The 1990 US Open: Gabriela Sabatini’s moment of glory
The Argentine won her career’s lone Grand Slam singles title by beating her nemesis Steffi Graf for the only time (in 12 matches) in the four major tournaments at the Flushing Meadows in New York
Gabriela Sabatini’s career coincided with that of Steffi Graf’s — one of the game’s all-time greats. They played each other on 40 occasions between 1985 and 1995. Critics and fans alike agree the Argentine would have won a lot more had she not had to face the German on a regular basis. This is a philosophical way of looking at things.
A more realistic way is to say that Sabatini would have won a lot more had she managed to find chinks in Graf’s armor on a regular basis. That would have helped her not only at winning more consistently but also to better her overall record, that tilts significantly in favor of the German at 29–11. Graf bested Sabatini in 10 of the 16 finals they contested, including twice in Grand Slam competition and to the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The German also emerged victorious in 11 of their 12 encounters in major competitions.
Then there’s a more positive way to look at the rivalry. The only time Sabatini did manage to thwart Graf’s challenge, it earned the Argentine her biggest career title. It happened at the final of the US Open in 1990.
For starters, Sabatini made her Grand Slam debut at the US Open, back in 1984. The Argentine won her opening two rounds before losing to Helena Sukova in the third. Four years later it was in New York that she reached her first Grand Slam final. By then Sabatini, 18, was already a consistent performer on the WTA Tour, had won big draw tournaments in Rome and Montreal that year, and someone who boasted of a 41–12 singles record at Grand Slam tournaments.
All that mattered little as 1988 was Graf’s year in every which way. Despite securing consecutive wins over the German — her first two after 11 straight defeats — the Argentine lost the three matches that mattered more.
Having beaten Sabatini en route to the French Open title the German got the better of the Argentine again in the US Open final, winning 6–3, 3–6, 6–1. The result made Graf only the third woman — after Maureen Connelly and Margaret Court — to have won all the four Grand Slam tournaments in a calendar year.
Adding insult to injury Graf beat Sabatini in straight sets a couple of weeks later, to claim the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics, thereby becoming the first player to win a Golden Slam — four major titles and an Olympic gold medal — in the same calendar year. Sabatini had been the unwanted victim in both of the German’s landmark wins.
The Argentine recovered well though. After winning the year-end Virginia Slim Championships in 1988, without dropping a set, Sabatini was consistent in 1989 winning big ticket events in Miami, Amelia Island, Rome and Filderstadt. She also reached the semi-finals at both the Australian Open and US Open that year, losing on both the occasions to…no points for guessing.
By her own high standards 1990 had been a pretty average year for Sabatini. Early exits at both the Australian Open and the French Open were punctuated by a title at Boca Raton. More importantly she lost to Martina Navratilova, then almost 34, in the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
However, her failures made Sabatini introspect and work towards improving the flaws in her game. She began working with a tennis psychiatrist and also hired a new coach, Carlos Kirmayr, who in turn advised her to become more aggressive on the court, approach the net more often and unsettle her opponent.
Coming into the US Open not many would have bet on Sabatini going all the way. But the Argentine — with a 71–20 singles record at Grand Slams, worked her way through the draw, winning her first four matches with considerable ease. Leila Mekshi, representing the erstwhile Soviet Union, posed the first real test for the fifth seed. Sabatini managed to win the quarter-final 7–6 (5), 6–4.
Her semi-final against American Mary Joe Fernandez was easily the best match of that year’s competition, the Argentine scraping through in three tight sets (7–5, 5–7, 6–3). Waiting in the final was a familiar foe, who like Sabatini had dropped only one set en route to the decider. It was going to be their 22nd meeting, the Argentine having beaten the German only on three occasions before. More importantly, Graf had won every time they had played in a Grand Slam for a 6–0 record.
For once, Sabatini didn’t fumble at the biggest stage. With Graf making an uncharacteristically high number of errors in the final the Argentine remained composed to take advantage, and defeat the two-time defending champion in straight sets 6–2, 7–6 (4) to secure what was the 15th of her 27 career titles. It made her the first Argentine woman to win a major title. It also remained the first and only instance Sabatini would defeat Graf in Grand Slam competition — though she went on to win seven of her following 10 matches against the German.
“It’s very hard for me to talk right now,” Sabatini said after receiving the trophy. “I just can’t believe that I won this tournament. I’ve been dreaming a lot to win it, and I can’t believe this came true today.”
Sabatini had managed to break her jinx in major tournaments with her 21st attempt, in what was her seventh appearance in New York. The US Open was also the only Grand Slam tournament where Sabatini reached the pre-quarters (Round of 16) or better for 10 successive years. It comes across as no surprise therefore that in terms of career performance the tournament remained the Argentine’s best — she finished her career with a 51–12 record in New York, her best at any Grand Slam.
It’s been 30 years since the Argentine finally beat her biggest rival, at the game’s biggest stage. She may have made it to the semi-final stage or better on 21 occasions. She may have reached at least one major semi-final for 11 consecutive years. She may have had an impressive 164–42 win/loss record at the four majors.
However, the 1990 US Open remains Sabatini’s sole Grand Slam singles title.