Gaby smiles again after tennis misery

Former tennis star Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina poses during a photo-shoot at Place de la Concorde in Paris, France.-Pic. CLIVE BRUNSKILL/ GETTY IMAGES

GABRIELA SABATINI does not need the visual inspiration of an advertising agency to stop the traffic in Paris; strolling through the Place de la Concorde on a drizzly June morning, she all but causes a pile-up as heads turn in immediate recognition accompanied by a cacophony of blaring horns and screeching brakes.

It is dark. The close-up shows a match being struck. The flame lights up the picture, reflecting the passionate eyes of Gabriela Sabatini. Your eyes are led to her uncovered shoulders and, briefly, into a room where her tango dress is draped over a chair. Gabriela's look is ardent and seductive. She lets down her hair and it smoothly falls over her delicate neck; passion unfolds. The flame flickers and the silhouette of a man approaches her. Tense anticipation creeps under the skin. Gabriela determines the course of events — self-confident, seductive, she blows out the flame — the picture falls into darkness...

Caption: Devotion, the new fragrance from Gabriela Sabatini.

GABRIELA SABATINI does not need the visual inspiration of an advertising agency to stop the traffic in Paris; strolling through the Place de la Concorde on a drizzly June morning, she all but causes a pile-up as heads turn in immediate recognition accompanied by a cacophony of blaring horns and screeching brakes. With her wild and wanton gypsy tresses, smouldering eyes and languorous gait, she could be a latter-day Esmerelda who broke the heart of Quasimodo on the steps of Notre Dame.

It is seven years since Sabatini fled tennis at the age of 26 to seek sanctuary in a `normal' life; she had been a regular visitor to Paris, competing in the French Open at Roland Garros on 11 occasions (becoming the youngest ever semi-finalist at 15 years and three weeks in 1985 when she lost to Chris Evert), but it is only now that she can sit in a pavement cafe on the Champs Elysees idly watching the world go by through a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, or pay a leisurely visit to the Louvre and gaze upon the Mona Lisa.

"It's lovely to return to Paris as a tourist," she agrees. "It was nice to come here as a player because Paris always had a special place in my heart as a tennis venue — the crowds made me so welcome — but it's wonderful to have the time to see everything now. Even walking the streets of Paris is a treat. As a tennis player, you go from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the courts, from the courts to the hotel, and, when you are finally knocked out, from the hotel to the airport. But you never have the opportunity of visiting a museum, for instance, unless you lose in one of the early rounds.

"A couple of years ago a friend and myself came over from Argentina and rented an apartment in Paris. Our plan was to stay two weeks; we stayed three months, hiring a car and driving around the south of France, Italy and Switzerland. Strangely, for someone who became accustomed to living out of a suitcase, I now find travelling incredibly relaxing."

Her life will never be what most of us would consider `normal'; Diego Maradona, apart, she remains her nation's most beloved and photographed sporting icon. As a multi-millionairess she now traverses the globe promoting Gabriela Sabatini Perfumes (Private Edition being her most recently launched fragrance) and Gabriela Sabatini Watches. But it is as the one-time `sex symbol' of women's tennis that she is best remembered, a raven-haired beauty who was once sent 500 red roses by an admirer at Wimbledon where her sweat-stained towels sparked a frenzied black-market industry under stairs in the ballboys' den. Oh, but Sabatini could play tennis, too, winning the U.S. Open in 1990 and coming within two points of seizing the Wimbledon singles the following summer before losing 6-4, 3-6, 8-6 to Steffi Graf. She earned the sobriquet `Miss Whiplash' for the force of her groundstrokes, but she was also an elegant artiste blessed with a touch as soft as gossamer.

Although she seldom picked up a racket following her retirement, of late Sabatini has rediscovered her love of the game, now playing twice a week and giving serious consideration to appearing in exhibition matches. "I wouldn't describe tennis as a prison, more of a harsh workplace; it's fine when you are enjoying it because it's your passion. But I spent 11 years in what was a very demanding profession, dedicating myself 100 per cent to becoming a champion. When you stop enjoying playing, then it's tough. During the last couple of years of my tennis career, I was suffering, oh, how I was suffering. I would waken up in the morning and think `God, I have to go practice and I really don't want to.' I was miserable but I didn't know what was wrong with me so I consulted a psychologist who told me, `You either go in this direction — tennis — or that direction — a new life — it's up to you.' And I realised I wanted to go in `that direction', away from tennis which I had grown to hate."

With Martina Navratilova still competing — and still winning Grand Slam doubles titles at the venerable age of 46 — does Sabatini never suffer a minute's regret that she walked away prematurely? "One minute's regret? No, not even one second. From the moment I stopped playing I felt this overwhelming sense of relief, release even. I wouldn't say I feel younger, but without the pressure, the tension of having to win, I now wake up every morning as a free woman. I can now go out for dinner with friends, take in a movie, go dancing or partying. I have even had time to decorate my apartment in Buenos Aires and fill the walls with paintings by Argentine artists, all the simple pleasures I was denied before.

"Martina is amazing, absolutely amazing but I cannot see myself competing at 46, even in the seniors' events. To be two points away from winning Wimbledon then lose, as I did, is not an experience you greatly miss. Then again, I almost lost in the first round that year, so I was very proud just to reach the final against Steffi. These things happen." Que sera sera? "Exactly."

For a few, fleeting years, the Graf-Sabatini rivalry threatened to become as enthralling as any that had gone before — Court-King, Evert-Navratilova — and Gaby regrets that such was the heat of battle, the two never became close friends. "We had a good relationship, we won the Wimbledon doubles together as teenagers in 1988, and we would share some things with each other off the court. But it's hard to become close friends on the Tour which is a pity because I think Steffi is a really good person. We still see each other occasionally but she's a wife and mother now whereas I am kept busy with all my various projects."

On top of her role as a businesswoman, Sabatini is a tireless worker on behalf of children's charities in Argentina, where she is also heavily involved in a tennis programme to develop the stars of the future. "With the state of the economy, it's hard for the kids back home and tennis gave me so much, it's nice to be able to give something back."

With Navratilova considering a career in U.S. politics, those sentiments sound as though Sabatini might harbour a secret ambition to become the new Eva Peron? "Oh, no, no, no. I like to know what's going on in my country but I don't like politics. It's not a very clean world, is it? I am more than happy doing what I do."

As someone who came to hate the game, which bestowed untold fame and fortune upon her, Sabatini remains something of a reluctant spectator. "Everyone hits it so hard today you don't see the same variety. Sure, I could hit the ball hard but I could also play drop-shots and attacking lobs. To beat the Williams sisters you must play with the mind, constantly changing the rhythm. The level of tennis is incredibly high but, yes, I think tennis is more attractive as a spectacle when you see different styles out there."

And does Sabatini have any advice for the current `glamour girl', Anna Kournikova, who, unlike her pin-up predecessor, has yet to win a single tournament, let alone 27 titles worldwide? "Being the centre of such attention is not difficult providing you keep your goals in focus. It was always nice to hear those compliments but first and foremost I was a professional tennis player; of course, it's lovely to be told you look attractive off court, but on court it's the next point that matters."