Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini are seemingly linked by their closeness in age, their relative closeness in ranking, and now, by a successful doubles partnership. Some like to call Graf and Sabatini rivals, which is surely a premature tag, because the series between the two is so one-sided.
You see, Sabatini is 0-for-lifetime against Graf. She's come close--pushing Graf to three sets in seven of their nine meetings and even held two match points on one occasion.
So, what we have here is an updated version of Billie Jean King and Rosie Casals, 1980s style.
King and Casals were frequent doubles partners. They played frequently, and King almost always won every important match against Casals.
There are two differences with the 18-year-old Graf and her lady-in-waiting, Sabatini. Unlike King and Casals, who tried to beat each other to the net, these two spend their time pounding ground strokes from the base line.
And, Graf, despite some less-than-spectacular outings, has never allowed Sabatini to sneak away with one single victory.
"It's difficult to say why," Graf said. "Every match is a little bit different than the last one. Every time usually when I was down, I always got out of it. I started to play better when it's important."
A prime example:
The 1986 U.S. Clay Court championship final at Indianapolis. Sabatini had never played better, hitting her backhand for outright winners to neutralize Graf's weapon, the forehand. Sabatini was one point away from victory at 6-2, 5-3.
At match point, Graf hit a forehand service return winner. Later, on Sabatini's match point No. 2, Graf stepped around to hit an inside-out forehand winner.
Those two points basically tell the tale of Sabatini's plight.
"I think it's important to beat her (someday), but I have lots of time to play against her because we're both young," said Sabatini, who turned 17 in May.
But as the victories keep stacking up--the latest came two weeks ago as Graf defeated Sabatini, 6-4, 6-4, in Federation Cup--it's only going to get more difficult. Graf, at No. 2 in the world, is quickly closing in on No. 1 and Martina Navratilova. Sabatini, meanwhile, at No. 8 is striving to break into the top five.
Even their second-round matches on Tuesday in the Virginia Slims of Los Angeles at the Manhattan Country Club helped demonstrate the different levels that Graf and Sabatini currently occupy.
Graf served 10 aces in her 6-3, 6-2 victory over American Terry Phelps in 53 minutes. Sabatini, on the other hand, rallied from a 1-3 second-set deficit against France's Nathalie Tauziat to win, 7-5, 6-4, in 1 hour and 33 minutes.
Said Phelps: "It seemed like she (Graf) was getting two aces every game. She follows through, she never hesitates. . . . She's so much better than most people. I was bummed when I saw her name so close to mine in the draw."
Tauziat, ranked 32nd, felt she started rushing her shots after taking a 3-1 lead in the second set. A year ago, Sabatini might have been forced to go three sets with a player like Tauziat. Then, though, her stamina was a question mark. Players like Graf and Chris Evert could almost count on Sabatini to fade in the latter stages.
Sabatini had reached a crossroad of sorts last winter. She worked with Patricio Apey since her early junior days and felt a change was needed to help her game progress.
She met and worked out with Chilean Angel Gimenez last February in San Francisco and decided to try a temporary working relationship. They reached a full-time agreement at Hilton Head, S.C., in April.
Since then, Sabatini has reached one final, three semifinals and one quarterfinal. During that stretch, she also defeated Navratilova for the first time, at the Italian Open.
"Not only has my stamina improved, but my serve has gotten better and I'm going more to the net," Sabatini said. "And I'm concentrating better."
Gimenez feels that difference between Graf and Sabatini in their close matches has been a matter of confidence, and a little luck.
"In the moments where it's being resolved, she (Steffi) takes the risk and she makes it," Gimenez said. "She's to the point where she has a lot of confidence."
Ted Tinling, longtime observer of women's tennis and a Virginia Slims liaison, has his own opinion.
"I don't want to sound too nationalistic, but in my heart, I think Germans are tougher than Argentinians," he said, smiling, but serious. "Boris (Becker) and Steffi are at their most dangerous when they are challenged. They'll come out charging when they're down 30-40."
Evert, the No. 3-seeded player, made her first appearance in the featured evening match, and was able to capitalize on Robin White's inconsistent play, winning the second-round match, 6-0, 7-5.
In the third round, Evert will play the winner of today's match between Jana Novotna and Kate Gompert. Evert and Navratilova are in the same half of the draw, scheduled to meet in the semifinals. Graf and No. 4-seeded Hana Mandlikova are in the other half.