Monday, November 8, 2010

Rehe Captures Florida Federal Open, 11/10/85

Organizers of the Florida Federal Tennis Open knew they were going to have a challenge marketing the event in 1985.

Some of the biggest names in women’s tennis had all politely declined to enter the tournament. Martina Navratilova – winner of the 1983 Florida Federal – skipped the 1984 event and had no intention of returning in 1985. Other top-ranked women skipping the tournament were Pam Shriver, Hana Mandlikova, Claudia Kohde-Kilsch, Zina Garrison, Helena Sukova, and Manuela Maleeva.

A rising star on the women’s tour, 16-year-old German Steffi Graf, likewise withdrew prior to the start of the tournament.

Then, just a week before the tournament began, the last of the dominoes fell: Chris Evert Lloyd. The winner of 18 Grand Slam events withdrew from the tournament in Largo due to a knee injury and the demands of a heavy travel schedule.

“I’m disappointed,” tournament co-director Barry Siegel said. “I certainly won’t lie about it.”

Still, Siegel and others had reasons to be enthusiastic about the upcoming tournament. Being held for the first time at the Bardmoor Country Club in Largo, the tournament lineup may not have been big on star-power, but it was loaded with fresh talent.

“It’s a good field,” Siegel said. “The best way to describe the field is that these are the top players of the future of women’s tennis.”

Among these in the field were Largo’s own Bonnie Gadusek, the tournament’s top seed and the 10th ranked player in the world. Michelle Torres, the winner of the 1984 Florida Federal Open, returned to defend her title, and Kathy Rinaldi, who in August beat Graf to capture the A&P Tennis Classic championship in Mahawh, New Jersey, was the 11th ranked player in the world and one of the top young players in the game.

Carling Bassett, a finalist the previous year, returned to the tournament, and a promising pair of 14-year-olds -- Gabriela Sabatini and Mary Jo Fernandez – were each considered rising stars.

First-round play opened on November 4, as the top-seeded Gadusek earned a 6-3, 6-3 victory over Caroline Kuhlman. Seventh-seeded Terry Phelps ousted Gabriella Mosca, a 15-year-old Argentinian who took Chris Evert Lloyd’s place in the draw. It took Phelps only 38 minutes to overwhelm Mosca, who only won two points the entire second set. Pam Casale, one of the fiercest competitors on the tour, made quick work of the up-and-coming Fernandez, 6-2, 6-3.
While Bassett and Sabatini both won their first round matches, two other top seeds were not so lucky.

Gadusek, the No. 1 seed, suffered a humiliating defeat to Lisa Bonder, 3-6, 6-1, 6-1. Gadusek credited her problems to effect of the damp weather on her strings.

“My strings were getting loose because of the dampness and humidity,” she said. “I lost feeling in the ball and I didn’t get it back.”

Bonder, for her part, almost didn’t finish the match.

“I was nervous and cold, and I think I ate too many raisins," she said. “I almost died right there on the court.”

Rinaldi, the No. 2 seed, never even set foot on the court, as she withdrew due to a severe case of tonsillitis. Her last-minute replacement, Amy Holton of Sarasota, went down 6-1, 6-1 to the defending champion Torres.

Sabatini, Bassett, Torres and Casale all breezed through the second round to set up some interesting quarterfinals match-ups.

Casale fell to the No. 3 seed Sabatini 6-0, 6-1, in a 52-minute match, and Bassett took care of unseeded Grace Kim, 6-2, 7-5. The Lisa Bonder-Ann White match, however, proved to be one of the more interesting matches in the tournament.

Bonder accused White, who won the match 6-2, 6-4, of using intimidation tactics during a let-call at 2-2 of the first set. White argued for two minutes that there was no let on her serve. The delay seemingly zapped Bonder’s focus.

“Anne’s very intimidating,” she said. “She gave me some mean stares and she growled. The whole thing was intimidating.”

An exhausted Michelle Torres – who the day before needed three hours to get past her opponent – fell meekly to Stephanie Rehe, 6-1, 6-2.

In the semis, Rehe continued her winning ways with a gutsy 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Bassett. The 16-year-old Rehe, who turned pro just two months earlier, wrestled the match away from Bassett by overcoming nine game-points trailing 2-1 in the third set. The game lasted 22 minutes and took 32 points to settle, ending when Bassett pushed a volley long.
Sabatini cruised into the finals with a 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of White.

“I was embarrassingly bad today,” White said. “When things go bad, they go really bad.”

Although the crowd may have preferred seeing Sabatini play her doubles partner Bassett in the finals, Rehe’s victory set up an extremely compelling final between two players who had just turned pro in 1985. The two delivered a thrilling finale to the tournament in front of a crowd of 5,176.

Trailing the 12th ranked player in the world by a score of 4-2 in the third set, Rehe rallied to win three straight games and held on to capture the match 6-4, 6-7, 7-5. Sabatini admitted to playing nervous, and it showed, as she sprayed an uncharacteristic 48 unforced errors.

Despite the lack of “big name” talent, the tournament proved to be a resounding success. Nearly 26,000 people attended the tournament, 5,000 more than had attended the previous year at the Innisbrook Resort.

As for Rehe and Sabatini, what could have been the start of a great rivalry never materialized. Although Rehe climbed to as high as No. 10 in the world by 1989, a serious back injury put her on the shelf for a year, and just eight years after her victory in Largo, she would be out of the game permanently.

Sabatini, on the other hand, became one of the best players of her generation. The winner of the 1990 U.S. Open, Sabatini earned induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2006.

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