Look Out Steffi, Chris & Martina—Gabriela Is Gunning for You

updated 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As Canadian flags snap smartly in the breeze, 17-year-old Gabriela Sabatini enters Toronto's National Tennis Centre. All eyes are upon the long-limbed, dark-eyed Argentine hurrying down the aisle to center court—especially the eyes of one of the teenage ball boys. Win or lose here in Toronto, Gaby's already conquered him. He lists her strengths: aggressive, serves hard, moves like a panther. "And yo," adds one of his friends, "tell the truth. You like her legs."

Yes, the legs are lovely. And one day soon they may carry her right to the top of women's tennis. For the U.S. Open in New York (Sept. 1-13) Sabatini is ranked eighth. Steffi Graf, the 18-year-old West German wunderkind, is, of course, ranked first, but she may already be hearing footsteps from Gaby's direction. Generally Sabatini has given Graf a tougher time than any of her other opponents, including Chris and Martina. And Steffi admits as much. "I always have trouble against Gabriela," she has said. In fact Chris Evert thinks a long-running rivalry between the two teenagers—like hers with Martina Navratilova—is inevitable. "Unless Steffi or Gaby get married and have kids, that'll be the great rivalry of the next decade," says Chris. "They've already had some very close matches, real cliff-hangers. But maybe Gaby's still not as intense as Graf. It'll all depend on how she handles pressure and how much she wants to win."

Today, at the Player's Challenge Tennis Championships, Sabatini clearly wants to win. She begins her 6-1, 6-2 victory against 24th-ranked Rosalyn Fairbank with a relentless baseline and net attack that leaves her opponent stunned. A service ace, a deft, angled drop shot, a sideline topspin missile off a looping backhand stroke—all reminiscent of her childhood Argentine idol, Guillermo Vilas—are quick winners. Although she will lose in the quarterfinals to Pam Shriver, the tournament's eventual winner, Sabatini has shown flashes of undeniable brilliance.

From his first-row box seat, Gaby's brother, Osvaldo, quietly cheers her on. Fair enough. Her introduction to tennis came eleven years ago in Buenos Aires, as she watched her brother play in junior tournaments. "She begged me to let her play," recalls Osvaldo, now a 22-year-old economics student. "So I gave her an old racket and sent her off to go hit against a wall. All day she'd pound the ball. She was only 6 but right away we could see she could hit." Soon Sabatini's father, Osvaldo Sr., a retired General Motors plant manager, enrolled his precocious daughter in a clay court program. Before long Gaby was winning tournaments, and by the time she was 10 she was Argentina's top-ranked player in the girls' 12-and-under division. From then on, always playing above her age group, she held on to the No. 1 spot in her country at each level. "She hated to lose," Osvaldo recalls. "In those days she'd fight me all the way—on and off the court. Tennis, Ping-Pong, it didn't matter. She'd fight me, yelling and crying."

In 1984, at 14, Sabatini topped the junior world rankings. She turned pro the next year, and at 16, became the youngest player ever to reach the Wimbledon semifinals. The 5'7", 130-lb. Sabatini has since scored victories over most of the game's best players, including Evert, Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova.

But then there's Graf, who has a one-year head start on the pro tour. Gaby's usual doubles partner has beaten her in all eight of their one-on-one meetings. Though the two are friendly but businesslike off the court, "we're not enemies," says Sabatini. "But she's won more matches, and all I need now is a little more confidence." Her current coach, ex-Spanish Davis Cupper Angel Gimenez, calmly predicts, "Gaby will beat Graf. She just needs a little more time. That is all."

She could also use a bit more stamina. Sabatini has tended to fold in the latter stages of tough matches. But Gimenez is working on that. In addition to daily four-hour practice sessions, he has her doing rigorous calisthenics to strengthen her legs. Not only has her endurance improved, says tennis expert Ted Tinling, her manner "is more outgoing, much brighter."

Back on center court in Toronto, Gaby dismisses rumors that she's already a victim of "burnout"—the specter that haunts nearly all tennis prodigies, and has all but finished the careers of such early rising young stars as Tracy Austin. "Get tired of tennis?" she says in careful English, followed by a disarming smile. "I love to play. I could never get tired of it. It is my life." Later, chatting more comfortably in Spanish, she explains she doesn't have many friends—"no time for boys, either"—but isn't lonely because her brother or her parents are always with her. "Success has come so fast that there's no time for dreaming or wishing for another life," she says. "In Argentina, when I was a kid, we all talked about Vilas. Ever since then I wanted to be No. 1 among the women, and now that I'm getting there the kids back home all talk about me. I'm proud of that. It's a lovely feeling being loved by your own people."

At home in Buenos Aires, where she spends only several weeks a year when she's not on tour or training in Key Biscayne, Fla., Sabatini likes to play with Augustina, her 6-month-old capuchin monkey, a gift from her brother. "I'd like to have her with me on the tour," she explains, "but she'd be jumping all over the place." Sabatini, who dropped out of high school at 14, says she'll catch up through correspondence courses. When she's off the court she likes to relax by singing, and wouldn't mind recording a song someday. "I like Air Supply, Phil Collins and Chicago," she says, "but what I'd really like is to meet them in person."

Courtside interview at an end, Sabatini heads for the players' lounge. Zina Garrison, an occasional doubles partner when Graf isn't available, smiles at the retreating figure. "It's all mental now," she says. "Steffi still has that little edge over her, but watch out. You're going to see a new Gaby real soon."

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