One of the fascinations of making a call to a mobile phone is that you cannot be sure of the whereabouts of the person you are calling. The other day your correspondent contacted a fellow who was in Gabriela Sabatini's apartment in Key Biscayne, Florida, bragging that he had been there for three weeks.
Had it been anybody other than Patricio Apey, the temptation would have been to laugh and hang up. Apey is the boss of the London-based Ace Group International management company, and the fragrant Sabatini is his biggest client. Her range of perfumes – Gabriela Sabatini, Cascaya, Magnetic, Bolero, Wild Wind, Devotion – is a grand slam and a half. Moreover, Apey's father, Patricio Snr, was Sabatini's tennis coach. Anyway, Sabatini was back home in Buenos Aires.
The reason for the call was that Anna Kournikova had become the first decoration to fall off the Christmas tree, shaken by Anna Smashnova, a Russian-born Israeli who is more diminutive than her name suggests, in the semi-finals of a WTA tournament in Auckland. Kournikova, 20, is today's affluent tennis glamourpuss, a Sabatini without singles trophies. Such a pity.
"My feelings are exactly the same as with Gabriela," Apey said. "Anna really is a good player, a solid player. You don't get to be in the top 10 as long as Anna unless you're a good player. The fact that she hasn't won a title yet is bad luck. I think it will come. As for the extra off-court stuff that's coming her way, it's not her fault that she looks the way she does and is perceived the way she is. That's something you can't buy and you can't change; it's just her. And if she can take commercial advantage from it, more power to her. I think it's good for the game, it's good for business, it's good for everybody. Nobody gets hurt."
Kournikova has been hurt enough already and deserves a bit of luck after missing most of last year's tournaments because of a foot injury. This resulted in her world ranking tumbling from No 8 to No 74. Although absent from the tour, she was an ever-present on the internet and continued to attract more hits than most website divas. Kournikova has not done as much for sports bras as Sabatini has for perfume, but she is getting there.
Sabatini, 31, retired from tennis in October 1996. Her career prize money amounted to $8.8 (£6.2m), a fraction of her earnings from endorsements. Although she won 27 singles titles and was ranked as high as No 3 in the world, Sabatini was widely regarded as an under-achiever because she only won one Grand Slam singles championship, having adopted an attacking game for the day to defeat Steffi Graf at the 1990 United States Open. The following year, Sabatini twice served for the match against Graf in the Wimbledon final.
Her game was both irresistible and irritating, prone to unravelling with victory in sight. She modelled her flowing backhand on the style of Guillermo Vilas, her inspirational Argentinian countryman, but often served with the impact of an armless Greg Rusedski.
"I don't think Gabriela's earning power and drawing power today would be doubled or tripled if she had won two more Grand Slams," Apey said. "It would have added to her titles, but I don't think the public's perception of her success in the business world five years after she retired from playing tennis would be better if she'd won more titles."
Coco Chanel, No 5 without winning a set that we know of, probably would have admired the way Sabatini has outpointed seasoned rivals such as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren in the perfume department. "I think Gabriela's is the most successful celebrity line in perfumes ever," Apey said. "Sales are particularly strong in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland and also in Brazil. Funnily enough, sales are not very strong in Argentina."
That was the case, apparently, even before Argentina slumped into its current economic crisis. But why should Sabatini's scent be shunned in her own country? "The best way to describe it," Apey said, "is that in Argentina she is like Evita, a people's princess. She is loved by the rich and the poor, and she's so close to them that she's like everybody's sister, or daughter, or friend. And in Argentina they prefer French perfumes and other imported products to one of their own."
Still single – "She would very much like to find a man in her life and hasn't been able to" – Sabatini seems keen to recapture some of the things she missed as a teenager by touring for pleasure instead of for tennis. Last summer she went to Paris for three weeks and stayed for three months. She then drove to Marseilles, Monte Carlo and Rome and went on to visit Switzerland and the Netherlands.
"Gabriela has been doing the get-to-know-Europe backpacking thing popular with some people when they leave university, " Apey said. "She didn't do it with a backpack, but in a nicer, more comfortable way."Reuse content