Sabatini Is No. 1 in Marketplace : Sweet Smell of Money: She Scores Her Own Grand Slam

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

The newest baby boomer in the women’s game has the following distinction: In addition to endorsing the usual sportswear and tennis equipment, she is about to represent a line of perfume and beauty products. This is strange and new but, in the case of Gabriela Sabatini, makes perfect scents (there, we did it).

Figure that entrepreneurial ball boys were selling off her sweat-stained towels for 10 pounds sterling at last year’s Wimbledon, and you have an idea of her aromatic potential. There are chemists in West Germany, as it happens, who think they can tap a more mainstream market with a more traditional and alluring smell. And so we will soon have, in the handier bottled container, Gabriela Sabatini.

“It even sounds good,” said Dick Dell, her ProServ business agent.

For the moment, be assured that she at least looks good. The game’s No. 5 player would have drawn attention with her athletic, and winning, style of play in any event. But her looks have turned crowds and, certainly, tennis reporters--plus, possibly, advertisers--positively hormonal.

A tennis reporter risks sexism: The Argentine is 5 feet 8 inches, 130 pounds. She has shoulders that qualify her for an appearance on “Dynasty,” a smoldering Latin look that has evoked countless “Princess of the Pampas” paragraphs, and an all-around smoky beauty that . . . makes sexist tennis reporters run off at the typewriter.


“She is cute,” Dell agreed helpfully.

But never mind how she discombobulates tennis reporters. Her feminine appeal, in a game that has not always enjoyed that mystique, has launched her on a marketing campaign the likes of which women’s tennis has never seen.

Martina Navratilova, off and on the top-ranked women’s player since 1977 and the winner of 15 Grand Slam tournaments plus $13 million in prize money, has endorsements valued at $1.5 million, according to one estimate. Sabatini, just 18 and the winner of zero Grand Slam tournaments (although she was a French Open semifinalist at 15), holds contracts worth nearly $4 million, according to the same estimate. Dell says it’s high; we use it for comparative value.

So it’s not just tennis reporters.

The somewhat more accomplished baby boomer, Steffi Graf, has notched an Australian Open and a French Open--and Martina’s No. 1 ranking. Graf held an 11-0 advantage over Sabatini in heads-on play until Sabatini came back for two victories this year. Yet, Graf, whose beauty is not so compelling in a pin-up sense, does not get the same offers. She endorses Jade cosmetics but was somehow aced by Sabatini on her home ground. The 47-11 fragrance house that has decided to devote a line of signature perfume to Sabatini is not from Argentina but from West Germany.

And how did Graf miss out on the Ebel endorsement? Sabatini instead has a contract with the Swiss watchmaking company.

This would seem to be a victory of style over substance, since nobody has ever heard Sabatini deliver a monologue longer than, “They always support me. It’s very nice.” Graf, on the other hand, has mastered the tour’s universal language and speaks excellent colloquial English. But then name a women’s sport that doesn’t welcome some style. Women’s tennis has never lacked for substance, but its style has long been suspect.

“With Gaby,” said Dell, who got her on ProServ’s books nearly four years ago, “it’s a perfect blend of athletics and beauty. When I first saw her, I thought: Number one, she’s cute. She was a 14-year-old with stringy hair and not beautiful yet, but cute. Second, she was cute and athletic. She’d smash a topspin ball in the middle of the court, knock off a volley. Most girls that age are backcourt players, but she was creative. People like watching her play.

“The first time I saw her play, I thought she could become one of the best players in the world. Not a lock, but one of the best. I’ve never felt that way about another since.”

Perhaps, her rivalry with Graf, if it continues to take hold, will be enough to keep her in tennis’ forefront. Navratilova’s and Chris Evert’s rivalry no longer carries this game, and there finally appears to be a window of vulnerability for the younger stars. And Sabatini, with a somewhat more vigorous net game, seems ready to give Graf a good run.

But it’s obvious that people are looking at more than her No. 5 ranking. “She looks good sweating,” Dell said.

Without unduly exploiting the glamour angle, Dell had little trouble rounding up the usual endorsements. Prince rackets is on board, as are Ray-Ban sunglasses and Perrier water. She once endorsed, but no longer does, McDonald’s and Mita photocopiers. She continues to endorse Fuji film, her first contract.

But he believes there is more to be endorsed, and not just sportswear. “She has such a great balance between feminine and athletic abilities,” he says. “She’ll be the epitome of the athletic woman of the ‘80s and ‘90s. There will be more mainstream endorsements. To put her name on cosmetics, it’s never been done.”

Dell is mindful that Sabatini does not always come off as more than a pretty face. There is some doubt on the tour whether there is anything inside that pretty little head of hers. A much-used quote, attributed to an unnamed woman player, maintains that she suffers from “tennis elbow of the personality.”

That Sabatini has not undertaken self-education in the same way Graf has would support that. But a kinder appraisal is that she may only be shy. A reporter remembered seeing her at a pizzeria in Key Biscayne, Fla., near her stateside condominium, from time to time and said that even in the company of girlfriends, “She didn’t open her yap.”

Dell said: “She’s quiet, shy, and a lot of that is language. She’s a perfectionist and that’s inhibited her some. But she’s made leaps and bounds and is making more of an effort. Certainly, she’s gotten more professional in her dealings (with sponsors).”

Nonetheless, there is the anecdote wherein her father, a retired General Motors Corp. executive, asked her what she was thinking before a match. She gave no immediate reply but later wrote him a letter.

She has some progress to make, and not the least of it is on the tennis court. “If Gaby wasn’t a top-20 player,” Dell said, “you wouldn’t be here talking to me.” On the other hand, he said, “Whether she’s a big-time player or not depends on if she can win a Grand Slam tournament.” Like Wimbledon? What dollar amount would he put on the glamour girl then?

“I wouldn’t put a dollar amount on it,” he said, “because it might be too low.”

These days, it is no trick for Sabatini to get into the tabloids, where she recently appeared in a provocative bikini under the headline, “I’m a woman first!” But if she is more than this year’s cover girl, she will have to produce more sweat than perfume, and appear in a final or two along the way.