March 13, 1988: The day Gabriela Sabatini defeated Steffi Graf for the first time

Every day Tennis Majors takes you back in time to celebrate a great moment in tennis history. Today, we go back to 1988 to witness how Gabriela Sabatini finally the defeated the world No 1, Steffi Graf, after having lost their first 11 encounters

Gabriela Sabatini Gabriela Sabatini

What happened exactly on that day?

On this day, March 13, 1988, Gabriela Sabatini defeated Steffi Graf in the final of the Virginia Slims of Florida, in Boca Raton (2-6, 6-3, 6-1). Although she had already faced the current top-ranked player 11 times in the past, this was the first time that the Argentine prevailed over Graf. For the German, it was the first loss of a year which would see her lose only three times, as she went on to win the Golden Slam at the end of the year.

The players : Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf

•Gabriela Sabatini: The Argentine with a smooth one-handed backhand

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, firmly established herself in the top 10, reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1986 (lost to Martina Navratilova), and two more times at the French Open in 1987 and 1988, each time defeated by Steffi Graf. She also claimed seven titles on the tour, and in March 1988, she was ranked No 5.

• Steffi Graf: The new queen of women’s tennis

Steffi Graf gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics (On this day)
Steffi Graf gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics

Steffi Graf was born in 1969 in Germany. In 1982, at the age of 13, she became the youngest girl to ever get a WTA ranking. After winning the demonstration event held at the Los Angeles Olympics 1984, she consistently improved her game and her results. She reached the semi-final at the 1985 US Open at the age of 16, going down to world No 1 Martina Navratilova (6-2, 6-3).

In 1986, she claimed her first title in Hilton Head, before getting to the US Open semi-finals a second time. Closely overseen by her father, she had her breakthrough year in 1987, when she lifted her first Grand Slam trophy, edging Navratilova in the final of Roland-Garros (6-4, 4-6, 8-6), and finishing runner-up to the same opponent at Wimbledon and at the US Open.

On August 17, she took over the top spot on the WTA rankings from the American, who had held it with little interruption since 1982, and in March 1988, Graf was still world No 1. Since the start of the year, she remained undefeated, having notably won the Australian Open without dropping a single set, defeating Chris Evert in the first indoor final in the history of the tournament (6-1, 7-6). 

The place : Boca Raton, Florida

The Virginia Slims of Florida was held for the first time in 1984 on clay in Palm Beach Gardens. However, the tournament moved to Key Biscayne the following year, switching to hard courts, and in 1987, the event settled in Boca Raton. Chris Evert had won the three first editions, but in 1988, the defending champion was the world No 1 Steffi Graf.


In March 1988, Steffi Graf’s hold on the WTA Tour was getting tighter and tighter. The German, who had won her first Grand Slam at Roland-Garros and become world No 1 in 1987, had won the Australian Open without dropping a set. She was undefeated in 1988, and when she entered the court to play the final of the Virginia Slims of Florida, she was on a 30-match winning streak. It had almost been a surprise to see her being pushed into a deciding tiebreak in the semi-finals by world No 4 Pam Shriver (6-4, 4-6, 7-6). 

On this day, her opponent in the final was Gabriela Sabatini, whom she knew very well. Despite their young age, the two women, who also teamed up often to play doubles and won the Wimbledon women’s doubles title together in 1988, had already faced each other 11 times on the WTA Tour – and Graf had always prevailed.

My goal is to be no 1 someday. That’s what I work for.

Gabriela Sabatini

At first, it seemed that the usual scenario was going to repeat itself, with the world No 1 taking a 6-2, 3-2 lead. However, Sabatini held on and soon, she came back into the set, winning four consecutive games to win 6-3, helped by six consecutive unforced errors from Graf. In the deciding set, the first game was the last one won by Graf, with Sabatini winning six consecutive games to beat the German for the first time, 2-6, 6-3, 6-1.

“This week has given me a lot of confidence for the future,” Sabatini said, quoted by the LA Times. “My goal is to be No 1 someday. That’s what I work for. I concentrated more and had confidence. When the third set started, I felt ‘Now I can win. (…) It’s important to win this kind of match. Everyone wants to beat her. This proves it can be done.”

Steffi Graf regretted the catastrophic game she played in the middke of the second set.

“I had a good first set,” she said. “But the match was decided in the second set. I led 3-2, 30-0, and gave the game away.”

What next? Graf would win the biggest MATCHES between the two rivals

A month later, Sabatini would repeat her feat, defeating Graf a second time in the semi-finals of the Amelia Island Championships (6-3, 4-6, 7-5). However, in 1988, Graf would take her revenge by winning the biggest matches, beating Sabatini in the Roland-Garros semi-finals (6-3, 7-6), in the US Open final (6-3, 3-6, 6-1, sealing the calendar Grand Slam at the same time) and in the final of the Seoul Olympic Games (6-3, 6-3), sealing the one and only Golden Grand Slam in tennis history.

In the end, even though Sabatini would beat Graf five times in a row in 1990, the German would lead 29-11 in their overall head-to-head.

Graf would remain the world No 1 without interruption until 1991, setting the record of a 186-consecutive-week-reign. In total, she would accumulate 22 Grand Slam titles and spend 377 weeks as world No 1 (also an all-time record in women’s tennis) before finally retiring in 1999.

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 and the US Open, but in 1990, at Flushing Meadows, she would eventually beat the German to claim her first and only Grand Slam title (6-2, 7-6).

In 1991, she would play a last Grand Slam final at Wimbledon (losing to… Graf, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6), and she would remain a top 10 player until 1995, reaching the semi-finals in Grand Slam tournaments on no less than eight occasions. In 1996, struggling with motivation, Sabatini would play only 10 tournaments and would retire at the end of the year. She would never become No 1 but is nonetheless considered as a legend and a global icon, especially in South America.

The pair would remain close friends post their retirement and ere both inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In fact, Graf was the one who introduced her long-time rival and close friend during the induction ceremony in Newport.

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