Shortly before 2 p.m. today, the U.S. Tennis Association had a problem. Because of two one-sided matches on the stadium court, what had been planned as the featured late afternoon match between Jimmy Connors and Henri Leconte was suddenly next up.
Too soon, said CBS-TV, which pays big dollars to televise the tournament. Because of pro football, CBS didn't show tennis until 4 p.m. The USTA could not leave the stadium empty for two hours.
The solution? Gabriela Sabatini. Remember the name. Sabatini is 14. She has the face of an angel and the ground strokes of a young Chris Evert. She lost in her sudden stadium court debut, 6-4, 6-4, to Helena Sukova, but won the crowd with her grace and her grit, fighting off four match points before losing to the 18th-ranked player in the world.
"She is certainly impressive," said Sukova, who had never seen Sabatini before today. "When she hits that backhand, whoosh, it's something."
Those who follow tennis first noticed that Sabatini was something this spring when she won the French Open junior championship. Sabatini is from Buenos Aires, and her style and dark good looks have evoked memories of three-time Wimbledon champion Maria Bueno, the last great South American female player.
"When I first saw her, I thought this was someone very special, a talent like I had never seen before," said Patricio Apey, her coach. "For someone so young to do so much, it was unbelievable."
This is Sabatini's first tournament as a professional, and in getting to the third round, she became the youngest player ever to win a match in the Open. If the crowd did not know who she was when she walked onto the court, it will certainly remember her in the future.
At 5 feet 5 and 110 pounds, she looked tiny next to the 6-1, 140-pound Sukova. "I had to take the net on her whenever I could," Sukova said. "Her ground strokes are too good."
Sukova's size and experience were just a little too much for Sabatini to handle. But Sabatini certainly didn't make it easy. She ran down balls that looked like winners all day, daringly went for the corners whenever she could and hit four clean winners on Sukova's first four match points.
"I like playing from behind," she said, her smile lighting her brown eyes and the entire room. "When I am behind, I take risks and just try to come back."
Standing at the base line in a striped shirt and white tennis shorts, with an oversized Prince racket in her hands, Sabatini looked like a child who had wandered onto the court. She has dark hair, brown eyes that sparkle when she laughs and classic Mediterranean looks.
Sabatini began playing tennis seven years ago when her father, a General Motors executive in Buenos Aires, joined a local tennis club. "While my parents played I just picked up a racket and hit against a wall for hours," Sabatini said. "I loved it."
It wasn't long before she was hitting, quite successfully, against other girls. In February 1983, visiting the Banana Bowl, Argentina's biggest junior tournament, Apey was stunned by the sight of Sabatini whipping forehand and backhands past older, stronger opponents.
"I said I must work with her," said Apey, a native of Chile who now lives and coaches in Key Biscayne, Fla. He persuaded the family to let Sabatini come to Florida to work with him and she began accumulating juniors victories. Now, he believes, she is more than ready to play against adults.
Sabatini's potential is indisputable. Already, ProServ, Donald Dell's management group, has jumped to sign her, looking for the next young woman player who will replace their injured idol, Tracy Austin. She will break into the computer rankings for the first time after this tournament, probably landing somewhere in the 50s after her showing here.
Like most young female players, Sabatini plays the base line. Her serve and net game still have a long way to go. But she says the player she would like to model herself after is Martina Navratilova, the ultimate female power player. If she continues to grow, she can become that style of player.
Still, Sabatini's tennis hero is Guillermo Vilas, the Argentinian who has won here and at the French Open. "I admire him because he made the sacrifices to become a great player," Sabatini said. "And, because he is a fighter."
That spirit was evident today as Sabatini kept fighting Sukova off until her opponent finally slammed an ace out of reach to end the match. "That was the only way for me to finally get her out," Sukova said. "It was not easy."
Playing in the 20,000-seat stadium -- which she had not expected -- unnerved Sabatini a little at first, but as the crowd warmed to her, she began to enjoy the stage.
"After the first few games I liked it," she said. "I had never seen a stadium that big or so many people but I think I liked it. I would like to do it again."
Without question she will do it again many times the next few years. Already, Bud Collins, the longtime tennis sage of the Boston Globe and NBC, has called her "the future of women's tennis."
Today, though, Sabatini seemed very much the little girl when the show was over.
Asked what she will do with her first pro paycheck -- $6,400 -- she giggled. "I will buy a present for my dog," she said. "It will make him happy."
Today, Gabriela Sabatini made the USTA, CBS and about 18,000 fans very happy. Almost certainly, it will not be the last time.