1990 US Open champion Gabriela Sabatini

1990 US Open F: Gabriela Sabatini defeats Steffi Graf

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

Almost no one had picked Sabatini to be a factor in this Open. Nothing she had done prior to the tournament indicated that she could turn her year around her year around in New York.

Elise Burgin, who had played her at Wimbledon, was one person who still thought Sabatini could be a champion.

“It’s really all up to her now,” Burgin said. “There’s no doubt about the talent. The only question is, with all the money she’s made, does she really want it that badly?”

Sabatini always insisted she did. Her match against Mary Joe Fernandez was the best of the tournament. Sabatini was now committed totally to Carlos Kirmayr‘s and Dick Dell’s plan that she attack all the time. Once she got to the net she had a huge wingspan and was tough to pass. Fernandez, a baseliner all the way, stood back and blasted. Sabatini kept coming in – until she won a dramatic and gutsy three-set victory.

But it hardly seemed to matter. Graf was playing like the Graf of old and Sabatini’s 3-20 lifetime record against her was hardly encouraging. Especially since all three victories had been on clay. So it was no surprise when the first set of the women’s final was a 6-2 romp. Except for one thing: it was 6-2 Sabatini.

Graf was spraying passing shots all over, mishitting forehands that would have endangered the planes if they’d still been flying overhead. Sabatini, feeling more and more confident at the net, was in at every opportunity.

“I knew she was going to play that was, that was no surprise,” Graf said. “The way I played was a shock, though. I felt good, ready to go. Then I went out and was terrible.”

Terrible for Graf is still not bad. Also, she had lost the opening set to Sabatini in the past. In fact, Sabatini had won the first set when they played in the Open semifinals in 1989.

However, it was a different Sabatini, one who wouldn’t allow Graf to get a rhythm from the baseline. She kept pounding away and served for the match at 5-4 in the second. Here, for the first time, she got nervous. Graf, sensing vulnerability, broke and quickly held to lead 6-5. She had two points in the next game. The first one she botched with another errant forehand.
On the second one, she hit a good crosscourt backhand, only to watch helplessly as Sabatini cut it off with a superb touch volley, the kind of shot she would not have even thought to play a few months earlier.

They went to the tiebreak. Sabatini could sense now that this wasn’t Graf’s day. She kept coming, Graf kept missing. On match point, Graf clipped the top of the net with her return. Sabatini closed in on it and hit a forehand right down the line. Graf stared, as if hoping a mark might appear that would indicate the ball had gone wild.
None did. It was a clean winner. Sabatini was jumping up and down and Graf, who had won eight of nine Grand Slams coming out of Australia, had lost three in a row.

Dick Dell‘s whimsical prediction of three weeks earlier had come true: something crazy had happened at the Open. Sabatini had combined a little bit of luck, a lot of heart, and her new style, one in which she used her size and strength to best effect, to win a championship that almost no one thought she could win.

“She’s playing the right way now,” Navratilova said after watching the match. “She’s so big, you can’t pass her. I didn’t think she could win, because her second serve is so weak. But no one seemed to take advantage of it.”

Why Graf had played so poorly was a mystery. As she came off court, her father made a point of giving her a warm hug. Prior to the match, he had gotten into a scuffle with a photographer. Had his daughter known? Had that upset her?

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