March 23, 1995: When Gabriela Sabatini lost to Kimiko Date from 6-1, 5-1 up in Miami

Every day, Tennis Majors looks back at the biggest moments in tennis history. On March 23, 1995, Gabriela Sabatini let three match points slide in Miami as Japan’s Kimiko Date sprang a big shock to reach the Miami final

What happened exactly: Sabatini loses big lead

On this day, March 23, 1995, in the Miami Open semi-finals, world No 7 Gabriela Sabatini suffered a shocking loss against Kimiko Date. After she blew a 6-1, 5-1 lead, the Argentine missed three match points before being defeated, 1-6, 7-6, 7-6. 

The players: Gabriela Sabatini and Kimiko Date

  • Kimiko Date, Japanese all-court star

Kimiko Date, from Japan, born in 1970, began her career in 1988 and she broke into the top 100 two years later, in 1990. She reached her first final on the Tour in 1991, in Los Angeles, where she was defeated by world No 1 Monica Seles, 6-3, 6-1.

Date’s career took off in 1992, when she claimed her first title, in Tokyo, defeating Sabine Appelmans in the final (7-5, 3-6, 6-3). In 1993, she reached the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time at the US Open (defeated by Manuela Maleeva, 7-5, 7-5). In 1994, she finished the year in the top 10, reaching the Australian Open semi-finals (lost to Steffi Graf, 6-3, 6-3) and claiming the title in Sydney and Tokyo.

Defeated in the US Open quarter-finals by Arantxa Sanchez (6-3, 6-0), she was world No 9 at the end of 1994.

  • Gabriela Sabatini, Argentinian legend

Gabriela Sabatini, from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was born in 1970. Successful at a very young age, she became the youngest player to reach the semi-final at Roland-Garros in 1985, 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-final 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. In 1988, in Boca Raton, she was the first of only two players to beat Graf (2-6, 6-3, 6-1), and at the US Open, she finished runner-up to the same Graf (6-3, 3-6, 6-1).

Sabatini climbed as high as world No 3, in 1989. That year, she lost to Graf in the semi-finals at both the Australian and the US Open, but in 1990, at Flushing Meadows, she eventually beat the German to claim her first and only Grand Slam title (6-2, 7-6). In 1991, at Wimbledon, she played a last major final (lost to…Graf, 6-4, 3-6, 8-6), and since then, she had remained a solid top 10 player, reaching the semi-finals in Grand Slam tournaments no less than seven times, the last time at the 1994 US Open (lost to Arantxa Sanchez, 6-1, 7-6). 

The place: Key Biscayne, Florida

The Miami Tennis Open, originally named the Lipton International Players Championship, was held for the first time in 1985, in Delray Beach, with the idea of being the first big tennis event of the year (at the time, the Australian Open was held in December). The tournament moved to Key Biscayne in 1987. The event was played on slow hard courts, in extreme heat and humidity. Nonetheless, with outstanding prize money and a 96-player draw. In 1995, it was considered as the biggest tennis tournament in the world outside of Grand Slams, and the defending champion was the undisputed world No 1 Steffi Graf.

The facts: Sabatini misses three match points

Gabriela Sabatini and Kimiko Date had both started 1995 with disappointing performances at the Australian Open. Date, who had entered the top 10 for the first time in 1994, was defeated in the third round, while Sabatini had lost in the first round of a Grand Slam for only the third time in eleven years on the Tour. Since then though, Date had claimed the most important title of her career, the Tier I Tokyo Pan Pacific Open defeating Lindsay Davenport in the final (6-1, 6-2). 

In Miami, both players reached the semi-finals without dropping a single set. Their semi-final clash was extremely one-sided in the 13 first games, with Sabatini taking a 6-1, 5-1 lead. The Argentinian already had one foot in the final, especially considering the fact that her opponent had called the physio and was dealing with a sore shoulder.

However, thanks to Sabatini’s 28 unforced errors in the set, Date clawed her way back and, against all odds, managed to take the second set, 7-6, saving two match points at 6-5.

In the deciding set, Sabatini obtained a third match point, but once again, she failed to make the final strike. Date finally prevailed, 1-6, 7-6, 7-6. The match would be remembered as a Miami classic for its dramatic scenario much more than from his level of play, the two players having combined no fewer than 148 unforced errors (69 for Sabatini, 79 for Date). 

“When I was (up) 5-1,” said Sabatini, who had also made 18 double-faults, “I didn’t feel very good, like I was close to winning the match. I started to feel a little bit tired in the second set and then very tired in the third set.”

What next: Date peaks at No 4; Sabatini begins to fade

Kimiko Date would be defeated in the final by world No 1 Steffi Graf, 6-1, 6-4. Still,1995 and 1996 would be her peak years: she reached the semi-finals at the 1995 French Open and at Wimbledon the following year, and would climb as high as world No 4 before a premature retirement at the end of 1996, aged only 26.

Date would make a spectacular comeback in 2008, which would take her back in the top 50, and make her the oldest player to ever score a top 10-win (against Samantha Stosur, in Osaka, in 2010). She would retire once and for all in 2017.

Sabatini would obtain her last remarkable result at the 1995 US Open, where she would lose to Steffi Graf in the semi-final (6-4, 7-6). In 1996, struggling with motivation, Sabatini would attend only ten tournaments and would retire at the end of the year. 

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