Martina Navratilova, who is noted for her habit of talking severely to herself on court, delivered an impassioned complaint late in the first set of her final match against Tracy Austin in the women's pro tennis tournament in Washington, D.C. last Sunday. "It's so boring I can't stand it," she yelled.
From which it might be inferred that she was several miles in front of young Austin, 16 years old and a professional since way back last October. That wasn't the case. In fact, she was down 5-2 and headed for a straight-set loss, 6-3, 6-2. And if she really was bored, she was the only one among the 5,000 fans who had crammed themselves into the little Smith Center arena at George Washington University.
But last Friday, minutes before Austin was to meet Pam Shriver in their quarterfinal, La Navratilova was in an imperial mood. "I don't care which of these kids wins," she announced dismissively. A moment later, though, she was wryly noting that even if she had won this particular tournament—now renamed the Avon Championship—three of the last four times, everybody's attention this year was on those same kids. She turned to Ann Kiyomura, whom she had just beaten in her own quarterfinal, and said haughtily, "Nobody is interested in us flyweights. All they want to do is watch the heavyweights."
Although Navratilova had just won 6-3, 6-1, she had looked no sharper than she had in the early rounds. Certainly she had produced majestic cross-court shots and occasional majestic aces, but she had also committed a lot of unforced, unmajestic errors, throwing away points like an Arab prince ridding himself of riyals at a casino. She had coughed a lot (a cold had plagued her all week), had cursed a lot in Tex-Slovakian and had given the umpire a rude gesture before she came through.
January 15, 1979
All of which seemed to indicate that either Shriver or Austin, if one of them reached the final, might have a prime opportunity to terminate Navratilova's recent Washington near-monopoly.
This was not the only reason, though, for the special excitement in the air at Smith Center on Friday night. The indoor arena is only about 50 miles from Lutherville, Md., which is Shriver's home. And, as she was to say later, quite unselfconsciously, "I guess I'm the darling of the area. They think I'm kind of cute." Gauged by the number of buses with Maryland license plates parked outside, she was almost certainly right. A lot of the fans who filled the arena had come to see Pam. In particular, to see Pam beat Tracy.
The match involved a minor piece of tennis history, also. In junior events all over the country, Tracy had a 9-0 record against Pam. Now, though, they were meeting for the first time as official adults. Whatever had happened in the past didn't count. As far as the computer that ranks tennis players was concerned this was a fresh start. They were both 16, and although Pam is still an amateur, from now on it's serious.
As far as the crowd was concerned and the pundits also, the battle lines were clearly drawn. It would be a contest between Austin's skill in all aspects of the game, her coolness and her comparatively greater experience vs. Shriver's aggression and powerful serve. But the serve didn't appear to impress Austin a great deal. Wearing her look of perpetual worry, as if she knew she shouldn't be out this late, Tracy banged it straight back at Shriver—and broke her serve. From the crowd came a long moan of disappointment.
It was justified. Austin might look just a touch like a Raggedy Ann doll, but Shriver was playing like one. Austin's modest service, maybe the least impressive part of her game, had Pam putting forehand returns into the net or firing past the baseline. Once, furious, she kicked the ball into the crowd. Her lack of match practice—her last serious game had been in the 1978 U.S. Open final in which she lost to Chris Evert—stood out like a double fault: her misjudging of short balls at the net was characteristic.
Meanwhile, Austin's return of Shriver's service was almost impeccable. Again and again she scored with hard shots from defensive positions. At the end of the first set it was 6-3, and it must have seemed a smart idea to a lot of people to go out and make sure of a good seat on the bus.
But in the second set, and so abruptly that it is difficult to explain how it was managed, Shriver's game started to improve. Now she was much more accurate. Now she was coming buoyantly to the net. And the crowd, literally, rose to her. Austin's game was turning arid. As things went amiss for her, as her concentration went, she voiced her feeling with small high-pitched wails. In the fifth game of the set she was aced by Shriver—the first time in the match that this had happened. Then aced again. That put Shriver ahead 4-1 and Austin was in full retreat. As Shriver raced to 6-1, it was a basketball crowd that roared approval. From that blitz, how was any player to recover?
At the end of the set, the crowd still vocal, Tracy put her fingers in her ears and wrapped her head in a towel. Later she confessed she had never encountered inimical crowd noise like this.
She was not, however, intimidated. "I waited for all the noise to go away," she said afterward. "I never knew a crowd could be so loud. But when they went wild like that, 'Right!' I said to myself, 'No way!' " There was no way, she meant, she would allow the crowd to put her down.
In the final set it was a privilege to witness what roughly 110 pounds and 5'4" of determination can achieve. Like a crazy compass, the match swung around again. The second game went to deuce, Austin broke Shriver's serve, and then she was racing away from her in a run of five games. At 4-0, as the crowd whistled and Shriver agonized, "Come on!", Austin very consciously spent a full minute tying her shoe lace. Then it was 5-0 and virtually over—6-1 at the end. The powerful and confident Shriver of the second set had been reduced to a gawky, girlish figure once more.
It is an interesting thought that 10 years from now, even longer, it is probable that they will still be slugging it out. Meanwhile, though, it was back to high school for Pam, and for Tracy a chance at Martina.
"So the big game is over, huh?" was Navratilova's reaction to the news of Austin's win.
On Saturday evening Tracy ousted Ilana Kloss 6-2, 6-3 in their semifinal match. That afternoon Martina had reached the final herself by beating Dianne Fromholtz 6-4, 6-3 in a match which, she confessed, she had taken more seriously and had prepared for more earnestly than the previous ones. Her serve, she further conceded, was still spotty, but she viewed the prospect of meeting Austin without abnormal trepidation.
"She's hard to play," Martina said, "but I don't get as excited about her as I do about Chris. If you don't look at the faces, though, you'd think you were playing the same person."
Reminded that it was Tracy who last March in Dallas had ended her 37-match winning streak in a third-set tie-breaker, and as recently as last November had taken her 6-1, 6-1 in Japan, Navratilova was once again inclined to be dismissive. "I was looking forward to my vacation that week," she said. "That one I didn't fight out."
"Vacation? I didn't hear anything about a vacation," said Tracy when apprised of this. "I do know that when I've beaten her, I have had to play extremely well. She's so strong...that huge serve she puts in...."
The final was not, in some ways, dissimilar to the Shriver-Austin clash: consistency against strength. Only Navratilova also had maturity and deep battle experience. It was entirely possible that the Czech would brush Austin off like an irritating fly, batter her with powerful forehands, jump on her weak second serve, rush the net, intimidate her.
And early in the match, Martina seemed intent on doing this, moving menacingly up to the net in the first game. But if it was intimidation, it didn't work. Austin slyly pushed the ball past her, took the first game, then, patiently setting herself at the baseline, returned everything that Martina hit at her. With these tactics, she broke Navratilova's service in the second game.
This time there was no reason for Austin to worry about the crowd, which was solidly on her side now. And it stayed with her as the score became 4-1, 4-2, then 5-2.
"I was worried at 5-2," Tracy said later. "I had a set point—and then she came back." Navratilova did indeed, winning the game as well as three of the next four points. "I thought if I lose this, there's her serve coming up and then it will be 5-5," Austin said. In the vital ninth game, in fact, Navratilova led 40-15 and was poised to break back. But Navratilova was having a bad day with her backhand and remorselessly Austin began to play on the weakness. She took the game and the set. It was somewhat before this that Martina had given voice to her boredom.
After the match, an ice pack tucked between neck and left shoulder, Navratilova explained her outburst. "I don't have the patience for these long rallies. I have to try to hit a winner right away. If I have to hit the ball 30 times. I'm going to miss it in the end." The difference between the players came to this: if she had to hit the ball 90 times, Tracy would never get bored. Or impatient. Nor, likely, would she miss.
For Martina, the second set was even more of a disaster. She began with a double fault and lost her serve in the third game. Her aggression ebbed as her shots went awry and Austin sailed through the set without misadventure to win the $24,000 first prize. In the three months since she turned pro, Tracy Austin's record reads three tournaments entered, three won.
And what did the immediate future hold for her? Well, school on Monday, she confessed. And how did she win at Washington? She just played her game, she said.
To which Navratilova generously added, "Which is what? Everything!" Well, just about.