Sabatini faces Graf on a roll In recent matchups, Argentine leads, 5-0


WIMBLEDON, England -- Loser. The label stuck to Gabriela Sabatini, this one-time teen-age phenom who couldn't make the transition to adult star.

She had all the tennis shots that any woman would want, an elegant backhand made to slice and spin, a flinty forehand filled with power, and a twisting serve that made opponents dance to her beat. But her game creaked and cracked before the finals, sending her home to Buenos Aires in tears.

"I always believed I could get better," she said.

So she went out and got a new coach, a new style and a new label. The loser is now a winner.

When they set the perfect table for this women's breakfast at Wimbledon today, Sabatini will take her place opposite Steffi Graf. It is the inevitable final, a struggle that blends contradiction with possibility.

Graf brings all the major weapons and all the baggage. She has the punishing serve and the bracing forehand, but she also has been battling her personal demons, trying to find joy on the court while her family's private life lies exposed in the tabloids. She was greeted at Wimbledon by her father's public confession that he had an affair last year with a topless model.

Graf has sprinted through six matches, stopping just long enough to curtsy before the royals. At 19 she won all the major titles. Three years later, she talks of retirement. There is nothing left for her to prove on the court.

"I think if I have to prove anything, then it's only to be myself, nobody else," said Graf, the two-time Wimbledon champion.

Sabatini brings the elegance to Wimbledon. At 21, she is the game's preeminent all-court player, a performer who plays seamless points. By adding the volley, she has shed past perceptions.

When she came on to the tour in 1985 at the age of 15, she was a curiosity, a long-legged Argentine whose beauty transcended the game. She was strictly a base-liner, capable of standing still in long tortuous rallies, slamming topspin shots straight to her opponent.

Her looks and her playing style made her a millionaire before her 17th birthday. But what she craved was a championship, to be taken seriously as a player.

A week before last year's Wimbledon, Sabatini's baseline game was deteriorating. Her long-time collaboration with coach Angel Gimenez was growing stale. Instead of sticking with the same old style, she hired a new coach, Carlos Kirmayr, who transformed her almost overnight into a serve-and-volley specialist. She succeeded almost immediately, reaching the semifinals at Wimbledon before losing to Martina Navratilova.

"The first thing I noticed about Gaby were her hands," said Kirmayr, a former Davis Cup player from Brazil. "She had soft hands. Hands that could help her volley."

Two months after Wimbledon, Sabatini had her career breakthrough. It came at the 1990 U.S. Open final in front of mob on a hot, sultry New York afternoon. Sabatini stood ominously at the net and dared Graf to pass. It was a tactic that shocked the crowd and stunned Graf. And after two terrific sets, Sabatini was finally crowned a champion.

"Everything came out of me that day," Sabatini said. "I knew I could do it."

The victory marked a turning point for both players. Sabatini has won their past five matches, dropping only two sets. Graf, normally perfect on the court, now unravels at the sight of Sabatini.

"Steffi should win the tournament," 1990 finalist Zina Garrison said. "But you never know. She has that mental thing about playing Gaby now."

Sabatini, long the most popular women's player at Wimbledon, is clearly comfortable with her style and stardom this summer. She has been flawless, winning six matches without dropping a set. She steadied her nerves in the semifinals, dismissing 15-year-old Jennifer Capriati.

She wades nonchalantly through the crowds and smiles as she reaches the court. For her, the first middle-Sunday at Wimbledon was a celebration. It was the day Centre Court was opened to the masses, and they came to cheer Sabatini. When she took off her warm-up jacket, she was greeted by whistles. A smile crossed her face.

"I love the crowd like this," she said.

Today, in her first Wimbledon final, she will be embraced by the Centre Court crowd. Her plan is to attack and take a title, to display her heart while playing her game . Perceptions and labels change. The loser is now a winner.

"I think at this moment I'm playing good tennis," Sabatini said. "I'm pretty confident mentally and it's going to be a tough match."

Finalists head-to-head

Career head-to-head records for the women's championship at Wimbledon (seedings in parentheses):

Steffi Graf (1), Germany, vs. Gabriela Sabatini (2), Argentina

TH (Graf leads career series, 20-9, but is 2-6 since the start of 1990)

1990 -- U.S. Open, Hard, F, Sabatini 6-2, 7-6.

1990 -- European Indoors, Indoors, F, Graf 6-3, 6-2.

1990 -- Virginia Slims-New England, Indoors, F, Graf 7-6, 6-3.

1990 -- Virginia Slims Championships, Indoors, SF, Sabatini 6-4, 6-4.

1991 -- Pan Pacific, Indoors, QF, Sabatini 4-6, 6-4, 7-6.

1991 -- Virginia Slims-Florida, Hard, F, Sabatini 6-4, 7-6.

1991 -- Lipton Championships, Hard, SF, Sabatini 0-6, 7-6, 6-1.

1991 -- Bausch & Lomb, Clay, F, Sabatini 7-5, 7-6.

Road to the finals

Steffi Graf (1)

1st rounddef. Sabine Appelmans, 6-2, 6-2.

2nd rounddef. Peanut Louie Harper, 6-0, 6-1.

3rd rounddef. Yayuk Basuki, 6-2, 6-3.

4th rounddef. Amy Frazier (14), 6-2, 6-1.

Quarterfinalsdef. Zina Garrison (7), 6-1, 6-3.

Semifinalsdef. Mary Joe Fernandez (5), 6-2, 6-4.

% Gabriela Sabatini (2)

1st rounddef. Monique Javer, 6-4, 6-0.

2nd rounddef. Karine Quentrec, 6-4, 6-2.

3rd rounddef. Andrea Strnadova, 6-1, 6-3.

4th rounddef. Nathalie Tauziat (11), 7-6 (7-3), 6-3.

Quarterfinalsdef. Laura Gildemeister, 6-2, 6-1.

Semifinalsdef. Jennifer Capriati (9), 6-4, 6-4.

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