November 18, 1990: The day Monica Seles & Gabriela Sabatini played the first five-setter in women’s tennis in 89 years

On this day in tennis history, Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini played out a monumental match. Look back on this historical moment in women’s tennis

What happened on that day?

On this day, November 18, 1990, Monica Seles defeated Gabriela Sabatini in the final of the Virginia Slims Championships (6-4, 5-7, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2) in a best-of-five sets final that went the distance. Seles’ triumph marked the first five-set match in women’s tennis since the 1901 US Nationals (the former name of the US Open), when Elisabeth Moore had defeated Myrtle McAteer 6-4, 3-6, 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 in the final.

For Seles, this second prestigious title, after her triumph at Roland-Garros in June, was a major step in her quest for the world No 1 ranking, a spot she would reach in March 1991. 

The players: Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini

  • Monica Seles: The youngest player to win Roland-Garros

Monica Seles was born in 1973 in Yugoslavia. She took her first steps on the pro tour in 1988, at the age of 14, in Boca Raton, Florida, where she defeated world No 31 Helen Kelesi (7-6 6-3). Her powerful two-handed groundstrokes, her innovative way of hitting the ball so early with so much power, and of course her trademark grunting, represented a revolution in the women’s game.

In 1989, Seles played her first full year on the tour and, after claiming her first title in Houston, she played her first Grand Slam main draw at Roland-Garros. This first appearance in Paris would be long remembered. In the third round, facing world No 4 Zina Garrison, young Monica, aged 15, presented flowers to the Centre Court public before crushing her opponent 6-3, 6-2. She went on to the semi-final where she was narrowly defeated, in three sets (6-3, 3-6, 6-3), by the unbeatable Steffi Graf, who had won the last five Grand Slam tournaments.

In 1990, after winning five consecutive tournaments, including three on red clay, Seles defeated Graf (7-6, 6-4) 5o become the youngest player to triumph at Roland-Garros. Now ranked No 3 in the world, she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon (lost to Garrison, 3-6, 6-3, 9-7), and, in October, she won her first indoor tournament in Oakland, defeating Martina Navratilova in the final (6-3, 7-6).

  • Gabriela Sabatini – The Argentine who had won the 1990 US Open

Gabriela Sabatini was born in 1970 in Buenos Aires. Successful at a very young age, in 1985, she became the youngest player to reach the semi-final 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-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, Sabatini 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 German (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 Open and the US Open, but in 1990, at Flushing Meadows, she eventually beat the German 6-2, 7-6 to claim her first and what turned out to be her only Grand Slam title.

The place: New York’s iconic Madison Square Garden

The women’s season-ending event, known as the Virginia Slims Championships, was originally founded in 1972. Its first edition was held in Boca Raton, Florida, and the tournament moved to Los Angeles and Oakland before eventually settling down 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 top 16 players in the world qualified for the Championships, and, unlike in modern days, there was no round robin. Since 1984, it had become the only tournament on the women’s tour where the final was played under a best-to-five set format, but so far, the longest finals had only reached the fourth set.

The facts: Sabatini takes two sets to one lead but Seles fight back to win

The 1990 Virginia Slims Championships final was only the second encounter between Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini. Their previous match was played in 1988, in Miami, when Seles was only 14 years old, and it was won by the Argentine, 7-6, 6-3. Since then, young Monica had claimed her first Grand Slam crown at Roland-Garros, and she was now ranked No 3 in the world.

Sabatini herself had made rapid strides in the last two years. A few months earlier, at Flushing Meadows, she had managed to beat her nemesis Steffi Graf, who had beaten her six times previously in Grand Slam tournaments, to claim her first Major title.

In the beginning, Seles took the lead with her powerful groundstrokes, running Sabatini around the court. The Yugoslav claimed the first set, 6-4, and in the second set, she managed to break her opponent and served for the set at 5-4. At that point, it seemed that Seles’ hold on the match was too strong, but Sabatini kept fighting and started to play a more aggressive game, preventing her opponent from dictating the rallies.

“I had a slow start. And in the second set, I had to start playing aggressive because that was the only way I could beat her.”

— Gabriela Sabatini

The Argentine won the set, 7-5, and in the third set, she attacked the net, which was a recent improvement in her game, and won 6-3.

In any regular women’s tournament, Sabatini would have won 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, but since 1984, the women’s final at the Virginia Slims Championships was played under a best-of-five sets format, which gave Seles the opportunity to reverse the scenario. Although it was hardly plausible given the sway of the match, the 16-year-old started to hit the ball even harder, fiercely trying to regain control of the rallies. The Roland-Garros champion took the fourth set, 6-4. For the first time since the best-of-five sets format was introduced at the WTA Championships and for the first the first time in women’s tennis in 89 years, a deciding fifth set was to be played.

In this historical decider, Seles dominated the game and easily prevailed, 6-2. One month before her 17th birthday, she had just claimed her second major title and made one big step towards the world No 1 spot.

“It was very close for five sets, and the amazing thing was, neither of us made any stupid mistakes.”

Monica Seles

What next? Seles goes on to win nine Grand Slams and both players enter Hall of Fame

For Monica Seles, this victory would be a major step in the journey that would lead her to overtake Steffi Graf on March 11, 1991, becoming the youngest world No 1 in tennis history. In the following years, she would dominate the game: from January 1991, the left-hander would win seven out of the eight Grand Slam tournaments she participated in, losing only the 1992 Wimbledon final, setting a 56-1 victory-loss record. Furthermore, she would claim three WTA Championship titles in a row (1990, 1991 and 1992).

Her domination would be tragically interrupted after she was stabbed on court by a deranged fan in April 1993. Although she would come back on the tour and claim a ninth and final Grand Slam title at the 1996 Australian Open, Seles would never reach the standards of her early years on the tour. 

In 1991, at Wimbledon, Gabriela Sabatini 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 on eight occasions. She would claim another big title at the 1994 WTA Championships, defeating Lindsay Davenport in the final (6-3, 6-2, 6-4). In 1996, struggling with motivation, Sabatini would play only 10 tournaments and would retire at the end of the year.

Both players would be inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame – Sabatini in 2006 and Seles in 2009.

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