She had won her match in straight sets to reach the fourth round of the French Open. She had sat through a news conference, answering questions posed in three languages. She had sat for another 30 minutes answering more questions. Finally, she had posed for publicity pictures, holding up various logos as the photographer snapped away.
"Now," said her coach, Patricio Apey, "she needs some time to go and be a little girl."
The moments when Gabriela Sabatini can be a little girl are increasingly rare. It is easy to forget, watching her on a tennis court, that she is two weeks past her 15th birthday.
In women's tennis, little girls winning big matches has become the norm. Chris Evert Lloyd started the trend when she reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open in 1971 when she was 16. Since then, Tracy Austin, Pam Shriver, Andrea Jaeger, Kathleen Horvath, Kathy Rinaldi and Andrea Temesvari have made splashes long before they were ready for proms.
Austin, Jaeger, Horvath and Rinaldi all were like Evert, little girls who stood back and hit one ground stroke after another. Shriver and Temesvari both play more serve-and-volley, but neither has yet lived up to what were once great expectations.
Now, there is Sabatini. She has ground strokes and she can serve and volley. She is 5-8, weighs 121 pounds and is a natural athlete. Quietly, tennis people are saying she could be the player who combines the elegance and grace of Evert with the athletic ability of Martina Navratilova.
Among the women on tour, the whispers are a little different. "There's been a lot of hype around her," said Anne White after losing to Sabatini in the third round here. "Let's see what happens to her in the next few years. Right now, I'd say she's eminently beatable. I let her off the hook today. She's very good -- for 15. The question is, how good will she be at 18 or 19?"
Navratilova, more sympathetic, worries about history repeating itself with Sabatini. "It seems as if once the media decides it likes you, you're it," she said. "The hype with Gabriela may be good for women's tennis but I'm not sure it's good for her. The comparisons people make can be a terrible burden, especially for one so young."
Sabatini is too young to understand words like burnout and burden. "Right now all I want to worry about is now," she said. "I'm happy with what I'm doing. I'm not worried about the future."
It is the past that concerns tennis people when they talk about Sabatini. They remember Austin winning the U.S. Open at 16, unable to play at 20. Horvath qualifying for the Open at 14, plagued by injuries at 18. Jaeger, ranked No. 2 in the world at 16, a burnout at 19. Temesvari, ranked No. 7 at 17, losing first-round matches at 19 even as her father was saying this week that he never should have taken his daughter out of high school.
"We are aware of all those things," said Apey, a former Chilean Davis Cup player who discovered Sabatini two years ago during a tournament in Buenos Aires. "One of my jobs is to protect her. I want her to be with friends her own age whenever possible.
"When she discovers boys, which will be soon, that too can be a problem. But I think in the end, none of it will matter. She plays better at 15 than anyone ever has. She is going to be a champion."
She also is going to be wealthy. Last summer, when Sabatini started winning matches against pros, Apey brought her to the attention of Dick Dell, younger brother of Donald Dell. The Dells run ProServ, tennis' master image-making firm. Sabatini signed with ProServ prior to the U.S. Open, in fact, prior to actually turning pro.
Now, whenever Sabatini, a true beauty with dark brown hair and shimmering brown eyes, plays in a major tournament, two people are certain to be present: Apey and Dick Dell. "Our job with Gabby is to make sure we don't get in the way of her becoming the No. 1 tennis player in the world," Dell said. "We've had offers from modeling agencies for her but we aren't trying to make her a model right now. We aren't looking for 15 little deals, we're looking for a couple of big, long-term deals."
With or without the deals, Sabatini will attract attention. She was first noticed at the U.S. Open in New York last September, then opened more eyes in April when she defeated sixth-ranked Shriver and fourth-ranked Manuela Maleeva at the Family Circle Cup on Hilton Head Island, S.C., before losing the nationally televised final to Evert.
After that match Evert, in her own polite way, took note of the raves about Sabatini and commented, much like White did here, that the real test would come for Sabatini in four or five years.
"If I had to pick two players who have a chance to be No. 1 from the young ones right now, they would be Gabby and (15-year-old West German) Steffi Graf," Evert said today. "I think Gabby's gotten more attention partly because of that final on TV at Hilton Head even though Steffi has more experience.
"Right now, I think Steffi probably wants it a little more. I see that in her eyes. But Gabby may have more natural talent."
Apey took Evert's comments as a compliment. "She was a little bit defensive," he said. "For Gabriela, that is a compliment."
For her part, Sabatini has no interest in comparing herself to anyone. She began playing at age 7 when her father and brother took her with them when they went to play and she began batting balls off a nearby wall.
She came into this tournament already ranked No. 17 in the world and will go up because of her play here. She has quit school and, when she isn't playing tournaments, splits time between her home in Buenos Aires (her father, Osvaldo, works for General Motors) and Apey's headquarters in Coral Gables, Fla. Some days she is on the court for nine hours. She admits she gets homesick sometimes but says it isn't a problem.
Apey insists she can return to school later. Sabatini's parents are here and her best friend is her doubles partner, 18-year-old Mercedes Paz. Dell describes Paz as "her big sister, almost her second mother."
According to Apey, all this will keep Sabatini surrounded by people who love her, adults and peers, and keep her from falling prey to the pressures and strains of the women's tour.
Navratilova, who favors a proposal before the International Tennis Federation that would prevent women from playing full time on tour until age 16, thinks it is too soon to judge Sabatini.
"I think Austin and Jaeger were as good, if not better, at 15," she said. "But Sabatini's game is different than theirs. They were more like Chris. I just hope she can handle it all. Others haven't been able to."
So far, Sabatini has handled everything here. She handled the aggressive White, a one-time top 20 player who came back after Sabatini had played a near-perfect first set to force a tie breaker in the second before losing. She handled Rosalyn Fairbank, even after being called back to the court when an umpire reversed a call on match point.
From here, Sabatini will play on grass for the first time in Britain and then will play Wimbledon. There, the media pressure will be colossal.
"It is a concern for us," Apey said. "After about 30 minutes, she gets impatient." For Apey, for Dell, for Sabatini, there are many moments ahead that will try their patience and test whether the little girl can grow gracefully into a woman in a world in which others have failed.
"I'm very happy now," Sabatini said. "I'm doing exactly what I want to do."