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TENNIS / LIPTON CHAMPIONSHIPS : Sabatini Leads, 6-1, 5-1 . . . but Loses


KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. — No matter their allegiance, few tennis fans can take pleasure in the agonizing public disintegration that so often defines Gabriela Sabatini in a key match.

In Thursday's semifinals of the Lipton Championships, Sabatini's ugly habit returned at the worst possible moment. The world's No. 7-ranked player had ridden over Japan's Kimiko Date, 6-1 in the first set, held a 5-1 lead in the second and was serving.

With a match that well in hand, many players would have begun the mental exercise of picking out their outfit for the final. Sabatini chose instead to evaporate, along with her lead. The outcome was an improbable 1-6, 7-6 (7-2), 7-6 (7-4) victory for Date and another disheartening fold for Sabatini.

In Saturday's final, Date will meet defending champion Steffi Graf, who defeated Jana Novotna, 6-2, 7-5.

On the men's side, Pete Sampras beat Andrei Medvedev, 6-1, 6-7 (7-5), 6-4, and Jonas Bjorkman downed Mats Wilander, 6-2, 1-6, 7-5, in quarterfinal matches.

The Sabatini-Date semifinal was unpleasant and unsatisfying. Neither player was particularly accurate: Date made 79 unforced errors, Sabatini 69. Nine of the first 10 service games in the third set were broken. Sabatini committed 18 double faults, not an uncommonly high number for her but deadly in this 3-hour 5-minute match.

Date was bothered by a sore rotator cuff in her right shoulder, but any potential advantage for Sabatini was negated by her own sore elbow and--as the match progressed in the late afternoon heat at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park--her lack of fitness.

In the past, Sabatini's weaknesses have usually been more than offset by her ample athletic gifts. Yet even at 24, some of her skills are retreating, and her self-confidence is deteriorating.

Sabatini's arsenal of graceful and fluid strokes has been well noted. Her sweeping backhand is an elegant stroke, but can not sustain her alone. Too often Sabatini's creativity seemingly has been employed to devise new strategies to get herself into trouble during matches. She has an almost uncanny knack for extracting disaster from what should be routine victory.

Sabatini is now on the run from her reputation, yet she continues to construct scenarios that evoke her spectacular collapse against Mary Joe Fernandez in the quarterfinals of the 1993 French Open.

Thursday's situation was nearly identical to that match, when Sabatini was up a set and leading, 5-1, in the second. Fernandez won the second set in a tiebreaker and, despite facing match point five times, won the third set, 10-8. (The final set was played out with no tiebreaker).

That loss, coming as is it did in the crucible of a Grand Slam event, was thought to have had a profoundly dispiriting affect on Sabatini. After that, while her top-10 ranking withstood the frequent on-court disappointments, Sabatini's immense likability and charm seemed to divert attention from the failed promise of her career.

Sabatini was gracious if subdued after the match and rejected any notion that this loss would linger in her psyche as the loss in Paris did. "The match is over, I have forgotten it," she said unconvincingly.

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