This year, tennis pros Gabriela Sabatini and Kimiko Date both turned 26.
Next week, at the Chase Championships of the WTA Tour in New York City, Date
will play her final pro event, while Sabatini will be honored there in what
organizers are calling "a salute to her outstanding career."
Why retirement? Sabatini, winner of the 1990 U.S. Open and nearly 30 other
WTA events, blamed a lack of motivation and interest, suggesting that she
had grown weary from the endless pursuit of silver and crystal trophies.
Date, who finished 1995 ranked No. 4 in the world, blamed her various
ailments and a proposed change in the WTA rankings system which she believes
would make it more difficult for her to maintain a top ten ranking.
On the surface, the two women would appear to have little in common.
Sabatini, a sculptured and statuesque Argentinean, had topspin strokes as
smooth and fluid as any woman who ever played the game. Date, a compact and
cute Japanese woman, was a natural lefty forced to play right-handed to
conform to what was believed to be normal tennis-playing standards. She even
hit the ball flat, as opposed to the topspin strokes of today's game,
because that's how the tennis pros did it in her outdated instruction books.
Yet the two shared an increasingly uncommon trait on the pro tour: a strong
sense of sportsmanship. Sabatini's grace wasn't limited to her on-court
movement and off-court presence. She rarely lost her composure on court, and
never tried to embarrass or intimidate an opponent or umpire. When the WTA
Tour players were deciding what to do with Monica Seles' rankings upon her
return, Sabatini was the lone voice supporting Seles' return to her rightful
place at the top. "The most important thing in life is to be caring," she
once said, long before Seles was felled by a lunatic with a knife.
Date embodied the Japanese approach to sport, where fairness and composure
are as important as victory and success. While Date hid behind her language
(she never learned a second language with which to communicate with the
international media), it was readily apparent even during three-way
conversations with an interpreter present that she held herself up to
extremely high standards of moral behavior. She was a role model in her
country, and she took this responsibility very seriously.
Sabatini's retirement did not surprise me. She turned pro more than a
decade ago at age 14. At the time, her looping, high-bouncing topspin
strokes caught everybody off-guard. She upset three top ten players (Zina
Garrison, Pam Shriver and Manuela Maleeva) on her way to the finals of the
1985 Hilton Head event, where she lost to Chris Evert. Weeks later, she
reached the semifinals of the French Open. Soon, her rivalry with Steffi
Graf was touted as the next Chris-Martina and her 1990 victory over Graf at
Flushing Meadow was the culmination of an incredible amount of hard work,
both physically and mentally.
The new power brokers in the game, however, had her number. Though Sabatini
was an impressive-looking athlete, she lacked both the necessary stamina to
grind it out with the power baseliners and the strength to outslug them. Her
serve was a serious Achilles heel. Players like Monica Seles and Mary Pierce
salivated at the prospect of whacking back one of her powderpuff deliveries,
making her service games a struggle on any surface. I watched her hold her
first service game last summer at a San Diego event despite double-faulting
SEVEN times! I think it said as much about her will to win as it did about
her weak service and a nervous opponent.
Date's departure took me more by surprise. Fortunately, there's no truth to
the rumor that Date retired because she had let me down at this year's U.S.
Open. Fresh off a tournament victory the previous week, she showed up in New
York saddled with my Net Game prediction that she would reach the finals.
She promptly got dismissed in the first round.
Actually, Date retired because the wear and tear of the tour had taken its
toll. There wasn't a tournament where Date wasn't sporting some new fashion
statement: a green leg wrap here, a taped wrist there. I'm not sure the
proposed ranking system, which would encourage players to participate in
more events to maintain high rankings, had a lot to do with it, but she
certainly wasn't the type of player whose body could take more tennis.
Date, because of the language barrier, and Sabatini, because of her natural
shyness, didn't say much in interviews or post-match press conferences over
the course of their careers. So I'll keep it short myself: Adios, Gabriela.
Sayonara, Kimiko. Your actions spoke volumes about both of you.