November 20, 1988: The day Gabriela Sabatini won her first big title
- 20 Nov 2020
What happened exactly on that day
On this day, November 20, 1988, at Madison Square Garden in New York, 18-year old Gabriela Sabatini defeated Pam Shriver to claim her first big title at the Virginia Slims Championships (7-5, 6-2, 6-2). Previously, the Argentinian had already reached three big finals, (at the 1987 Virginia Slims Championships, at the 1988 US Open and at the 1988 Olympics), but the German Steffi Graf, who had just achieved the Grand Slam, had always stopped her in the last round.
Gabriela Sabatini, from Argentina, was born in 1970. Successful at a very young age, in 1985 she became the youngest player to reach the semi-finals at Roland-Garros, where she was defeated by Chris Evert (6-4, 6-1). In the following years, Sabatini, displaying a beautiful one-handed backhand, established herself in the top 10, reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1986 (lost to Martina Navratilova), and twice more at the French Open in 1987 and 1988, each time defeated by Steffi Graf. She had also claimed eight titles on the tour, the most important one in Boca Raton, in 1988, where she was the first player of the year to beat Graf (2-6, 6-3, 6-1). Later, she triumphed in Montreal, defeating Natasha Zvereva in the final (6-2, 6-1), before finishing runner-up to Graf at Flushing Meadows (6-3, 3-6, 6-1) and in the Olympic Games in Seoul (6-3, 6-3). She was now world No 4.
Pam Shriver, from the United States, was born in 1962. She obtained her first remarkable result at the age of 16, when she reached the first final of her career at the US Open, defeating world No 1 Navratilova in the semi-finals (7-6, 7-6) before losing to Evert (7-6, 6-4). Since then, she remained in the top 10, claiming no fewer than 23 titles on the tour, and reaching the semi-finals in Grand Slam titles 8 times. Shriver played a very aggressive game, and as a consequence, she wasn’t comfortable on clay court – in fact, she only participated once in the French Open main draw. She reached her best ranking as world No 3 in 1984, but in doubles, she spent 48 weeks as world No 1, accumulating 19 Grand Slam crowns, partnering Martina Navratilova. Together, they were the greatest pair of all time, and they had remained undefeated for more than two years, claiming eight consecutive major titles between Roland-Garros 1983 and 1985, achieving the Grand Slam in 1984. She also obtained a gold medal at the 1988 Olympic Games, partnering Zina Garrison. At the end of 1988, she was still world No 5 in singles.
The Virginia Slims Championships (now the WTA Finals), was founded in 1972. Its first edition was held in Boca Raton, Florida, and the tournament moved to Los Angeles and Oakland before eventually settling in New York in 1979. The venue of the event was the famous Madison Square Garden, where 18,000 spectators could be hosted. In 1994, the first 16 players in the world qualified for the Championships and, unlike today, there was no round robin. Since 1984, it was the only tournament on the women’s tour where the final was played in a best-to-five set format, but so far, the longest finals had only reached the fourth set.
In the 1988 Virginia Slims Championships final, although both players were still chasing their first major title in singles, they had very different profiles.
On the one hand, 26-year old Shriver had been touring for a decade already. A permanent top 10 member since 1980, she had never managed to reach another major final since the 1978 US Open, even though she reached the final four eight times.
On the other, 18-year Sabatini was one of the rising stars of the game. She had already played three major finals, the last one at the Seoul Olympic Games, but she had always been prevented from lifting the trophy by Graf.
For the first time, the Argentinian, who hadn’t dropped a single set in her three first rounds, was about to compete in a major final without facing her German nemesis, who, sick with the flu, had lost to Shriver in the semi-finals (6-3, 7-6). In the first set, Sabatini appeared quite tense and struggled with her serve. She still managed to be the first to break her opponent’s serve, thanks to Shriver double-faulting on the break point at 3-3, but she was broken back at 5-4. Sabatini won the first anyway, 7-5, and from that point she started to loosen up and play at her best level. In the next sets, she outclassed Shriver, who was maybe tired as she had followed her semi-final win over Graf by clinching the doubles title with Navratilova. The first major crown that she had been running after for three years was now hers.
“My goal is to be number one but I’m not in any hurry,” Sabatini said, according to The New York Times. “To be tough mentally is the biggest thing of all. Steffi is the best at that, but it’s what I am learning to do. Before the match, I had a feeling I was going to win in three sets.”
“I was prepared to play a strong match,” said Shriver. “But Gabriela really played a strong match. I didn’t have the same control as yesterday.”
Sabatini would climb as high as world No 3, in 1989. That year, she would lose to Graf in the semi-finals at both the Australian Open and the US Open, but in 1990, at Flushing Meadows, she would finally beat the German to claim her first and only Grand Slam title (6-2, 7-6). In 1991, she would play a last major final (lost to Graf, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6), and she would then remain a top 10 player until 1995, reaching the semi-finals in Grand Slam tournaments no fewer than eight times. In 1996, struggling with motivation, Sabatini would attend only 10 tournaments and would retire at the end of the year.
The 1988 Virginia Slims Championships final would be the last remarkable result obtained by Shriver in singles. In doubles, she would add two more Grand Slam titles to her list of achievements: the 1989 Australian Open (partnering Navratilova), and the 1991 US Open (partnering Zvereva). Shriver would retire from the game in 1997, and she would become a successful TV broadcaster, for ESPN and the BBC, amongst others.