. "I've been doing a lot of sacrifice and work. Right now, I feel like, it's the beginning of everything."

Another smile.

It is near midnight in the players' lounge at the Civic Center in Philadelphia. Sabatini has just won a tricky two-set match against college star Lisa Raymond during a recent stop on the Virginia Slims tour.

Sabatini is relaxed. Ebullient even. Sixty-three victories down in 1992. Another few to go before a post-Thanksgiving vacation back home in Argentina.

Dressed in a tan jacket, gray pullover shirt, black jeans and brown boots, Sabatini answers questions while picking at a fruit-filled tray.

Once, a combination of shyness and unfamiliarity with the English language made Sabatini sound remote. Now, she is warm and carefully considers each question with the same determination she uses to swat baseline winners.

"People thought I didn't want to talk to anybody," she said. "But it was hard for me to get in this world. Probably, the people, they still don't know me. But I'd like for them to hear that I'm a good person. And of course, I'd like for people to remember me as a good tennis player."

Yet Sabatini is obviously more than just a tennis player.

Try sex symbol.

To speak of Sabatini and not mention beauty is to review an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and leave out the pectorals.

It's all part of the package, if a tad politically incorrect.

Her signature sells a line of perfume. Her face is on a doll. Her endorsement contract with a clothing company could finance some country's national budgets.

And the would-be suitors . . . they're everywhere.

In Rome, thousands shriek when Sabatini hits the stadium court at the Italian Open.

At Wimbledon, when the commoners swept through the gates on a historic middle Sunday two years ago, Sabatini walked into Centre Court and was greeted not with the usual smattering of polite applause by fans anxious for tea time, but with wolf whistles.

You want embarrassing?

Wait 'til the rich and famous show up.

Singer Michael Bolton asked her out. Hockey star Eric Lindros wanted so much to meet Sabatini, he brought his grandparents along.

For pictures.

Sabatini understands.

"Of course, I see that part," she said. "That is more important than the tennis. Tennis, I will play a few years. The other part will be with me until I die. It's important to improve as a person and grow. And I like to look good."

Don't be misled. Sabatini doesn't talk facials, she talks nutrition. Practices three hours daily. Runs five miles. Pumps iron. Gets away from the stress of the tour by heading to her American home in Key Biscayne, Fla., and riding her motorcycle.

Six hundred horses.

"I learn through tennis how beautiful this country is," she said. "How wonderful it is to live here. Of course, I love my country, too. I feel like I am from all the Americas."

From Argentina she emerged with a mesmerizing array of topspin ground strokes. But it was in the United States where she added a -- of subtle volleying skill to become a champion.

The setting: Flushing Meadow.

The tournament: the 1990 U.S. Open.

The stakes: we're talking career.

Two months earlier, Sabatini had been dumped in the fourth round of the 1990 French Open. She was tired. Disinterested. Burned out. After all, she had been working on the tour since she was 14, and she still had no major titles on her resume.

"It was a tough stage in my life," she said. "I was feeling a lot of presure for who I was. I was feeling a little bored on the court. I wasn't feeling happy. A lot of things happened in that moment."

The remedy: hire a new coach.

Carlos Kirmayr, a former Davis Cupper from Brazil, was brought in.He took one look at Sabatini's large and firm hands and coaxed her off the baseline.

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