Gaby comes up smelling of roses

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The Independent Online
First prize for the day's most superfluous announcement went to the umpire on Court 13. "Miss Sabatini is to the right of the chair," he informed the crowd, just in case they were having trouble differentiating between the leggy Argentinian glamour puss, and a pale- skinned Belgian who looked as though she wouldn't be totally out of her depth as a prop forward for Hull Kingston Rovers.

However, the umpire was being far more helpful than we realised. Twenty minutes into the match, it was beginning to look as though the No 8 seed was in fact a bronzed lookalike who had been awarded a place in the tournament as first prize on Jim'll Fix It, and the way the security guard began eyeing her up and down, you half expected him to turf her out as a non- paying spectator.

Trailing 0-5 in the first set, Sabatini buried her head in her towel, took a deep breath, and then proceeded to reel off 13 of the next (and last) 14 games. "I just wanted to make it a little more exciting," she said afterwards, although some thought it might have been a cunning plan to get her collapse over with at the start of the match, rather than (given her reputation as a choker) at the end of it.

Whatever it was that galvanised Sabatini into action, it presumably wasn't the grim prospect of life on the breadline. When she said that winning the Virginia Slims tournament in November had rekindled her confidence, someone asked her whether the money had also been important. "Money?" she said, with the perplexed look of someone who, back home in Argentina, could tip the hotel bell-boy the equivalent of Mara-dona's annual income without feeling the pinch.

Before this tournament, Sabatini's prize-money totted up to a modest 8,179,202 (US dollars as opposed to Argentinian pesos) and while her 19- year-old opponent, Nancy Feber, has a bit more pocket money than most of last year's classmates at the Boom High School in Boom, near Antwerp, her career earnings amounted to precisely $8,149,894 less than Sabatini's when this tournament began. And after yesterday, she has a further $9,730 to make up.

Feber presumably has fewer overheads, such as whatever is the Buenos Aires equivalent of the council tax on a ranch covering a largish chunk of the Pampas, but neither does she rake in the sort of extra cash that comes with being gorgeous and marketable.

While Sabatini lends her name to roses and perfumes, Feber's commercial prospects will have to stem from something other than an alluring figure and a glamorous pout, and this game itself also provided something of a mismatch in the photogenic department. There were no less than 25 cameras at courtside, and all but one (presumably belonging to the man from the Brussels Bugle) remained unwaveringly trained on Sabatini's side of the net.

Strictly on the tennis side, however, Sabatini is something of an under- achiever. Her one major is the 1990 US Open, but although she served twice for the match in the 1991 Wimbledon final against Graf, the only time she feels really comfortable on grass is (judging by an entry in the "personal" section of her biography) "hanging out with her friends and pet dog Clayton on her farm in Argentina".

It was hot enough to have fried an egg on court yesterday, but Gaby could probably serve with a fried egg without breaking the yolk, and she comes to the net with all the reckless abandon of a bomb-disposal officer approaching a ticking parcel. Her first and only sortie away from the baseline yesterday was for the sort of smash one of the ball-girls would have put away, and she clunked it wide.

From then on, it was business strictly from a distance, and once Sabatini found her rhythm, the Belgian girl was overwhelmed by one of the heaviest groundstrokes in the women's game. What caused the collapse? "She's a little young . . . very young," Sabatini said sympathetically. Only in women's tennis, and gymnastics, can a 25-year-old come across like a concerned grandmother.

During her more stressful moments in the first set, Sabatini occasionally glanced fretfully across at her Chilean coach, who did not so much have a suntan as look as though he had immersed himself in gravy browning. However, she was so bad that there was nothing the coach could have done other than advise her to try playing left-handed, and she eventually sorted it out herself.

Chris Evert won this title three times with no serve and a net allergy, so why not be optimistic? "I think I have proved I can win this tournament," she said.

However, as she moves towards a prospective quarter- final with the defending champion, Conchita Martinez, Sabatini will not always be able to get away with confusing the opening 20 minutes of a tennis match with one of her modelling assignments.

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