She arrived in Great Britain at 6:30 on a miserably cold and rainy morning, but two dozen reporters and photographers were there to meet her anyway. During the following week she was given official escorts and the kind of attention reserved for personages. Then on the big day, her picture was splashed across several columns on the front pages of London's three most distinguished dailies. The Times caption began: RESTING BEFORE THE ORDEAL.... The marvelous saga of Tracy Austin had wound its way to Wimbledon.
Over the 100 years of the lawn tennis championships of the All England club, there never had been anyone quite like Tracy Austin. The debuts of Evonne Goolagong (at 19) and of Chris Evert (at 17) had been noteworthy and charming. Lottie Dod had won the tournament back in 1887, after the invention of strawberries but before the founding of the BBC, and she was only 15. But their appearances paled before that of Austin.
And her braces. And her pigtails. And her size 6½ feet. And her cute little bib-and-tucker Disney World waitress pinafores. And, of course, her age.
"Fourteen," Chris Evert sighed one day, letting it sink in. "Eight years younger than me. Eight years!"
July 3, 1977
When the All England club rescinded its hoary age rule that competitors had to be at least 16, it was considered some kind of public-relations gimmick to capitalize on Austin's publicity, or to add much-needed interest to the women's draw, or to placate Captain Kangaroo or something. Though the club had a legitimate excuse because of her precocious achievements, it is doubtful that even the blue-blazered fathers of Wimbledon had any idea how well the kid could play.
Last winter, following her victory at Portland on the Avon futures circuit, Tracy left Dapple Gray School in Rolling Hills, Calif. during show-and-tell period to go up to the big league where she won four matches in four Virginia Slims tournaments, including defeats of Greer Stevens, the top-ranked woman in South Africa, and Dianne Fromholtz, eighth-ranked in the world. Twice she extended Rosie Casals, who was forced to stop hitting ground strokes and resorted to drop shots to wear Tracy down.
Like Evert back in her bassinet days, Tracy is all steely concentration and double-fisted backhands. Unlike Evert, she spurns long rallies to go for the big winners. She loves to charge the net searching for volley opportunities, which is not only rare for a girl of such tender years but also fairly dangerous for anyone who, at 4'11", 90 pounds, just makes it over the tape with her nose.
The British were captivated with Tracy. She seemed so fresh, bright, unaffected, cooperative, polite, outrageously nice—and had such a wonderful metallic smile—that everyone wished her well and predicted superlative things. More to the point, with women's tennis in its parlous state—Goolagong-Cawley a new mother, Margaret Court an old mother, Billie Jean King aging, Evert movie-star dating—Tracy just might have to be great. As Francoise Durr says, "Zere is no secret to Tracee. We need 'er so bad."
And here she came last week, scurrying along the paths and up and down the ancient staircases of Wimbledon; gaping at the players, buildings and enormous crowds; making such observations as "They should put tunnels in this place," and "If I eat one more strawberry, I'll throw up," and "All the women in London have red hair."
Tracy would sit with her mother in the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel and gawk at the famous faces. Billie Jean would walk up to tell Tracy that B.J.'s sheepdog, Lucy, could not make the trip and that the child should keep a diary for the future. Ilie Nastase would pass by, whereupon Tracy would tug her mother's sleeve and gasp, "Look, look, it's him! Oh Mom, don't look!"
Arthur Ashe described his first meeting with Tracy: "I recognized her immediately and introduced myself. I looked down and this glorious little face with that mouth full of railroad tracks was staring up. She's so tiny."
Along with all the delicious fairy-tale elements involved in playing Wimbledon at 14, her mother, Jeanne Austin, recognized the hazards. "Usually we can talk tennis and strategy," she said. "But she doesn't want to hear it this week. I can't get her to sit still. She's flitting around like a hummingbird. I think my daughter's ding-y."
When Mrs. Austin was asked if Tracy's meeting with Evert could have any ill effects, she answered like a true boxing manager. "I was hoping not to face Chris yet," she said. "It's too soon. But if Tracy gets crushed, it might show her how much work she needs. She might think, 'Look, kid, you get all this publicity, but you aren't that good.' "
For Tracy's first match at Wimbledon, against Elly Vessies-Appel of The Netherlands, her mother, father, grandmother, Coach Robert Lansdorp and 27-year-old sister Pam settled in with the crowd, six rows deep, around court No. 7, smack in the middle of Wimbledon's 14-court complex. Her three older tennis-playing brothers were back home, but they would have been proud of Tracy's 6-3, 6-3 victory, which seemed little more than a case of a nerveless baby taking candy from a shaken and off-form adult.
Back in April, after Tracy had beaten Fromholtz at Sea Pines, S.C., the Australian girl broke down and wept. Vessies-Appel merely smiled and patted Tracy on the head. Translation: "Happy now, squirt? Why don't you go home and play with Raggedy Ann."
Lansdorp did not think his pupil had played well and he told her so. "She's still fighting the bounce off this grass," he said, "but the hardest part now is waiting for Evert. It's like death row."
Tracy's performance was not the only American surprise. Anne Smith, 18, took King to three sets, and a trio of young American men threatened to turn the tournament into a kiddie Wimbledon. Tim Gullikson, 25, knocked off eighth seed Raul Ramirez before losing to Phil Dent. Billy Martin, 20, reached the quarterfinals by eliminating 14th seed Mark Cox. Most surprising of all, 18-year-old John McEnroe, who had had to win three qualifying matches just to get into the Wimbledon lineup, beat Sandy Mayer to make the quarters. No player obliged to earn a place in the tournament by qualifying had ever reached the quarterfinals in the 52 years since that procedure was initiated.
"Who is this McEnroe and how old is he?" one reporter shouted, following another upset by the New Yorker.
"Shanty Irish from Queens," was the reply. "He's 12."
Before Tracy and Evert took the Centre Court at 5:15 p.m. last Friday (you might recall that used to be just after nap time for children), nobody gave Tracy much of a chance.
"One game," said Pat Bostrom, another tour player. "I practiced with Tracy. She's not ready for grass."
"The kid is cute, but she's just here to learn the ropes," said Kristien Kemmer Shaw, who plays for the WTT Phoenix Racquets. "Chris is here to smash people. Love and love."
In the locker room King told Evert that finally she would know how Billie Jean had felt when Chris was a 17-year-old beloved by all. Chris replied that she had to convince herself it wasn't her 9-year-old sister Clare on the other side of the net.
Except for the first game of the match and the 11th, Evert was in control of the classroom. After teaching Tracy how to curtsy to the Royal Box, Chris taught her a valuable lesson in power, depth, concealment and touch on the drop shot, about 400 of which she employed to win 6-1, 6-1 in 49 minutes.
Strangely enough, for what reads like your basic Evert massacre, the match was taut and much closer than expected. Chris won only 62% of the points, 61 to 38. Eight of the 14 games went to deuce and among the other six were Tracy's two successful service games, which she won at 30 and 15. Tracy also had seven break points in four separate games against Evert's serve, most of which she gave away through errors on service returns.
"I felt sick to my stomach the moment I stepped on the court," Chris said afterward. "I guess it was nerves and tension and the crowd pulling for her. Tracy's got more variety than I had at 14. Maybe her volleys are better than mine already [Austin won the 11th game by rushing the net four times]. But I never felt threatened. Hah! I sound so humble. This was my toughest match, emotionally. Compared to this, playing Billie Jean will be a piece of cake. It's funny. I looked over and felt for Tracy. I wondered what she'll be like at 22. Will she be able to take the pressure?"
Facing a mass of reporters, Tracy said she had never seen so many people and she had had loads of fun and she would like to do it all over again because Wimbledon was special—"all the tradition and stuff."
It remains to be seen how good Tracy will be. Evert herself said we all must wait, and Ted Tinling, the tennis-dress designer, even pinpointed the year.
"Sixteen," he said. "Give Tracy until she's 16, when the soul takes over and the child either refutes her training or advances toward greatness. Right now she's just a puppet. All 14-year-olds are puppets on strings."
That could be. But in last week's unique moment at Wimbledon, America's new tennis puppet looked capable of cutting her strings very quickly.