Pam Austin, 26, says: "When I was 13 all the girls gave me palomino replicas for my birthday. You know, plastic. Everybody was horse crazy, so this was a big deal. I didn't care. It was like giving a can of tennis balls to a girl who hates tennis. Can you imagine my kid sister getting a present of plastic horses? She'd go nuts."
Doug Austin, 22, says, "I was the first one to go natural with the haircut. It was in high school. When the others went for it, my mother said she would just give up. She hated it. But now I guess it's O.K. The kid sister is the only one left with straight hair."
Jeff Austin, 24, says, "Once I was in Germany, playing an exhibition. Karlsruhe, I think it was. I was really impressed with myself, when this little girl came up after the match. I thought she wanted an autograph, but what she really wanted to know was if I was related to the kid sister. The whole thing is getting ridiculous."
George Austin, 54, says, "The cutest thing was when she was nine, and she would beat the best women in the club. Then she would go play in the sandbox."
March 22, 1976
In order to become a phenomenal success as a woman tennis player, it is not really necessary to start out in Southern California by winning the Sandy Beach Two and Unders at the age of eight months in front of your disgustingly fresh and beautifully tanned tennis-playing family of 53 brothers and sisters. Witness our current American champion, Chris Evert, who strayed from this pattern: she started out in Florida.
Still, it certainly helps to have older brothers and sisters who play the game and set standards for you to emulate. And it doesn't hurt if they are willing to hang around at their particular level waiting for you to whip them on the way to championships.
James Scott Connors often acknowledges that a desire to surpass his brother John's efforts on the court was one of his own early inducements. Sibling rivalries have been part of the international tennis scene for years. Currently the Amritraj brothers of India are the best known, but right here at home we have the brothers Mayer of New Jersey, Sandy and Gene, and the Gottfrieds of Florida, Brian and Larry. Then, too, there is Harold Solomon, probably the most improved player in the world this year, whose sister Shelly is ranked No. 1 in the national girls' 12-and-under. The Redondos of National City, Calif., Walter and Marita, and the Louies of San Francisco, Marcie, Mama and Mareen, are youthful members of other families with impressive tennis bloodlines.
But surely the most impressive tennis family of all hails from 26406 Dunwood Road in Rolling Hills Estates, Calif. In just about 10 years the Austins of Rolling Hills have accumulated more than 400 tournament victories in local, state, national and international competition, including a remarkable nine USTA national championships.
Pam, the oldest, is a former member of the U.S. junior Wightman Cup team and was the national hard-court doubles champion in 1968. She played three years on the Virginia Slims tour and two seasons with the Phoenix (née Denver) Racquets of World Team Tennis. At present she is an assistant teaching pro at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Jeff won the Southern California doubles championships in the 14, 16 and 18 age groups. He won the Orange Bowl doubles title with Guillermo Vilas in 1967 and played on the U.S. Junior Davis Cup team for three years. An All-America at UCLA from 1971 to 1973, he was a member of two NCAA championship teams and won the national hard-courts title at Aptos, Calif. after his senior year. He also has played for Denver-Phoenix of WTT and was ranked 26th among USTA men in 1974.
Doug won the Los Angeles Metropolitan boys' championship in 1970 and the California Interscholastic Federation doubles title in 1972. He is now a college junior and is the No. 2 man at Long Beach State.
John, 18, was the California boys' champion in 1973 and won the national boys' indoor doubles in 1974. He was runner-up to top-ranked Howard Schoenfield in both the national and Southern California 18-and-under championships last summer and is a freshman on the UCLA tennis team.
These credentials notwithstanding, the last of the Austins is the $6 Million Austin. Tracy, the "kid sister," is going to turn out to be the best. She says, "I'm fifth ranked in this family. Used to be seventh, but I'm movin' up. I got a chance to be fourth if I can pass Pam. That's about as high as I can go. Maybe."
Outside the family, however, Tracy has fared much better. Just 13 last December and checking in at 57 inches and 75 pounds, Tracy is already ranked No. 1 in the national girls' 14-and-under division. En route she won the Los Angeles 10-and-under championship, the U.S. public parks' 12-and-under three different years, the national 12-and-under singles and doubles, the U.S. 12-and-under indoor singles and doubles (at 10), the U.S. 14-and-under indoor singles twice and the national 14-and-under singles championship.
Now Tracy will have to decide between playing in 14-and-under tournaments or taking a shot at the 16s.
Last summer, skipping the 12s, she blazed her way through the national 14s at Shreveport, La., crushing everyone she met. Then she entered the 16s in Charleston, W. Va. and, playing against girls as much as four years older, not to mention a lot bigger, she reached the third round, where she was beaten 7-5 in the third set. Typical of Tracy's competitive zeal, immediately after experiencing this rarest of traumas, she telephoned her father and wailed, "I can't stand it, Dad. I'm so sick of losing."
But when was the last time she lost to any girl in her own age group? "I think it was 1970," she says.
To make certain we are not dealing with some nouveau tennis riche here, it is only necessary to point out that Tracy Austin was on the cover of World Tennis magazine at age four. Pictures of her budding court form were published in The Times of London when she was three. And Vic Braden, the noted California teaching pro, says he was rolling a ball inside her carriage when she was eight months old. "Back then she sliced the backhand," says Braden.
Usually such exploitation would produce a hard-bitten, egotistical, spoiled brat. However, Jeanne Austin has carefully supervised her daughter's upbringing. "I trust what Mrs. Austin is doing," says Robert Landsdorp, Tracy's tennis instructor and the head pro at the Jack Kramer Tennis Club in Rolling Hills Estates. "She's had experience in knowing the sensitive areas and what to do and say. When a kid loves the game, the kid can be pushed. But Jeanne doesn't force the wrong kind of pressure on her kids. She never gives that much importance to victories or being ranked. Tracy wants to be a champion not for her family, but for Tracy."
Braden, who taught the other Austin children at the same time he was founding and developing the Kramer club in the 1960s, concurs. "I was concerned about Tracy's breadth early on," he says. "We tried to get her to play with dolls, but she'd say no—she just wanted to hit the tennis ball. Now that single-minded-ness seems to have passed. I've always believed a young player doesn't burn herself out; the people around her burn out the youngster. Jeanne has stressed to Tracy that victories are fine, but if she stays a young lady, polite and kind, she'll always be a champion."
In 1974 at the 12-and-under girls' nationals Tracy was voted "most popular" by her compeers, a noteworthy achievement, her brother Jeff points out, "after she absolutely kicked everybody's behinds, love and love."
Like Doug, whose primary interest is architectural contracting, and Pam, who led the Virginia Slims tour only in shopping for clothes and attendance at parties, Tracy has learned to keep tennis in perspective. Her mother says Tracy would "throw up" just to win a single point. But in a recent conversation supposedly devoted exclusively to tennis, when Tracy was asked what she would like to do most of all, she said she would like to go to Disneyland.
That the Austins have become tennis' outstanding family is something of a shock to the progenitor, George, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who is now a nuclear physicist for TRW Inc., an aerospace engineering firm. He met Jeanne while both were at UCLA. After their marriage, they bounced around Air Force bases—Massachusetts, Colorado, New Mexico, New Jersey—before settling in Rolling Hills in 1955.
Jeanne, whose one link to tennis was a brother who had played at USC and had a national ranking, took up the game as a form of exercise following the birth of their fourth child. Soon husband and wife were dragging playpens down to the local high school courts so they could hit and baby-sit at the same time.
Jeanne Austin became quite good, and in 1961 was ranked 25th in the Southern California women's division. Along the way she met Braden, began playing in mixed doubles tournaments and gave birth to Tracy. While Mom and Dad played tennis, the older kids amused themselves in a field nearby—Doug built forts in the dirt and Tracy slept in the back of the station wagon. Pam remembers those days as "every tournament a different fort."
In 1963 Braden became the pro at the new Kramer club. Jeanne Austin worked in the shop and found time to design her own line of dresses so she could finance lessons for the children. Pam was skinny, wore glasses and grew by leaps and bounds (she recently stopped at about 6 feet even). Until she was 14 or so, Pam did not win at all. In the semifinals of the women's club championship she was beaten by her own mother. Pam says it was "so serious, it was awful." And Jeanne never played a tournament singles match again. "There was this strange, intense competition with my own daughter," she says. "I didn't like the feeling."
But wondrous obstacles kept popping up to prevent Pam from quitting tennis. She would see a picture of Roy Emerson or somebody, and dream. She would read about the tour bums in Monte Carlo or somewhere, and dream some more. After a year at UCLA a South African persuaded Pam to try the tour in his country. She quit school, flew to Johannesburg and has been hooked ever since, hitting tennis balls and setting world trencherwoman records throughout both hemispheres.
The differences between Pam's and Jeff's attitude to tennis is summed up best by their letters home. Pam talked about Westminster Abbey and funny rickshas. Jeff wrote things like, "At 5-2, 40-30, I served to the guy's backhand and nailed him."
Jeff Austin was always short; at 5'10" he is still the shrimp of the Austin gang, not counting Tracy. As a result, he worked harder than anybody. At the Kramer club there were three or four kids of equal ability who played round robins with Jeff. He says his driving force was an absolute refusal to accept defeat. Now Jeff is the only one left from this crew playing competitive tennis.
Jeff's ultimate goal was to make the UCLA team, no more. Especially after everyone said he couldn't do it. During his college years he played on teams with Jimmy Connors, Jeff Borowiak, Maroon Rahim, Lito Alvarez and the Kreiss brothers—not exactly a flock of turkeys. He got better and better. Though Jeff went to UCLA as a pre-dental student, he came out a tennis player. Inevitably, the headlines read: AUSTIN CUTS TEETH ON USLTA CIRCUIT.
In 1971 Jeff lost five matches in a row after holding match point in each against the likes of Clark Graebner and Pancho Gonzales. He says it was "outrageous." Then he had Solomon 5-3 in the third set, but lost the next game and fell behind 15-40 on serve. Finally he came through, winning four straight points and the match. "I used to pack my bags mentally before playing against the older pros," he says. "Now a lot of young guys I used to beat are beating the big names. That helps my confidence."
Last season Jeff slumped to a USTA men's ranking of 38th. Still, he says, "I don't know how I put in all these hours on the court, but I love playing and traveling. I make good money and have a good time. I'd do it for free. Be a bum for a couple of years. I can't imagine doing anything else."
The Austin boys' resemblance to one another is striking. One of Jeff's friends spotted an Austin walking by the UCLA courts the other day. "Hey, you look just like your brother," he said.
"Which one?" the Austin said.
"Jeff," the friend said.
"I am Jeff," Jeff said.
Another time Jeff was walking on campus and was mistaken for John. "I'm not John," he said.
"Oh I didn't recognize you without your beard, Doug," came the answer.
The hirsute Doug is the un-UCLA Austin. He is the bearded Long Beach State Austin, the maverick. His mother calls Doug "a funny kid; he always played tennis just hard enough to get by."
Following in Jeff's footsteps, Doug was always ranked in the Southern California top 10 in his age group and he led the tennis team at Rolling Hills High. Rejecting the inevitable comparisons with his brother, he avoided entering the nationals on those occasions when Jeff was playing. Also, rather than stay home, he went to Brigham Young on a scholarship, but the stringent Mormon atmosphere did not appeal to him, and he switched to Long Beach.
Doug is the prototype baseline player in tennis, the artist, the individualist of the family. He is creative—he designs cabinets and rolltop desks—at peace with himself. No. 1 at Long Beach is as far as Doug wants to go in tennis. "I tell John if he ever makes No. 1 at UCLA, maybe he'll get to play me," he says.
Younger brother John has set himself a tough task on the defending NCAA champion UCLA team, but he made giant strides in his last years in high school after a sad, slow start in which he was the chubby ugly duckling, the non-achiever of the Austin clan.
Before Tracy was born, John was the "baby," and Pain remembers him watching from the sidelines while everybody else played tennis. From the beginning he was pushed around and kidded about his weight. He was a slower learner than the rest, and he used to set the clock ahead, so his half hour of hitting against the backboard would be over more quickly.
"I hated tennis until I was 15," John says.
Before that, John had broken a leg and was rendered inactive for months. After the leg healed he grew tall, lanky, muscular. "Here was the classic storybook kid who had been ridiculed and disregarded suddenly blooming to life," says Braden. "There must have been some deep hostilities there, an unconscious will to win, because the fight and desire is all coming out now."
UCLA Coach Glen Bassett has to tone John down at times. "The problem is he has grown so fast, John is just getting into his size," says Bassett. "Like all youngsters with strength and the big serve, he has to work on his quickness and not hit every ball as hard as he can. But he has more potential than Jeff. John has the strength and athletic skills to be a great player."
When Jeanne Austin saw that quote in the Los Angeles Times last summer, she shuddered, cut it out and hid it from Jeff. Not that such words would cause household rebellion. But there were feelings—and egos—to be considered.
In their mother's ratings Jeff and Pam love praise, little Tracy is confident of getting it, Doug is so self-sufficient and happy he doesn't need it. But John? Ah, John feeds on it.
Often now Jeff and John work out together. Jeff has more shots and his more mobile, all-round game probably could still stop his brother's heavy artillery if the chips were down. But both brothers know another day will come. "I never feel any pressure," says Jeff, "but playing for fun and competing in a tournament are wholly different things. I'm not looking forward to playing him in that situation at all. If I started losing to John, it could get very tense."
Above all, the Austins' greatest motivation is to live up to little sister. The fact that girls' competitive tennis at the national level is hardly a teddy bear's picnic was best illustrated at a recent tournament when one mother watched her offspring blow a service return and called out, "That's great, kid, just hit the ball into the net." And when an 11-year-old loser received a long-distance harangue from her father, then roamed her hosts' home at 3 a.m., she said she was searching "for something to hug."
"I learned long ago about the pressures in this game," Jeanne Austin says. "I was upset at the ridiculous ranking Jeff got one year. I used to moan about the seedings, the draw, about sending in results. Then Jack Kramer got to me and really put me in my place. 'Why fight it?' he said. 'Let the kid play. The game is supposed to be fun.' "
The way Tracy rushes out of her seventh-grade class at Dapple Gray School, hops into the station wagon (she doesn't have to walk as Pam once did), flashes her braces and prepares to change into her tennis togs is convincing evidence that she is having fun. "Can't waste time. Got to hit the deck, swinging the racket," she says of her quick change in the moving vehicle.
She practices with two or three different girls and boys every day, then a couple of adults, playing eight-game pro sets, and winds up with two or three lessons a week from Landsdorp. Also, she plays several exhibitions a year with such celebrities as Bobby Riggs, Lloyd Bridges, Jonathan Winters and Bill Cosby.
Tracy has been appearing as an intermission attraction at the Pacific Southwest championships since she was nine. In addition she does halftime shows at Los Angeles Strings' WTT matches. Last winter the Strings drafted her 12th—ahead of Cosby and Johnny Carson. She said she would rather stay in school.
"From day one, Tracy always accepted any notoriety," says Pam. "She thought it was normal, so she never took a big ego trip. All she needs is size and strength to be a huge success on the women's tour right away. Chris [Evert] was shy and inhibited when she first arrived and got all that attention, but Tracy has grown up with it. No commotion will stun her. Oh, I don't believe I'm talking about my little sister."
Three years ago, after Tracy won the first of her national indoor titles at Harry Hopman's Tennis Academy in Port Washington, N.Y., the Austins asked the old Australian master how she should train, what she could do to improve. "What do you tell a genius?" Hopman said.
At workouts, Landsdorp tells Tracy, "When you get a short ball and you have enough time, I want you to cream that sucker, O.K.?" Tracy creams the sucker.
"The girl is amazing," says Landsdorp. "She can do a little bit of everything. Hit the slice, the drive, even the top spin, although that takes more strength than she's really got. Some time ago she wasn't strong enough to get the ball deep except by floating it. But now she bangs it pretty well. And in another two years she'll be killing top-spin serves." Her weakness is her serve. But she is placing it well.
Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Tracy's game is her mania for going to the net, an obstacle over which she can barely see. The volley is not a shot with her so much as a passion. Her instructors say they practically have to tie a rope around Tracy to keep her on the baseline, the normally safe habitat of little girls who are concerned about getting their fragile heads knocked off up there at the tape.
One way to beat Tracy is to move her around in the backcourt, since high, deep balls give her trouble. Because of her size she can't put them away. But she is learning to take these early by volleying, her true love. As she grows taller the prevailing opinion holds that there will be nobody around who can touch her.
"People see her now and say if she was 5'5", what a player she'd be," says Landsdorp. "But if she was 5'5" and played like she does now, she'd still be unbelievable. The best thing she has going for her is that she knows how to win. She finds different ways every time. The thought of not being a great player never has entered her mind."
Tracy's earlier teacher, Vic Braden, is discreet about poaching on Landsdorp's territory, but he is only slightly less ecstatic over Tracy's future. "Her serve is very weak, even for her age," says Braden. "But it's the only thing about her typical of a girl. What's bad is the style—she hasn't changed since she was a little kid. I try to explain to Tracy that she's got a baby-puff serve; that when she gets into big tournaments, everybody is a Tracy. The trouble is she wins with it."
Braden especially likes Tracy's mental approach. "Many young players return to the womb on the big points," he says. "The distance between their elbow and body disappears. This choking aspect is like huddling in a corner. But this kid hits out on the big points. Obviously she loves it. Her temperament is cool, composed; she doesn't get mad. The mark of a champion is to win when you're supposed to. Tracy does. And she doesn't brood over losses, either."
In between her tennis and a voracious appetite for Tahitian Treat and Fritos, Tracy has found time to become a reasonably well-rounded little girl. Her favorite class is phys ed, but she reads things like Charlotte's Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and she is interested in the "Israeli problem in the Mideast." She collects stamps, coins and stickers to put on her notebooks. She follows the adventures of Patty Hearst as well as those of Nancy Drew. And she has made a long chain of gum wrappers to decorate her bedroom.
Homework never interferes with tennis. A straight-A student, Tracy gets her work done as soon as she arrives home from the courts. Jeff Austin remembers that in the fourth grade Tracy stayed up for three nights attempting to complete her math homework for the year.
Tracy says she doesn't remember exactly what she liked about tennis early on. "I started when I was so young," she says, "I didn't know what I was doing. Just followed all the rest. Being an Austin, I guess I had to. I'm so proud when people ask if I'm Jeff's sister. I started playing much earlier than my brothers and sisters. That was lucky. I know most people don't get a chance to be No. 1 in anything. Now that I have the chance, I want to keep hitting and working. I just have to play tennis."
Each of the Austins seems to feel that way. Jeff calls tennis "a common ground" which the family shares, something they can relax with and enjoy together. He says they have come to take this for granted.
Such a feeling is not always beneficial, as the Austins found out one day last summer. Tracy had reached the point where winning was a foregone conclusion rather than an achievement, where joy in the mere playing of the game had become overlooked.
As Tracy was leaving home for the nationals, Pam wished her good luck and take care and all the rest of the things sisters wish each other on parting. Then Pam forgot herself. She said, "Trace, be sure to win." Tracy broke out crying.
"I might not win it, you know," she said through the shakes and sniffles. And right then the Austins realized that their littlest one had shown them never to take tennis—or each other—for granted again.