Rivalry-to-be of the '90s is now all Graf Sabatini falls in 3 sets to top seed U.S. OPEN

September 08, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- They were supposed to have the rivalry of the '90s in women's tennis, stepping in where Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova left off. And for a moment, in the final of the 1990 U.S. Open, they did.

But after Gabriela Sabatini ended Steffi Graf's early domination with what looked like a breakthrough victory here three years ago, the rivalry has reverted to the one-sided nature with which it began.

Clearly, it's advantage Graf.

"I think she's have trouble in the last year, year and a half. She had close matches, she lost all of them and I think it took a little bit of her confidence away," said Graf. "I've had a lot of close matches, and I've won most of them. That's where it divides a little."

The division grew larger yesterday in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. Graf's 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 victory over Sabatini was her fifth straight and 26th in 37 matches overall. But it wasn't the outcome that demonstrated how far apart these two former phenoms find themselves, it was their reactions.

While the 24-year-old, top-seeded German was disappointed with the way she let Sabatini back in the match after winning the first set easily and blowing a match point in the second set, the 23-year-old, fifth-seeded Argentine was pleased that she gave Graf a match.

"I'm very satisfied with my performance here," said Sabatini, who has had the worst season in her career, with no titles and no appearances in at least a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since 1985. "This is one of the best matches I played this year."

Said Graf: "I did play a good first set. I didn't think at any point in the second set that I was playing the way I wanted to. Not as good as two days ago [against Mary Pierce]. Not even close."

The victory put Graf into the Open semifinals for the eighth time in the past nine years. She is looking for her 12th Grand Slam title, her third straight Grand Slam title this year -- all since former No. 1 Monica Seles, the Open's two-time and defending champion, was stabbed -- and her third Open title.

It was the way Graf played after getting broken to start the third set that was more reminiscent of her nearly flawless match against Pierce, a 6-1, 6-0 demolition in which she made eight unforced errors the entire night. She used Sabatini's aggressiveness as her own wake-up call.

"I got upset about the way I was playing," said Graf. "I tried to play my style, to be more aggressive. I said to myself, Just don't give it away."

She didn't. Graf broke Sabatini during her first two service games of the third set and built her lead to 4-1. She broke Sabatini to go ahead 5-3 and then served out the match to move into the semifinals against Manuela Maleeva-Fragniere. The 11th seed from Switzerland defeated Kimiko Date of Japan, 7-5, 7-5.

While Sabatini thought Graf played well -- "It was one of the best matches Steffi played against me," she said -- and should be added to their list of classics, Graf rolled her eyes at both suggestions. She conceded that they played some great points, but said, "I think we've both played better."

The rivalry of the '90s is starting to fade, and so it appears is Sabatini. Yesterday was the first time that the two had met before the quarterfinals at a major tournament.

FEATURE MATCHES

Matches today on the show courts and others involving seeded players in the U.S. Open. All courts begin at 11 a.m. Night sessions begin at 7:30 p.m.

STADIUM COURT

Day session

Katerina Maleeva, Bulgaria, vs. Helena Sukova (12), Czech Republic; Natalia Zvereva, Belarus, vs. Arantxa Sanchez Vicario

(2), Spain; Thomas Muster (12), Austria, vs. Alexander Volkov (14), Russia.

Night session

Michael Chang (7), Henderson, Nev., vs. Pete Sampras (2), Tampa, Fla.; Hank Pfister, Bakersfield, Calif., vs. Tom Gullikson, Palm Coast, Fla.

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