Former tennis player Gabriela Sabatini first savoured the Olympic experience early in her storied career, representing Argentina when her sport made its official return to the Olympic Games programme at Seoul in 1988.
Aged just 18 at the time, Sabatini won silver after losing 6-3 6-3 to Steffi Graf in the women’s singles final, this just a matter of days after also going down to the German in that year’s US Open final. Despite failing to secure gold, she has fond memories of her time in Seoul, where, as one of Argentina’s most prominent sportspeople of the time, she carried the nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony.
“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “I never thought I would feel so much energy. Living with the rest of the athletes, from your country and from around the world, you get to know a lot of people, and it was fun. It was great to go and watch other sports and your compatriots too, and I left the Olympics with so much energy that I never had before.
“It was so different for me, because the only other time I represented my country was in the Fed Cup. Being the flagbearer was particularly special for me. It was a moment I will never forget. It was spectacular to have all the athletes behind me and to carry the flag in the stadium. It’s an experience for us tennis players. We always appreciate what surrounds the sport itself, but the spirit that you experience at the Olympics is unforgettable.”
Though the first official Olympic tennis tournament in 64 years didn’t end with a win for the Argentinian, she treasures the medal she collected: “I wanted to win the gold. You feel that your flag is there, and you want to do your best to win it. I didn’t feel any pressure just because I was representing my country, but I badly wanted to win.
“When I lost to Steffi I was not in a good mood. You could tell by my face that I was sad, angry. But over time I realised that it was still something special and I was still able to bring the silver medal home. I keep it in a very special place in my house, on display.”
Sabatini had her revenge over Graf at the US Open final in 1990, beating the German in straight sets to win her one and only Grand Slam singles title. A runner-up to Graf again at Wimbledon in 1991, the Argentinian also won two WTA Tour Championships and climbed to as high as 3 in the Tour rankings, in February 1989.
That success was founded on her dedication to her sport, which she took up at the age of six. “I remember the first time I touched a racket; it was love at first sight,” recalls Sabatini, a naturally gifted player who was famed for her one-handed backhand. “I couldn’t put it down. I would play on the court, if I could find someone to play with, and then I would go and play against the wall at the club.
“My parents would go off for a coffee and I would there hitting the ball against the wall. I’d do that all day and then carry on when I got home, hitting the ball against a wall in the yard. I was really sick about tennis. I couldn’t think about anything else.”
So devoted was Sabatini to the sport that she recalls not having much time for anything else, including watching the Olympic Games, which in any case received only partial coverage on Argentinian TV at the time. So when she arrived at the Olympic Village in Seoul, she was a little taken aback to discover what the Olympics were all about and that she was a bona fide celebrity.
“I remember going into the canteen, with all these athletes there, and people were coming up to me and asking for a picture,” she says. “The same thing happened at the Opening Ceremony before the parade. We were waiting outside the stadium with the flag, and athletes were coming up and having their picture taken with me. I was surprised, because you don’t really realise how famous you are in other countries and with people from other sports. All in all, it was so nice to play in the Olympics, and it’s such a different experience to the events on the Tour.”
Sabatini also appeared at Atlanta in 1996, where she lost in the third round to Monica Seles, just months before she retired from competitive tennis at the age of only 26. Summing up the importance of competing on the Olympic stage as a tennis player, she says: “It’s not to be missed. I think it’s where you value what sport means the most. It’s where you really get to see that. I valued it. I worked for years and sacrificed things for a moment like that. It’s sport in its purest form.
“Everyone who’s been at the Olympics tells you that it’s changed their lives. You only have to look at Juan Martin del Potro, when he played Andy Murray in the Rio 2016 final. That was a before-and-after moment in his career.”
A firm believer in the transformative power of sport and the Olympic Games in particular, Sabatini will be playing her part at the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018, as a tennis role model alongside fellow Argentinian David Nalbandian. The former world No. 3 is thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to the world’s young athletes and share her experiences with them, and is also looking forward to seeing the YOG come to her home city.
“It’s going to be great for the city, because they’re going to use the apartments after the YOG for people to live in. It’s a huge development and it’s going to help that area a lot. To have the YOG there is going to be amazing. I can’t remember the last time we had something that big in Buenos Aires.
“It’s going to be very positive exposure for the city, because thousands of people will be coming. It’s important for Argentina for people to come and see the city. I’m very excited about it, and I think people are going to appreciate it and get excited too.”
An International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, she is committed to good causes. Formerly a Special Olympics ambassador, she remains a keen supporter of an Argentinian breast cancer charity.
These days, she is just as likely to be riding a bike as playing tennis. And that is how she spent Olympic Day, cycling in the mountains of Switzerland, reflecting on the importance of the Olympic Games in her own career, and in the careers of the young athletes she will shortly be engaging with in Buenos Aires.