Gabriela Sabatini has good reason to love New York. It is here where she won the three biggest titles in her Hall of Fame tennis career: the 1990 U.S. Open and the 1988 and 1994 WTA tour championships at the Garden.
“It’s very motivating, the energy is so special, so unique,” Sabatini said Friday, previewing her exhibition match Mar. 10 against Monica Seles at the Garden. “You don’t feel it anywhere else. The crowd is very intense, loud, that gives you extra motivation. You put more into the match. From the moment I arrived in New York, I was so energized. Everything changed, my mood.”
The one big match she lost here was the epic five-set final of the WTA championships against Seles in 1990. The glamorous Argentine had upset Steffi Graf in the U.S. Open final that year, then again during the WTA championships at the Garden. But despite those sweeping, topspin groundstrokes, Sabatini lost to Seles in what was the first, five-setter for both players, 6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2.
“I always remember how exciting it was,” Sabatini, 44, said. “During the game, I didn’t feel tired at all. I was so focused and motivated, I didn’t realize how long it lasted. Then after the match, I was exhausted. I couldn’t even walk.”
Sabatini eventually retired after a loss to Jennifer Capriati in October, 1996. She says she has kept busy these past two decades with her German perfume company, Muelhens, with travel, biking, swimming and spending time with friends and family. She has trained hard for this match, and already played exhibitions against Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova.
“I don’t have opportunity to meet up with former players as much,” Sabatini said. “I played a few exhibition matches, so kept in touch with them a little. It’s great to meet with them now, not so much as tennis players, but as friends.”
Her relationship with Seles remains uniquely strong, because Sabatini was the only top player to support Seles’s return to tennis with a protected, top seed – after Seles had been stabbed in 1993 by a crazed fan in Hamburg.
“This episode, I was in shock,” Sabatini said. “I thought it could be any one of us in that place. It was a very disturbing moment. I took the decision based as a human, as a person, trying to put myself in her place. I thought with my personal mind, as a human, this is something happen if I was in that position.”
Sabatini and Seles will play at the Garden on Mar. 10 before Roger Federer faces Grigor Dimitrov in another exhibition.