Nov. 18, 1990: Seles edges Sabatini in first women's 5-setter since 1901!


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Nov. 18, 1990: Seles edges Sabatini in first women's 5-setter since 1901!

Between 1984-1998, WTA Finals had a unique feature and it required the very best from all the competitors in order to win the last and one of the most important titles of the season, with the final being played in the best-of-five format! In the first 7 editions, finals were wrapped up in 3 or 4 sets, and tennis crowd had to wait until 1990 to finally see women's 5-setter, for the first time since 1901 when Elisabeth Moore made a stunning comeback against Marion Jones in the final of the US Open, prevailing by 4-6 1-6 9-7 9-7 6-3.

89 years later, 16-year-old Monica Seles advanced to the final in only her second WTA Finals appearances, and she defeated 1988 champion Gabriela Sabatini by 6–4 5–7 3–6 6–4 6–2 to write tennis history as the youngest winner of this event.

Super talented Serb born in Novi Sad became a force to be reckoned with that season, She won 54 out of 60 matches she played, conquering Rome, Roland Garros, and WTA Finals among 9 titles overall and finishing the season ranked 2nd.

Nonetheless, she had to give her best to oust Sabatini on November 18 at the Virginia Slims Championships at Madison Square Garden, needing 3 hours and 47 minutes to finally bring the match home and lift the trophy that rounds off her amazing season at such a young age.

It was an impressive encounter between two young girls who just won their first Majors earlier in the season, and it was a battle of contrast and different styles, that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats for almost 4 hours.

Sets and time were passing by but they both just refused to surrender, giving their best not to think about the physical exhaustion and setting their eyes on that trophy. Monica drew first blood in game 3 with a return winner but Sabatini pulled the break back immediately in game 4 with a forehand down the line winner.

Seles gained the lead once again after a double fault from Sabatini in game 7 and this time she materialized it to move 5-3 in front. In the 8th game, Gabriela had to work hard to earn the game and stay in the set, holding after 8 deuces and 2 set points she gave to Monica, and the teenager had to serve for the opener in the following game.

She did that in style, with a drive volley winner, clinching the opener by 6-4 and taking the first leg of this marathon duel. Carried by this momentum, Monica broke at the start of the second set after another long game, placing a return winner far away from Sabatini's reach to seize full control over the match.

Nonetheless, Gabriela recovered her game and she was back on the level terms with a break in game 6, thanks to another good net approach, but she got broken again in game 9, allowing Seles to serve for the second set. Gabriela broke back in the last moment, delivering another classy volley to level the score at 5-5 and prolong the set that she really had to win if she wanted to stay in contention.

The Argentine held at love in game 11 and she forced an error from Monica in the 12th game to notch her second straight break and the set by 7-5. Seles couldn't convert a break point in the third game of the third set and Sabatini fends off another one with a smash winner in game 7 to keep her serve intact.

Monica missed her chances to gain the lead but Sabatini didn't, breaking in game 8 with another slice approach and a good volley, taking a 5-3 advantage and serving for the set in the next game. She wrapped it up with an ace and out of sudden she was the favorite to bring the win home, moving just a set away from the title.

With no room for errors, Monica saved 2 break points at the start of the 4th set, which was very important for her confidence, and she broke in game 2 with a cracking forehand down the line winner. Sabatini didn't stay behind for too long, breaking back in game 5 after a massive error from young Yugoslav, but she fell behind again after dropping serve in game 8, sending the forehand long to give Monica a 5-3 lead.

Seles had everything in her hands but it wasn't to be for her in that game, as Sabatini broke back to reduce the deficit to 5-4, and she was now the favorite again to close the match in 4 sets. Almost nothing could separate the rivals at that point, with 146 points for Sabatini and 145 for Seles, but it was Monica who grabbed the impulse after breaking her opponent in game 10 (double fault from Sabatini) to clinch the set by 6-4 and force a decider, the first 5th set in women's tennis in 89 years! Both players scored 7 beaks so far and Gabriela was in the position to catch another one in game 2, only to be denied by Seles, who closed the game with an easy winner right after the serve to make the result even at 1-1.

She saved more energy for the last part of the match and Sabatini failed to follow that pace, getting broken in game 4 after netting a forehand, and that shot marked the beginning of her downfall. Monica held at love in game 5 to jump into a 4-1 lead, and a service winner pushed her 5-2 up, with Sabatini serving to stay in the match.

The Argentine had nothing more left in the tank and she lost serve again, Seles completed an amazing win with a cross court forehand winner to end a remarkable season in the best possible way and send a clear sign to her rivals that we would come back for more in 1991.

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