"And even if my head would go through," thought poor Alice, "it would he of very little use without my shoulders."
—Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Like Lewis Carroll's heroine, Pam Shriver was not quite right to wander about among those beds of bright flowers in Wonderland—too tall at six feet, too young at 16, and too often beaten by Tracy Austin. But last week at the U.S. Open, she was just the right size, and so many extraordinary things happened that she began to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.
Before the 13-day tournament, everyone conceded that Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert would meet in the finals, continuing a series that surely would run until the 15-year-old Austin outgrew her giggle. "You have no right to be here!" the Dormouse told Alice. "Don't talk nonsense," said Pam Shriver, who then went out and beat the top-seeded Navratilova in the semifinals on Friday to become the youngest ever to play for the championship. Maureen (Little Mo) Connolly was nearly 10 months older when she won the title in 1951.
Shriver's spunky 7-6, 7-6 triumph in a pair of anxious tie breakers had the crowd jumping about like Mad Hatters. The victory meant more than a teen-ager ousting the world's top-ranked woman player. it indicated that Shriver had moved out from under the shadow cast by Austin, who has whipped her in all of their nine meetings in the Juniors. Throughout the tournament the 16th-seeded Shriver toppled her more established rivals as if they were nothing more than playing cards, getting all of her wins in straight sets.
September 17, 1978
But of course it ended, as all dreams must, in the finals on Sunday when, just as in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the sentence was in before the verdict. No one thought the high school student from the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville had a chance against Evert, the Queen who had lopped off the heads of so many rivals. And indeed Evert became the first woman since Helen Jacobs (1932-35) to win four straight U.S. championships, dispatching Shriver 7-5, 6-4.
The quality of the match was superb—Evert's precision against the youngster's power. Shriver had her chances, most notably in the first set, but Evert never wavered; she said later that she felt extremely confident. As the match continued, Chris slowly increased the depth and pace of her shots and sharpened the angles, and on occasion she even came to the net, usually an unfamiliar area to her.
Shriver was worried that she might be embarrassed if she tried to rally from the baseline with the expert Evert, so Pam rushed in whenever possible. Forty-five times she charged in behind approach shots, and she won 18 points, almost thievery, because the baseline is where Evert lives. All told, Chris hit 24 winners with her groundstrokes, Pam only two, but the youngster pressed Chrissie with her serve: three aces, six service winners and a court full of winning volleys. "She stayed cool," noted Evert.
Except for a few fatal moments. After all, the defending champion was playing a 16-year-old girl who counts among her biggest moments the recent acquisition of a driver's license. Evert took the lead at 6-5 in the first set when Shriver netted a backhand volley, then served out the set.
The difference was that Evert now was playing from ahead. In the second set they twice traded service breaks, but Shriver blew a 40-love lead in the ninth game and eventually lost it to trail 5-4. In the next game she saved a couple of match points, but after an exchange at the net, Evert cracked a forehand down the line that Shriver could only nick with her racket, and it was over.
But there are no old phenoms, and Chris Evert must be feeling curiouser and curiouser, because at 23 she is still young but too old to be a prodigy. By any calculation, her drive toward yet another Open title, and her bid to reclaim her top ranking from Navratilova and avenge her Wimbledon defeat should have captivated the audience; instead she was cast as the heavy in her match against Shriver, as she was in her earlier meeting with Austin, a 7-5, 6-1 victim in the quarterfinals. In Evert's other matches, opponents crumbled in the face of her cool efficiency; she was never threatened. The audience applauded as it might have while watching the millionth Chevrolet roll off the assembly line. Against Wendy Turnbull in the semis, for instance, Evert needed only 48 minutes to win 6-3, 6-0. The match was interrupted in the middle of the first set and was completed the next day. "It was more fun when I was coming up," sighed Evert. "Tennis is a business. Pam and Tracy will learn that someday."
Evert invited a friend from Phoenix, Brenda Bricklin, to visit New York so she would have someone to talk to, and for entertainment she went to see the Broadway show, Beatlemania, alone. Still, she said that she was happy as a challenger, enthusiastic in a way she never could be when she was No. 1. As for the indifferent crowds, "I'm used to it now," she said.
More than anyone at the U.S. Open, Evert had reason to complain about the change from clay to a hard surface, because she had not lost a set on clay since 1975 nor a match on the soft stuff since August of 1973. Typically, she did not complain. During the early rounds Evert might have been a bit apprehensive as Navratilova, who had won their last two matches, stormed through opponents with her powerful serve and volley game, losing only 15 games in eight sets. Navratilova appeared unbeatable, but on Friday morning, shortly before she took the court against Shriver, her friend and mentor, former golfer Sandra Haynie, was not too sure. "She's tired mentally," said Haynie.
For her part, Shriver appeared a lamb ready to be taken. During practice and matches she kept up a constant stream of mild imprecations and self-rebuke over mistakes, and while warming up on a field court with her Aussie coach, Don Candy, she flung her racket away in disgust over an inability to serve properly. Candy rushed to offer counsel.
A 49-year-old former Davis Cup player and a disciple of the rigorous training methods of Harry Hopman, Candy has toughened his protègèe so that, while Austin appears to be a young 15, Shriver is a baby-faced killer. "When Pam puts it all together," says Candy, "she'll be the best in the world."
And for a day she was. Although she is gangly and slight, most of Shriver's 145 pounds is muscle, built from Candy's fatiguing drills and weightlifting. She is no frail child. "When I look across the net, I look up," said Navratilova when asked if she felt compassion playing a young girl.
Shriver's game is composed of two parts: the first, an attacking serve and volley that could become the best in tennis; the second, a patient vigil from the baseline, waiting for the short ball that allows her to rush the net. She uses an oversized Prince racket, waving it about as if it were a giant paddle, and in the semis she made only two unforced errors at the net while cracking off 13 winners, including five aces, with her slice serve that put added strain on Martina's already sore left shoulder.
Shriver broke Navratilova twice, once in each set, but each time Martina broke back in the next game. Then Alice became just the right size. In the first set she saved four set points, two each in the 10th and 12th games, when she could have collapsed, and forced a tie breaker. This she won 7-5 when Navratilova netted a volley after Pam hit a precise backhand down the fine, following a style Candy teaches. "She goes for winners," he says. "There's been too much of that 'safe' stuff in women's tennis."
As the match continued, Shriver's serve grew stronger, and Navratilova became edgy. And, when it came down to what Navratilova calls "the crunch time,"—the second tie breaker—Martina's serve needed a gyroscope, while Shriver blasted away. The end came when Pam charged the net and a pressured Navratilova sailed a backhand long to lose the tie breaker 7-3.
"I'm sick of tennis," Martina said later. And of little kids. Tracy Austin had ended Martina's 37-match winning streak earlier this year. "Everybody said. 'She'll choke. She'll choke.' But she didn't."
Shriver's victory was particularly satisfying because Austin was sitting in a courtside box. Early this year, Shriver playfully called Austin, "a little twerp," which Tracy repaid by going bananas whenever she beat her. At the conclusion of her match with Martina, Shriver made a point of not displaying any emotion. "I didn't want to be like some people," she said pointedly.
She told the press corps that she is a distant cousin of Sargent Shriver's, that she likes Mexican food and country music, and that "I just think of myself as somebody going to be No. 1 eventually." Muttered Candy, who has been displeased with her recent antics, "Her attitude has been lousy."
If this sounds as if Shriver is another of those spoiled tennis brats, nothing is farther from the truth. She is refreshing, as when she points out that another tall 'un, golfer Carol Mann, was raised in the neighboring suburb of Towson, Md., and muses that there "must be something in the water." And she is bright. She calls herself a "rare A" student, but she is combining her junior and senior years at McDonogh High School in Baltimore.
When Evert not so rudely awakened her, Shriver might have exclaimed, as Alice did, "Oh, I've had a curious dream." She was no longer in Wonderland, but she had learned that few things indeed were really impossible.