Monica Seles and Gabriela Sabatini were fierce rivals and good friends during their runs atop the women's tennis world more than two decades ago. They last met in a competitive match in 1996.
Now peacefully retired, they return to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday to relive a part of tennis history. Their match, as part of the BNP Paribas Showdown, can awake the echoes of November 1990, when they played the first women's five-set final in the modern era of the game, Seles defeating Sabatini in the fifth set of the WTA Tour Championship (remember the Virginia Slims?) in a grueling 3 hours, 47 minutes.
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Neither of them can ever forget it, nor forget the energy that flowed to them when they played in New York, either at the Garden or in the U.S. Open at the National Tennis Center.
"I always remember how exciting it was. I particularly remember that during the game, I didn't feel tired at all," said Sabatini, now 44, on a conference call. "I think I was so focused and motivated I didn't realize how long the match was lasting. And after the match ended, I was exhausted. I couldn't even walk."
But the New York crowd was behind her. "Playing at Madison Square Garden . . . and playing in New York [where] I won the U.S. Open, it was always very motivating for me. The energy is so special, so unique that you don't feel it anywhere else."
"To me, one of the saddest days of my tennis career, when I look back was when the season-ending championships were moved from Madison Square Garden to Germany," said Seles, 41. "Playing at Madison Square Garden with the fans . . . they just live with you with every single point. There is no feeling like it. When you play at MSG, the fans are really close to you where they are sitting and you feel their energy."
Seles held an 11-3 career mark against Sabatini and was a nine-time major singles champion; Sabatini won two Grand Slam titles and both won U.S. Opens.
Seles extols Sabatini's kindness when she first came on the women's tour, but even more so her stand when Seles returned to tennis in 1995 after she had been stabbed by a crazed fan at a tournament in Hamburg, Germany, in 1993. There was a question whether Seles should return with her No. 1 ranking protected. The WTA board voted against it, but Sabatini abstained.
"Off the court, I always respected her," Seles said. "She was the only player that abstained from voting after my stabbing and that meant a lot to me. I think for me her support just was thinking about a human being before thinking about the dollar amount, sponsorship, ranking point. That just speaks to the tremendous character she has."
"I took my decision based as a human, as a person, trying to put myself in her place," Sabatini said. "I thought in my personal mind, as a human, this is something [I would want to happen] if I was in that position."
Each enjoys a life a far distance from the professional tennis world. No coaching or consulting for them. They did get together recently to play a little in advance of the big night (Roger Federer plays Grigor Dimitrov in the second, best-of three-sets match). But when they take to the Garden floor for an eight-game pro set, they will be rivals again, for maybe an hour.