For a generation of tennis fans, Gabriela Sabatini - who turns 50 today - is fondly remembered as an icon of the 1990s. She burned bright as a teenager in the 1980s, including playing in a Grand Slam singles final and an Olympic gold-medal match, and winning the WTA Finals. But, impressively, she followed up that teenage promise the following decade until making the difficult decision to leave the Tour on her own terms, retiring in 1996 at just 26 years old.
Sabatini, who was 20 when she won the 1990 US Open, has said that she would be talking to her old friend and rival, Stefanie Graf, whose 50th birthday was last year, about what it feels like to hit a half-century. It now seems almost a lifetime ago that Sabatini zipped up her racket bag for the final time after accomplishing so much in her teens and early twenties.
In fact, she's been a perfumer longer than she ever was a tennis player, having started a fragrance line in her teens that's still spritzing to this day (the original scent, with its tangerine and orange blossom notes, remains on sale as a 'modern classic'). But that's not to say that Sabatini's elegance on the tennis court, particularly on the backhand wing, is long forgotten.
Far from it. Smelling like Sabatini is one thing, playing like her quite another. The Argentinian was 15 years old when she played in her first Grand Slam semi-final, at the 1985 French Open. Before leaving her teens, she reached the last four of all the majors, played for the 1988 US Open title, bagged a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics that same year, and won the WTA Finals in 1988.
At the age of 50, Sabatini and Graf are good friends who keep in touch on the telephone, and back in the day it was the most good-natured of rivalries. Graf featured heavily in Sabatini's tennis life. For a while it felt as though Sabatini couldn't have a big career moment without Graf on the court, whether on the opposite side of the net or on the same side as a doubles team.
Sabatini's first appearance in a major final, at the 1988 US Open, resulted in defeat to Graf, and she also lost to the German in that season's Olympic final. Two years later, back in New York City for the final of the 1990 US Open, Sabatini got the better of Graf, though in their next showpiece meeting, in the 1991 Wimbledon final, Graf was triumphant again. There was one other big occasion when Graf beat Sabatini, in the conclusion of the 1987 WTA Finals. In all, they played 40 times, with Graf winning 29 times and Sabatini 11 of those encounters.
As a teenage doubles team, Sabatini and Graf played and lost in three French Open finals and won the Wimbledon title in 1988. Though it sounds as though they discuss much more than tennis during their calls now, with Sabatini saying of Graf last year: "Once you retire, it's nice to share other things, more the personal side. I think she's a great person."
By the time she quit, Sabatini had won 27 singles titles, including two WTA Finals victories after a second triumph in 1994, she had peaked at No.3 in the WTA rankings, and had a rose and a doll named after her, as well as the scents.
But she is also remembered on the WTA Tour for her generosity of spirit, with the New York Times observing that, "had there been an award for congeniality, she would have won that".
Sabatini once said: "I'd like to be remembered as someone who left something. I'd like people to think of me as someone who contributed, someone who did something for tennis. Aside from tennis, I'd like to have people think that I was a good person, a good friend, a good human being."
Good friend, good human being, Grand Slam champion, perfumer, style icon; Sabatini has achieved plenty in her first 50 years.