by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

WIMBLEDON, England — In another world, they might be late for gym class, ditching the cigarets as they sneaked inside.

“SABATINI?” the teacher would yell.




In another world they might streak their hair and wear Reebok sneakers that nobody paid them to endorse. They might jump in the car and crank up the radio, and Sabatini, 17, would beg Graf, 18, to let her drive.

“Don’t tell my dad,” Graf would say.

“No way,” Sabatini would answer.

In another world, at their ages, they might have been anywhere Wednesday — the beach, the basement, the summer job at McDonald’s. Instead they marched out to Centre Court at Wimbledon, turned to the Royal Box, where Princess Diana was sitting, and did a little curtsy. Then they picked up the tennis rackets and began.

This was the first note of a Wimbledon dance that may go on for years. Graf. Sabatini. West German, Argentinian. Blond, brunet. Teenagers.

Where is the future of women’s tennis? Right here, young enough to buy Beastie Boy albums. This is who we watch when Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova finally depart. This is the chirping rivalry, breaking through its shell. Sabatini. Graf. Seventeen. Eighteen.

Like, too cool. And there’s more to come They met Wednesday in a quarterfinal match that was at times almost frightening, like watching a young prizefighter with more strength than smarts. Both players seemed to hit too hard for teenagers — Sabatini’s backhand would leave skid marks; Graf’s forehand could escape radar. This was potential, slamming head-on in the first set (won by Sabatini, Graf’s first lost set of the tournament) before Graf took firm control and won the match, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1.

“Were you upset with losing to Steffi?” a reporter asked Sabatini, the dark-haired one.

“Yes,” she said, in a soft, accented voice, “but I think we play many more matches, yes?”

Many more. Yes. Counting Wednesday, they have already played eight times, Graf has won them all, but they have been close and closer. And Graf is a year older and a few levels more intense. “I know what she does better,” Sabatini said, “but I think I will catch up.”

It would only be fitting. Haven’t we see this before? Wasn’t Evert the budding superstar when the younger Navratilova was on the rise? Didn’t they once play doubles together — as Graf and Sabatini do now? Didn’t they ultimately become the Betty and Veronica of tennis, destined to be featured in every adventure?

“Can you see playing Gabriela here 10 years from now?” Graf was asked.

“Sure, I can see us like Chris and Martina,” she said. “I’m sure there will be other players coming up. But we understand each other, we speak and play doubles together.”

And yet, like Chris and Martina, they are as different as their homelands.

Graf, from Bruhl, West Germany, is directed, totally tennis, the product of a domineering father who oversees every step of her career. She began, as a four year-old, smacking balls over her living room couch. Today she is ranked No. 2 in the world, and success seems to replace other teenage attractions, including boys. Once, last winter, she tried a disco. The noise prompted her to call for a ride home.

Sabatini, on the other hand, is more moody, occasionally distracted. She likes to sing, to play soccer, to ride around with her friends. Yet her raw talent was exciting enough for her to be shipped from her native Buenos Aires to live with coaches in Miami. Photographers drool over her sultry good looks; tennis experts drool over her potential. Last year, at 16, she reached the semifinals of Wimbledon before losing to Navratilova. Who writes the first book? So there they were Wednesday, the best of the post-braces set, pushing each other through a quarterfinal that would pay the winner more than $10,000. And when they rested between sets, it was hard not to imagine the next three, five, even 10 years unfolding.

What will the London tabloids be saying in 1997? That Sabatini was flitting about town, wearing leather pants, playing the glamor queen? That Graf’s marriage is in trouble, love on the rocks, and she has been seeing Boris Becker?

Who will be fire, who will be ice? Who plays Betty, who plays Veronica? Who gets the Lipton commercials, the Timex ads? The first book? The first million? The first Grand Slam?

Who? Or simply which one? Evert and Navratilova played Wednesday, but not on Centre Court. That was reserved, for the blond and the brunet, who curtsied on the way out.

In another world, they might be anywhere else; all the other teens in this world are. But they walk through Wimbledon like destiny, holding rackets and a future. Graf? Here. Sabatini? Here. They’ll be answering this roll call for a while.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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