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Miss Manners of Tennis : Gabriela Sabatini Is on a Quest to Show That Nice Women Don’t Necessarily Have to Finish Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She had mentioned it only once, a few days before. Debbie Edwards of the Women’s Tennis Assn. Tour had asked Gabriela Sabatini, in passing, if she had anything to donate to a fund-raising auction for women’s athletics at the University of Florida.

Now, Edwards came across Sabatini in the locker room moments after her upset loss to Lindsay Davenport in the fourth round of last year’s Wimbledon tournament. Assigned to fetch Sabatini to the post-match interview, Edwards hovered at a distance to give the player privacy. Sabatini noticed her and asked: “Would my shoes be OK for the auction?”

Edwards looked puzzled.

“Would you like me to sign them?” Sabatini said, undoing the laces. “Let me know how it goes.”

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Welcome to Gaby’s World, land of the super-nice and hyper-polite. Sabatini, an Argentine ranked No. 7 and consistently in the top 10 since 1986, has a well-defined reputation as a sincerely nice person and an image as a glamorous but approachable star. What she is not known for is a tenacious will to win, a fiercely competitive spirit or overweening ambition.

Sabatini, 25, who will play in the Acura Classic, which begins Monday at Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach, has crafted a 10-year career that looks substantially more impressive from a distance. Having won only one Grand Slam event, the 1990 U.S. Open, and recently getting over a 2 1/2-year run without winning a tournament, Sabatini has never managed to quiet critics who argue that she has failed to fulfill her vast potential.

Sabatini’s temperament raises the question, rare in professional sports: Is it possible that being too nice can stymie a career in a business that often requires a single-minded, foot-on-the-neck mentality?

“The talent that she has, the ability . . . " Sabatini’s coach, Juan Nunez, said, sighing. “She is a great human being. Yes, her personality has probably hurt her career. But in the long run, you want to be a good human being.”

MARKETABLE IMAGE

Gabriela Sabatini, the perpetual photo opportunity, is hitting on a court at Manhattan Country Club. It’s midday and quiet. She’s wearing a cap pulled low. Her black hair is gathered into a ponytail, and an enormous T-shirt obscures most of her thighs, causing a murmur of disapproval from the restaurant’s busboys, who had trampled most of the nearby flower beds to catch a glimpse of her.

So it has always been for Sabatini, whose glamour invariably leaves gaping jaws in its wake. Some female athletes might bristle at such a narrow focus on beauty over skill. Sabatini would find such ungratefulness impolite. In fact, her reputation for niceness is nearly eclipsed by her reputation for lateness at post-match interviews. While many players show up in their natural sweat-drenched state, Sabatini nearly always arrives with her hair fixed and makeup applied.

Sabatini has a natural elegance that radiates. Her ground strokes are fluid and classic. Her rolling John Wayne walk and broad-shouldered athleticism appeal even to those who claim not to like athletes.

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“I think it’s a compliment that someone tells you you are pretty,” Sabatini said. “It goes along with being a good tennis player too. I can’t ask for people to say only all the good things. It’s enough what they are saying. Most of all I would like to prove to myself that I can be there [in the top 10].”

Sabatini’s longtime agent, Dick Dell, said, “If the world believed that she was only a beautiful face, I don’t think there would have been as many offers as we’ve had.”

The endorsement offers roll in, seemingly without regard to Sabatini’s current ranking or status. Unlike many players, whose popularity with sponsors waxes and wanes according to their last tournament, Sabatini has a kind of immunity to such fluctuations.

“She does awfully well off the court,” Dell said, without being specific.

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Forbes magazine is specific. According to its year-end analysis of international athletes, Sabatini earned $4 million in endorsements alone in 1994. George Foreman earned $5 million.

Nor is her appeal limited to the Spanish-speaking world. When the first of Sabatini’s three perfumes was launched in Germany in 1989, it was an instant No. 1. In the fickle and highly competitive fragrance world, “Gabriela Sabatini,” the scent, just as the tennis player, has never fallen from the top 10.

Look for Sabatini on the back cover of Newsweek this week, in a milk ad. Sabatini was the first female athlete signed by Pepsi, she has her own doll and has written a motivational book for children. She’s working with one of her sponsors to design an international line of tennis clothes.

“I’m trying to strengthen the brand name Gabriela Sabatini, so that it will be out there after she retires,” Dell said.

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CHARITY BEGINS AT HOME

Retired player Andrea Jaeger travels the circuit as a broadcaster and uses the time to raise money and awareness for her fledgling ranch for terminally ill children, Kids’ Stuff Foundation. Jaeger said Sabatini was the rare player who asked what she could do to help.

“You can see how she is with kids; you see she really cares,” Jaeger said. “Last year at the [U.S.] Open, she called and offered to help. Normally, when players offer help, it means they will give something to be autographed and auctioned. She said: ‘I’ll donate [money], what do you need?’ After she donated, there was no fanfare. Gaby’s just one of those people where you know everything she does is genuine. I’ve never, ever, heard her say a bad thing about anybody. I’ve never heard anything bad about her. She is such a class act. If there was ever a heart or a personality I would like to be like, it would definitely be her.”

One WTA manager remembers being flabbergasted the first time she worked with Sabatini during a television interview. As is her custom, after the interview, Sabatini shook hands with and thanked the interviewer, camera operator and sound technician.

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Sabatini is in her second year as chairwoman of the WTA Players Assn.'s Special Olympics program and is beginning to formulate her strategy for work after tennis. Interestingly, television or acting does not interest her.

“I would like to help children. I’m starting to work with charities at home. I am trying to provide kids with the things they need. Kids that are abandoned. It is so nice. You get so much back, it’s amazing. In my country, there are so many poor children without families and nothing at all.”

NICE, AT A PRICE

Sabatini’s warm personality may have blunted some of the criticism leveled at her during her 42-tournament losing streak. She began to gain a reputation as a choker, with the 1993 French Open as the springboard.

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There, she held a 6-1, 5-1 lead over Mary Joe Fernandez in the quarterfinals and lost. Thus began her knack for fashioning disaster from a routine victory.

The match destroyed Sabatini’s confidence. That year she changed coaches three times and struggled. Even though her ranking remained high, players knew Sabatini was vulnerable.

Then came the Lipton Championships last March, and she found herself in an eerily familiar position. Sabatini was serving for the match with a 6-1, 5-1 lead over Kimiko Date. Sixty-nine unforced errors and 18 double faults later, Sabatini lost.

“Those couple of years where I wasn’t playing good tennis, it was very frustrating,” she said. “It’s really hard to lose so often. I had to find a way to start being positive and find some more motivation. I felt like I had to start again.

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“Probably, I took it to a personal level, losing. That was a terrible mistake because I would feel horrible, down, even in life. Then everything becomes one thing. There’s no separation between tennis and your life.”

Sabatini’s losing streak was broken last November at the Virginia Slims Championships in New York. Playing against Martina Navratilova in Navratilova’s last singles match, Sabatini put together one of her most impressive performances.

Afterward, Navratilova said if she had to lose to anyone, she was glad it was Sabatini.

“I felt so many emotions,” Sabatini said. “In a way, I didn’t want to beat her because it was her last tournament. I didn’t want to be the bad person.”

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As much as she hated to beat Navratilova under the circumstances, Sabatini knew the victory might save her.

“It was very important,” she said. “It’s like I broke that wall that I couldn’t go through. It’s hard to say if I should have done better in the past. All I can say is that I tried my best, always.”

Dell said that once Sabatini learned to stop being a full-time people pleaser and started playing to please herself, the changes came.

“I think she always cared about winning, but I don’t think she was having very much fun out there,” Dell said. “She was questioning what she was doing. We talked about it a lot. I don’t have the answers to how she solved these problems, or even if she has solved all of them.”

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She has certainly solved her acute shyness, which characterized her first year on the tour as a 15-year-old. She has assumed a leadership position that befits her ranking.

Sabatini played a behind-the-scenes role in defending Monica Seles’ new co-No. 1 ranking during rancorous players’ meetings at Wimbledon, when the WTA Tour was deciding how Seles might return to the game. Seles is grateful to Sabatini for bucking the tide and standing up for her.

“Gaby has always been very nice, and I like her very much as a person,” Seles said. “I also appreciate her being so supportive of me during my time away from tennis.”

For Sabatini, it’s all part of her new philosophy of being nice but knowing that it’s also all right to make yourself happy first.

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“I think it’s the best feeling you can feel, because that’s the reality--you are out there playing for yourself, nobody else,” Sabatini said, gazing absently at an empty tennis court. “I was trying to please everybody, because in Argentina you always listen, especially when you are young. People were talking a lot about me, ‘Why doesn’t she win?’ You start feeling all this pressure. You are just trying to please everybody. ‘Oh, I won. People are going to be happy about this. I lost, what are they going to say?’

“That was hard for me. But you have to feel that change. You can’t change it, it just comes. Not too long ago, I started to feel this way, probably a few months ago. Amazing how long it took me to realize that. It’s just so much better. Now I think, ‘You think that? OK, you are free to think exactly what you want to think. You are not going to affect me.’ ”


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