It seems impossible to me that Gabriela Sabatini is already turning 50. And also – go ahead and call me a sexist macho who gets diverted from the technical analysis of a player in order to dwell on her looks – it seems impossible to me that she can still as dazzling in her raven head. Actually, she might be even more beautiful than she was when she used to bewitch us with her magnificent one-handed stroke despite a bit of an androgynous gait, as if she’d just dismounted from her steed – she had built a broad pair of shoulders as well, in order to keep its harness in check.
It just seems impossible because I heard about Gabriela when she wasn’t even 14, and I witnessed one of her matches when she was 14 and a month. From that day onwards I have always cherished her, while keeping a respectful distance. Firstly, because in some way I felt as if I’d discovered her (even if it isn’t true), and, secondly, because she is the only world-famous tennis player who’s ever sat on the umpire chair to officiate one of my matches in their entirety! Factor in the fact that she came into the world on May 16th (St. Ubaldo’s day), and it should become clear why I never forget about her birthday.
As I mentioned, Gabriela wasn’t even 14 when Guillermo Salatino, an Argentinian friend and colleague, called me from Buenos Aires: “My dear Ubaldo, I need you to do me a big favour. There’s a girl here with otherworldly talent, she is yet to turn 14 but I promise you she’s phenomenal. She really wants to play at Santa Croce [Editor’s Note: a junior tournament in Tuscany], but her ranking isn’t high enough to enter the draw, so she is going to need a wildcard to do it. Trust me, she’s 100% worth it!”
Personally, I utterly and completely trust Guillermo and his tennis savviness. Before he became a great journalist, a TV and radio broadcaster for ESPN South America, he was an excellent player, among the Top 20 of his country. Thus, I called the deus ex machina of the Santa Croce event, Mauro Sabatini, a man of extraordinary passion, without whom the tournament would have never seen the daylight. I asked him whether said wildcard could be given to Gabriela, telling him about Salatino’s forecast for her.
As I was trying to play the Italian-roots card (Her grandparents emigrated from Potenza Picena, in the province of Macerata…) he immediately stopped me: “My dear Ubaldo, could I ever deny entry to a player who shares my surname?” Then he erupted in laughter – a great man.
I’ll cut it short. Gabriela arrived in Tuscany in April, if I remember correctly, and dominated the event, winning an all-South American final – her Brazilian opponent, Dias, hardly had the same career though. Mauro Sabatini was so amazed he would have adopted her if he could! He thanked me every single time we met, even if I hadn’t done much – all I’d done, really, was asking him for a favour – but I have to say that Gabriela herself has thanked me more than once for that little push, even years later.
About a month later, Gabriela triumphed, under my curious gaze since I had not been present at Santa Croce, at a slightly more important junior event, none other than the French Open. At 14. Guillermo Salatino’s hunch was indisputably right, and it made me feel like a bit of a talent scout, albeit not at the same level as my peer’s. A couple years prior, so many of us were there, in Paris, in the press room of Court No.3 (which doesn’t exist anymore), marvelling at another wonderkid, a 12-year-old blondie, slender like reeds but with legs that were already long and a scary forehand – her name was Steffi Graf.
One-year Flash forward, to the April of 1985. Gabriela Sabatini was in Monte Carlo during the men’s tournament, which would be won by Ivan Lendl against Mats Wilander. I seem to recall that a junior event was taking place, either in the princedom itself or nearby on the Cote d’Azur.
As usual, the Country Club was hosting a tournament for journalists, and the final was between Guillermo Salatino and yours truly. The format was a single set to nine games. The winner’s prize was a trip to Botswana for two, paid for by a Monegasque travel agency, while the runner-up’s reward was an Ebel watch – a princely loot, as befits such a land.
That morning Gabriela showed up as well, delightful and incredibly sweet. The match wasn’t slated for the main court, obviously, but rather on one those terraced ones, up above the club. The closest and coziest seat was perhaps the umpire chair, and, for inexplicable reasons, it was Gabriela herself who ended up climbing it.
The match began. Gabriela, always shy but with a radiant smile, whispered the scores. I was appalling out of the gates: “3-0, señor Salatino!” As we switched sides, I told Guillermo: “Remember to send me a postcard from Botswana!”
“4-3 señor Scanagatta!” said Gabriela at even lower frequencies, but she looked like she was having a whale of a time, watching those two Over-35 blokes turn red like tomatoes while giving their all with their outdated game under the Monte Carlo sun.
“Ubaldo, you’re the one who’ll have to send that postcard,” panted Guillermo, to which I retorted: “I’d rather send it to Gabriela!”
We chugged along till the tie-break, at 8-8. I’m pretty sure I saved three match points at 6-8 down, but don’t hold me to that, and for sure I won’t be asking Gabriela for confirmation – and yet, somehow, I won.
Comes the denouement. I kept calling that shady travel agency for months, but it disappeared, bankrupting without fulfilling its due. Never been to Botswana, never sent any postcard. On the other hand, though, Guillermo flaunted his Ebel watch for years. A year later, to be fair, Bernard Noat, the then tournament director, gifted me with an Ebel too… and is to this day the favourite watch of my wife, Tiziana, whom I began to date the very same year.
About a month and a half after that unforgettable refereeing, Gabriela reached, at 15 years of age, the semifinals of the French Open, the youngest in the history of the tournament.
Other articles will dwell a little more on her sporting achievements, whereas I prefer to end on a further anecdote bonding the two of us. In 1990, I was sent for the first time to the Australian Open by the TV channel I worked for. A very humid and sticky heat, on Rebound Ace hardcourts that were a bona fide carnage for the players’ ankles, often sprained due to their owners’ shoes getting glued to the surface. Gabriela was among the victims, despite her N.2 seed, right behind Graf.
I had booked a TV one-on-one with her at the end of her third-round match. Gabriela had steamrolled past Frazier and Bollegraf, and was expected to do the same against Claudia Porwik, a German. Instead, she tripped during the opening set, and, despite getting promptly bandaged, there was little she could do, losing it with a score of 6-2 and retiring after a solitary game in the second set.
She left the centre court at Flinders Park – back then it was still called like that – on a wheelchair. Now, you tell me who else, man or woman, would have had the strength to show up in the press room after such an upset. But Gabriela showed up as if nothing had happened, and gave the interview she had promised. What an act of sportsmanship, and how amazingly educated had she been by her father Osvaldo – she’s just a fantastic person.
I took it badly when she retired at 26. I was distraught, because I thought it was happening far too soon, but her spark was extinguished. However, just like Bjorn Borg, another who had precariously retired at 26, Gabriela had already spent half her life, 13 years, fully immersed in professional tennis, breathing tennis, dreaming of tennis.
How could I not be fond of her, when, every time I’m lucky enough to run into her, she’s still so nice, so sweet, so caring? 50? I just cannot believe it.
Article translated with the assistance of Tommaso Villa
Alize Cornet stuns Bianca Andreescu in Berlin
Andreescu was playing in the main draw of a WTA grass-court tournament for only the second time in her career after Wimbledon 2017.
Alize Cornet’s run at the Bett1 Open in Berlin continues as she managed to upset Bianca Andreescu 7-6(2), 7-5 in two hours and six minutes on Steffi Graff Stadion.
“At the beginning of the match I was feeling very good,” said Cornet. “I played some of my best tennis at the start of the match and I think I felt more comfortable than in the first round. The first match helped get me more comfortable on the surface but it was a huge battle playing a match that lasted over two hours and I am really happy that I got through”.
It was the number three seed who got off to a fast start being the more aggressive player earning two chances to break in the opening service game of the match but failed to convert. The very next game it was Cornet with three chances to take the lead and she did just that and it stayed on serve until 4-2 until Andreescu had a chance to break to go back on serve and she would get the break back.
At 5-4 the world number 63 reached set point but Andreescu managed to save it with one of her big serves and held serve before going back on the offensive. Earning another breakpoint but again couldn’t finish and the set would be decided by a tiebreaker.
Cornet ran away with the breaker jumping out to a 4-1 lead and would win it 7-2 to take the first set 7-6.
She carried the momentum into the second frame and in the first game she set up two breakpoints with a stunning forehand winner and broke to take a 1-0 lead. At 3-1 the world number 63 had a chance to go up a double break and she did just that breaking again to get a 4-1 lead but the Canadian responded right away by breaking right back the very next game.
At 4-3 the Toronto native had a break chance to go back on serve which she converted on to level the set at 4-4 and it stayed on serve for two more games until it Cornet managed to get the crucial break to take a 6-5 lead and serve out the match.
” She’s a really talented player, she plays amazing and she is dangerous on every surface but I think today my experience on grass helped me”. Cornet commented on her opponent.
She will now face either Garbine Muguruza or Elena Rybakina in the quarter-finals.
There were three other second round matches being played on Steffi Graff Stadium. The day started with another upset as Ekaterina Alexandrova beat the number two seed Elina Svitolina in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 in only an hour and 30 minutes.
Belinda Bencic, the number five seed, had no issue dispatching the Croat Petra Martic 6-3, 6-4. In the final match of the day, a third upset occurred when Madison Keys beat the top seed Aryna Sabalenka in three sets 6-4, 1-6, 5-7.
The action continues on Thursday with four more second round matches featuring the local favourite Angelique Kerber taking on Victoria Azarenka.
Berlin Round-up: Garbine Muguruza Cruises Past Cirstea In Berlin
The number six seed only needed 80 minutes to advance past her Romanian opponent.
Garbine Muguruza started her grass court season on the right foot beating Sorana Cirstea in straight sets 6-3, 6-2 in one hour and 20 minutes on Steffi Graff Stadium.
She will next face Elena Rybakina who was pushed to three sets by the American Shelby Rodgers 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 in a match that lasted one hour and 43 minutes.
Angelique Kerber only needed one hour to dispatch the Japanese player Misaki Doi 6-2, 6-1 and after the match she gave her thoughts on what seemed like a comfortable first win on grass for the local favourite.
“It was a really solid match and it’s never easy to play a first match on a grass court, especially against a lefty as well, so I’m really happy about my performance and how I started the grass court season,” She said.
Kerber will now face the daunting task of playing the Belorussian Victoria Azarenka who beat another German Andrea Petkovic in a tough straight sets victory (6-4, 7-6).
In the other results of the day the Croat Petra Martic needed three sets to beat the American qualifier Asia Muhammad 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 to set up a second round match with Belinda Bencic.
In an all American battle Jessica Pegula only played 12 games against Hailey Baptiste who was forced to retire due to injury, Pegula will next face Karolina Pliskova in the next round.
The young Russian Veronika Kudermetova needed three sets to beat the Czech Karolina Muchova in a match that went two hours and 28 minutes 7-6, 5-7, 6-2. She will now face Liudmilla Samsonova who pulled off the only upset of the day by beating Marketa Vondrousova in straight sets 6-4, 7-6 (6).
Round two begins on Wednesday with four second round matches and will feature Elina Svitolina taking on Ekaterina Alexandrova, as well as Bianca Andreescu facing Alize Cornet.
bett1open Preview: The Berlin Anomaly
The WTA returns to try and conquer a city that offers vast potential to the tour.
London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Berlin: the list of Western Europe’s major capitals is so familiar it almost rolls off the tongue. When it comes to the ATP and WTA calendars, however, one of them has long been conspicuous in its absence.
This week the bett1open, a WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, takes place in Berlin. It’s the first tour-level tennis of any kind in the city since 2008.
BERLIN: ‘POOR, BUT SEXY’
It’s not just in tennis terms that the German capital remains something of an anomaly, even 32 years after the Berlin Wall came down. Berlin is an instantly recognisable name in a list of the world’s capital cities, yet in many aspects the city is not even a leader within Germany itself. It’s not an industrial powerhouse like Stuttgart, nor a financial hub like Frankfurt or Munich. It can’t even stake a strong claim in Germany’s national sport, football, where it is dwarfed by the footballing heartland in the western state of Nordrhein-Westfalen (home to the cities of Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Mönchengladbach, to name but a few). As recently as 2013, there was no team from the capital city in Germany’s top football league, the Bundesliga, an unheard-of situation in all other European nations.
Instead, modern Berlin has carved out a niche as an enclave popular with artists and musicians, with cheap rents (until recently, at least), a relaxed lifestyle and a renowned electronic music scene that drives its unrivalled nightlife. It’s a bohemian place, relatively underdeveloped economically, but it just so happens to also be the political capital of the biggest economy in the European Union. When analysing the post-reunification struggles of die Hauptstadt, British historian James Hawes describes how in the mid-2000s ‘every other European capital city helped to fund its country; only in Germany was it the other way around’. Whether the city really cares is another question altogether – in 2003 mayor Klaus Wowereit famously described his city as ‘poor, but sexy.’ Indeed, an entire tourism marketing campaign used this very slogan.
THE GRAF EFFECT
This precarious financial position is one of the reasons that an incarnation of the Berlin Open hasn’t appeared on the WTA tour since 2008 (when Russia’s Dinara Safina triumphed). Once considered one of the most important clay court warm-up events for Roland Garros, the tournament fell victim to the financial problems faced by the Deutsche Tennis Bund (German Tennis Association) in the 2000s, largely attributed to the significant drop in interest in the sport in Germany following the retirement of Steffi Graf. The rights for the tournament were sold in 2004 to a consortium in Qatar, who continued to run the tournament for a few years before selling the licence back to the WTA in 2008.
On the men’s side, the barren patch has lasted even longer. The ATP Tour last came to Berlin in 1991, also for a clay court event, without even so much as a Challenger Tour event taking place in the city since.
COMING IN FROM THE COLD
This is all about to change. Berlin has transformed rapidly in the past decade and is arguably more ready than ever for a tournament to make the city its long-term home. For better or worse (many of the politically left-leaning city’s residents would argue the latter), Berlin has never been more commercially attractive, remaining incredibly popular with creatives and young people in general, and its ‘cheap and cool’ appeal has naturally also brought interest from big business. Rents and property prices are soaring, commercial projects are popping up all around town, and the city now even has not just one, but two Bundesliga teams for the first time in its history. Tennis administrators have decided that the time is right to join in the fun.
Successful exhibitions were held last summer during the COVID break, including one that took place in a hangar at the disused Tempelhof Airport, giving the court backdrop a real post-apocalyptic feel that Berlin seems to specialise in. Dominic Thiem and Jannik Sinner were among the stars on show, as well as a seemingly ageless Tommy Haas. A Challenger event was reportedly being planned for the same venue this July, although this has not yet been announced in the schedule by the ATP. Either way, the emergence of a genuine top German talent in Alexander Zverev certainly gives the idea of bringing the men’s game here some added weight.
THE WTA MAKES THE FIRST MOVE
Which brings us to the WTA Premier 500 grass court tournament, taking place this week (14th-20th June). The big return to Berlin has already endured a difficult start – the inaugural tournament was scheduled for 2020 but became a victim of the coronavirus pandemic.
The more hedonistic side of the city won’t be so visible at the Rot-Weiss Tennis Club, located in the city’s more affluent and leafy western outskirts, but the stellar line up of players should ensure some electric beats for the crowd to along nod along to. Aryna Sabalenka (world number 4), Elina Svitolina (no. 6), Bianca Andreescu (no. 7) and Iga Swiatek (no. 9) lead the field, with Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Garbiñe Muguruza also involved. The tournament lost Ash Barty and Naomi Osaka in the wake of events at the French Open, but the difficulties of persuading players to travel to a new tournament have been outweighed by the advantage of being part of a grass court season that offers only limited choice as top stars look to get in shape for Wimbledon.
There is home interest, too, with German number one Angelique Kerber leading the charge. Sadly absent will be Sabine Lisicki, who hails from Berlin itself and has serious grass court pedigree but is sidelined with the latest in a horrendous string of injuries.
WIMBLEDON PREPARATIONS BEGIN
As is always the case with events between the French Open and Wimbledon, it is hard to predict who will come out on top. Even top players need time to adjust to the grass, particularly those who went deep at Roland Garros and will be playing their first grass court event of the year. Regardless, this represents a big opportunity for the WTA. Berlin might be a curious mix of politicians, techno heads, and tech entrepreneurs, but it’s a city of 4 million that is full of youthful energy. On the face of it, it should be a prime candidate for a stop on the tennis merry-go-round. It will be interesting to see how this latest attempt to lay down roots in this most unique city fares.
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