This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
I've been thinking of a couple of retired athletes I truly admire this week.
Argentina's Gabriela Sabatini, inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame this past weekend, is one. Sabatini was a beauty... dark, brooding, classy... and the first woman from her country ever to win a Grand Slam title, which happened when she took the U.S. Open in 1990 at the age of 20, in innovative fashion to boot, by morphing her game radically from deep behind the baseline to an aggressive serve and volley.
I shared an endearing moment with Gabriela at the Open a few years before her victory there. She was only 15, new to the pro circuit, and very new to English as well. I was doing the live post-match interviews. Not on court but in a small studio built in the tunnel in between the two big spectator courts. Gabriela had won an early-round night match and came into the studio willing to extend the interview for as long as ten minutes, a very long time for a live sports interview. We both spoke slowly, for clarity's sake, and she often asked me to repeat a question, at which point I tried to rephrase it to be clear for her. We talked about the match that night, her next opponent, her early success in winning the credentialed Orange Bowl tournament at 13. Instead of the usual cut-throat signal from the stage manager to wrap it up, he kept giving me the sign to stretch it out. Keep it going. And the producer kept saying in my ear piece that she was wonderful. In the control booth, they felt they could listen to her all night. And there was no pressing match to switch to. We left tennis, talked about traveling the world so young, missing Argentina, and the fact that Paris was the foreign place she so far liked the most. Then I said, "But; what about New York? Here you are at the Open. You must have an impression of this great city by now?"
She pondered that one. She didn't like the Big Apple much. Then her eyes lit up. "Wait;, I know," she said. "Here;, how you say, the paper for the toilet... the best in the world." At that point the producer asked in my ear if we were in fact analyzing New York toilet paper. And we did. She told me how absorbent it was, especially at the good hotels. We started to laugh, that the interview had devolved to such a subject. And every time I've seen Gabriela through the years, we've had a great joke between us, over the toilet-paper interview. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who was disappointed to see her retire so early, at the age of 26. But she when she spoke at her Hall of Fame induction last Saturday, she expressed, in flawless English by the way, that she is quite at peace because she achieved what every tennis player dreams will satisfy a career... . to win one Grand Slam tournament. As the U.S. Open end of summer each year, I think back to Jimmy Connors. And Chris Evert. And Guillermo Vilas. This year I will most fondly remember Gabriela Sabatini.
Also on my mind this week is former star defensive-end Bruce Smith as he made remarks about the value of playing college ball before turning pro. I'm always pushing for athletes to skip college if they want to go straight to the pros. Avoid the injuries, get right to the big money, given that the average life span in the NFL is around four years and that a huge number of college football players are earning sham degrees while they virtually play professional ball on their various campuses. But I don't think I've ever heard an athlete speak so convincingly on the merits of playing in college as Smith did this week. He said he sorely needed that first time on his own to mature, to learn responsibility, to manage his time on his own. It was during his college years that he went from boy to man. He made adult decisions. Bruce Smith sacked his way through 19 years in the pros. And he says he never would have enjoyed his long-term success without his years at Virginia Tech. My respect for Bruce Smith and the way he played the game runs so deep that he's the first one who's going to prompt me to reconsider my position on the college experience.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.