"She has a tunnel vision...no, that sounds bad...a tenacity of purpose unequaled by any athlete we've ever represented. She has relentless determination such as I've never seen, and she's been that way since the age of 12 as far as I can tell."
—DONALD DELL, SENIOR PARTNER/DELL, CRAIGHILL, FENTRESS & BENTON, ATTORNEYS-AT-LAW; U.S. DAVIS CUP CAPTAIN, 1968-69
This is an article from the Dec. 21, 1981 issue
Sometimes an athlete has to prove himself again and again before he succeeds in overcoming an odd and very personal sort of resistance on the part of the sporting public and press. In tennis, women face this obstacle more often than men. Hard as it is to believe, now that she has been enshrined as the game's good and gracious queen, Chris Evert Lloyd had to win four U.S. Opens in a row before she conquered the hearts and minds of her countrymen. They had adored her, briefly, when she was a 16-year-old Florida schoolgirl who reached the semifinals at Forest Hills in 1971. But not long after that she came to be perceived as the Ice Maiden, and the romance cooled. Chris learned to live with her fate, but she never liked it.
In the late '70s Martina Navratilova won two Wimbledons and played some of the most exciting tennis the women's game has ever seen. But not until last September, after she had lost gallantly in the final of the U.S. Open, did she at last receive the outpouring of affection from fans and the media for which she had once longed.
And that brings us to Tracy Austin, who beat Navratilova on that emotional September afternoon at Flushing Meadow and this week may well face her again, in a showdown for No. 1 in the world at the Toyota Series Championships at New Jersey's Meadowlands. Austin, too, is one of those players the fans have resisted. Neither her baseline game in all of its extraordinary effectiveness nor her controlled and entirely professional on-court behavior has yet captured the public fancy. And because her private life has been that of a rich and famous but otherwise normal teenager—no scandal, no romance, no excess—she has not acquired a persona for tennis followers to hang their expectations on.
However, if Austin pines for public affection, she has never let on. In fact, she has seemed almost to thrive on the lack of it. In 1979 she and Pam Shriver, both then 16, played a match in front of a large, vociferous and entirely pro-Shriver crowd in Washington, D.C. Austin won the first set, 6-3, but in a dramatic turnabout, Shriver won the second 6-1, and the crowd went berserk. Between sets Austin wrapped her head in a towel to shut out the noise. In the third set she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. At that point, while the crowd whistled deafeningly and Shriver groaned, Austin stopped, bent down and spent a full minute retying her shoelaces. She closed out the set 6-1.
"I'll deny I ever said this," says a longtime acquaintance, "but I think she sometimes creates such situations because they help her to be competitive."
Even when Austin was an undersized 14-year-old wearing pinafores with sashes that tied in the back, the press more often thought of her as a marauding animal than as a child. She stood barely 5 feet and weighed only 90 pounds, yet one sportswriter called her the "hummingbird who plays like a killer hawk."
He wasn't wrong. Austin looked like a child, and off the court she was a child. But when it came to tennis she was from another planet, one peopled by small, emotionless, relentlessly determined adults. She smiled past her braces, she giggled girlishly, and she remained completely unawed.
But as soon as the fans figured out that child or no child, Austin wasn't an underdog, the honeymoon was over. When she won the U.S. Open as a 16-year-old pro, beating Good Queen Chris to become the youngest winner ever, her now-familiar victory jig, the one that was so cute when she was 14, somehow seemed inappropriate. Actually the jig is more of a hop. She clenches her fists, lowers her head, lifts one knee and hops, smiling delightedly all the while.
But Austin has always done things in her own way, secure in the love of her large and loyal family and insulated by the devotion of several layers of coaches, lawyers, agents and family friends. Just as she has never made excuses when she has lost, she has never taken less than full credit when she has won. She learned early, and experience has reinforced the knowledge, that if she did her part, success would follow. Conversely, when she lost, it wasn't that she had been beaten but that she had failed to do her part. Hers was a formula for inducing and maintaining confidence, and it paid off; before turning 16, she had won 27 national junior titles.
The formula has the added advantage of eliminating adversity. Until a year ago Austin had never dealt with adversity because she had never recognized its existence. If you believed her press clippings, the only untoward event in her short but charmed life happened 10 years ago when her coach slipped and fell on her while they were ice-skating, breaking her leg.
While tennis fans have resisted Austin, other players, especially those who were on the pro circuit when she arrived, have resented her for several reasons, one being that everything always has seemed to go so smoothly for her. At age nine Austin told her mother that she intended to be No. 1, and by 17 she was. On top of that, she needed only 20 months on the tour to win a million dollars.
Austin may well have been able to change the attitude of her peers if she had cared to try. But she was familiar enough with jealousy not to let that attitude bother her. It was the price one paid for success, and Austin had been piling up successes over people older than herself for better than 10 years. Besides, she is nothing if not pragmatic: If you let something get you down, your tennis might be affected.
But the biggest barrier to Austin's gaining acceptance on the tour has been her isolation. Always accompanied by her mother, sometimes by a coach, often by Sara Kleppinger, the 30-year-old lawyer in the Dell firm who handles Tracy's day-to-day affairs, Austin has been surrounded by adults and therefore cut off from the normal give-and-take of the women's circuit. She rarely practiced with other players; after her first two years on the tour, she stopped playing doubles because it too often kept her up late; at times she didn't even change clothes in the tournament locker rooms after matches, returning instead with her mother to their hotel room. Consequently, the players have had little opportunity to get to know Austin. In the beginning, the fact that she was a 14-year-old among 20-year-olds and a bit shy only deepened the gulf. However, while Tracy's isolation has hindered her acceptance by the locker-room sorority, it probably has helped her on the court. It's easier, after all, to crush a stranger than a friend.
"You have to keep distance to maintain a competitive edge," says Kleppinger. "I think Tracy will have a group of friends as more players her age come on the circuit. Except for Shriver, with whom there isn't a natural closeness, there was no one else for a long time."
"It's hard to be close friends with people on the tour," says Austin. "I feel like I get along with all the girls on the circuit, but some are better friends than others. They're mostly the young ones."
The beginning of the end of Austin's carefree, sheltered existence occurred a year ago October when she felt a pain deep in her right buttock. That signaled the start of a 10-month ordeal for which she was wholly unprepared. The malady, which was ultimately diagnosed as sciatica, grew steadily more painful until, in January of this year, she had to quit playing altogether.
For the next two months, she stayed at home in Rolling Hills, Calif., but her recovery was agonizingly slow. In March, plagued by frustration and boredom, she flew to New York and moved in with Dick and Madeline Zausner, older friends who live on Long Island. There she came under the care of Dr. Irving Glick, an orthopedist who also is physician-in-residence for the U.S. Open. "The amount of muscle weakness was striking, as it would be in any athlete who had been out of competition for three months," says Glick. She had trouble raising her leg against one finger's pressure." At 18, Austin had learned for the first time that life does not always go according to plan.
Glick says taking care of Austin became a "religion" for him, the Zausners and the staff of the Port Washington (N.Y.) Tennis Academy, where she gingerly worked herself back into shape. At first she could tolerate only seven minutes a day of returning balls hit directly to her. Eventually she built up to two two-hour sessions a day, but the effort it took was greater than any she had ever had to make.
Recently Austin was relaxing in Rolling Hills between tournaments in Germany and Japan. She has grown markedly prettier in the past year. Her face with its deep-set blue eyes, a face that used to look oddly old at times, now is in harmony with the rest of her. This day her thick wavy blonde hair was pinned carefully into a fin de siècle bun from which small curls fetchingly escaped. Though she says she hasn't lost more than a pound or two, she appears slimmer, and her high-heeled sandals added inches to her height, which is 5'4" in sneakers.
As always, her mother, Jeanne, was nearby, fixing dinner in the kitchen of the three-bedroom house on Dunwood Road, where she and Tracy's father, George, a nuclear physicist for TRW, have lived for 25 years and raised their five children. Tracy, the youngest of the Austin siblings by five years, is the only one still living at home.
Jeanne and Kleppinger are the core of Tracy's support system. Backing them up are a coach—for 10 years it was Robert Landsdorp; then Roy Emerson and Landsdorp split the job; now it's Marty Riessen—and Tracy's brother Jeff, 30, who played professionally until four years ago and is a lawyer. Tracy works out with Jeff whenever she can and frequently turns to him for advice. Brother John, 24, is on the tour and is ranked 64th in the world. He and Tracy won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1980.
Because all the Austin children are skilled tennis players and because they all have had to fight for their share of their mother's attention, buried family resentments have erupted now and then. But the Austins are nonetheless a strong and loving family, and to the world at large they present a united, loyal and affectionate face. "She's getting a lot nicer," says Pam Austin Reynolds, 31, Tracy's only sister, "and that's great. She's growing up. She's a little more considerate of other people, which is nice to see."
Pam competed on the circuit in the early '70s, a time when the life of a touring pro was primitive compared with the one Tracy leads. "You shared a room with your doubles partner, kept your suitcase under your bed and had a toilet down the hall," says Pam. "My main goal was traveling and having a good time. Tracy's goal is to be No. 1. She's very competitive, more so than the rest of us. Even when she was little her concentration was keen. You know that game, Concentration, in which the cards are all face down and you have to remember where they are? Tracy would beat us every time. She lost maybe once in a hundred games."
"She's more willing to make decisions now," says Jeff. "Her attitude used to be, 'I'm just a kid, let someone else decide.' On the court she looks the same. Off the court she's different in the way she dresses, the way she carries herself."
Austin's first tournament following her convalescence was an eight-woman event last May in Tokyo. After losing to Andrea Jaeger in a third-set tiebreaker in the finals, she learned that she wasn't yet out of the woods. Her celebrated concentration had wavered in the tiebreaker. The next week in Berlin she lost, also in a third-set tiebreaker, to 29th-ranked Sandy Collins. At Eastbourne, though, the week before Wimbledon, she sailed through to the final, where she whipped Jaeger 6-3, 6-4.
"The toughest part was Wimbledon," says Austin. "I felt rushed to prepare. I needed two or three months, and all I had was five days to practice the way I wanted. I was used to going in feeling confident, but I was trying too hard, putting pressure on myself."
In the midst of Austin's physical or-deal, Lansdorp, her coach and companion since she was seven, the man who had developed her game, added to her troubles by walking out during negotiations and filing a breach-of-contract suit against Tracy Austin Enterprises. Jeanne learned about the suit, which has since been settled out of court, when a Los Angeles Times reporter called her for a comment. "Robert made an unbelievable amount of money off Tracy last year," says Jeanne. "We were negotiating his new contract in March and he wanted more." By the time Tracy was ready for tournament play again in May, Jeanne had hired Riessen, and it was with him that Austin worked those last days before Wimbledon.
Austin lost in the Wimbledon quarters to Shriver, but five weeks later she beat Shriver in three sets to win the Wells Fargo Open in San Diego. At the Canadian Open in August, now really smoking, she defeated Shriver, Navratilova and Evert Lloyd, all in straight sets. The night after the final, Kleppinger phoned from Washington and Austin said, "Sara, I'm back! And that's no pun!"
During the Canadian, a few players, keyed up for the U.S. Open, which was only one week off, unleashed a barrage of temper tantrums that rivaled the men at their boorish worst. Hana Mandlikova gave the finger to a line judge who had called her for foot-faulting; Bettina Bunge walked off the court at 0-5 in a third set; and Shriver, rightfully frustrated by some lousy officiating in her quarterfinal match against Austin, wrongfully directed a stream of obscenities at her opponent for being overly exultant in victory. Ahead 6-2, 6-5, Austin hit a shot the linesman called out. But for the sixth time in the match, the umpire overruled. Undone, Shriver lost the next two points and the match, whereupon Austin smiled, smacked a ball high into the crowd and threw up her arms.
The following day Shriver said, "I used a few choice words of which I am not proud, but I wish she had just calmly come to the net and said, 'Bad luck.' "
In one light, Austin's reaction was understandable. She had traveled a rough road since the day on Long Island when she could hit for only seven minutes. However, her triumphant gesture was indeed insensitive. It also was entirely in character, and Shriver cannot have been surprised. The one habit of Tracy's the players resent more than any other is her visible jubilance in winning.
"Basically I've always liked her act," says Mary Carillo, 23, who played the tour until two years ago. "She has enough respect for her opponents to want to kill them. There's a beauty to that. You don't have to like a shark to admire it for being a perfectly efficient eating machine. But, yes, to be really nice about it, she has been accused of being insensitive." At tournaments, for example, Austin has been known to scratch out a lesser player's name and substitute her own on sign-up sheets reserving practice-court times. "If you're one of the stars you can do that sort of thing," says Carillo, "but you can't do it very many times without being resented."
Carillo, who does tennis commentary for the USA cable TV network, says Austin is one of the more approachable of the top players and a good interview as well. But Austin is comfortable with Carillo, a former player and a friend. When Austin is less comfortable, as when she's facing a room full of reporters, many of whom know little about tennis, and all of whom are waiting to pounce on her slightest indiscretion, she becomes guarded and less articulate. After beating Betsy Nagelsen 6-3, 6-0 in the fourth round of the 1981 U.S. Open, Austin complimented her opponent as follows: "I think she could have beaten, I don't know how to say this, she's playing so well that if she played somebody, I don't know, I don't want me to sound...I don't know, but she could have beaten a lot of girls." The spirit was willing but the tongue was temporarily disabled.
The defeat of Navratilova at the Open marked the end of Austin's physical ordeal and, possibly, the beginning of a new era in her career. The first evidence of Riessen's efforts to expand her game showed in that match as Austin clawed her way back from the 6-1 loss of the first set to win two tiebreakers and her second U.S. singles title. "What's new," says Riessen, "is the time we spend on volley, overhead and serve, not to change her style, because her ground strokes are the backbone of her game, but to give her more shots to use in case she's having trouble winning."
"Marty says, 'When it's three all in the third set, see what you can do differently,' " says Austin. "It's a great challenge and a lot more fun. I think my game is about as good as it's going to get in the backcourt. I'm an aggressive player now, but I'm aggressive from the backcourt. I'm not content to be aggressive just back there."
Austin's expanded repertoire couldn't save her when she met Navratilova in the finals of the U.S. Women's Indoor Championships in Minneapolis in October. On a fast surface, Navratilova's favorite, Martina played brilliantly and won 6-0, 6-2. A month later, in Stuttgart, Austin got revenge with a 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory. Back at home, on a private court off Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, she described the match to Riessen. "I served and volleyed!" she said, giggling as if she couldn't believe she was talking about herself. "Once I lobbed three times in a row and she yelled, 'Boring!' right in the middle of the point. I couldn't believe she did that! I decided right then I would do it some more."
The computer currently ranks Evert Lloyd first, followed, in order, by Navratilova and Austin. But the computer ratings are based on results over the preceding 12 months, and for several of those months Austin was out of action. Nonetheless, by winning at the Meadowlands, Austin could end up the year as No. 1, in the minds of experts, if not in the calculations of the computer.
"She wants to be No. 1 more than ever now," says Peachy Kellmeyer, director of operations for the Women's Tennis Association. "She's more mature, a bit more independent. A lot of it had to do with her injury. She never had to bear anything like that before."
Last week Austin turned 19, to her mind the boundary between what was and what will be. "I don't want to be 19," she wailed half seriously. "I'm feeling old. When you're 19 you're not young anymore."
She also says she's having more fun, on and off the court, than ever. She has a boyfriend now, a tall, good-looking blond USC tennis player named Matt Anger, whom she met at Wimbledon this year, and she is doing outrageously normal things like double-dating and going to Magic Mountain, the amusement park north of L.A. "Matt's good for me because he plays tennis and has the same life-style," says Austin. "Some guys wouldn't understand."
By the time Evert Lloyd was 19 she had been through a very public and, in the end, unhappy love affair with Jimmy Connors. Austin is growing up more slowly than that, but she is changing, though she resists it just as stubbornly as she has resisted change all her life. "I never like complete change," says Austin. "If anything has to change, I like it to be gradual." Or not at all: She still uses the same size racket grip (4‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö‚à´") that she did when she was nine. Picture her waiting to return service. She smooths her bangs on the right, smooths them on the left, touches the sweatband on her right wrist to her right forehead and then to her left forehead. She adjusts her necklace, tugs at her dress, blows on her right hand, tugs at her socks, takes three quick steps backward and, finally, jumps in place several times. Then and only then is she ready to hit the ball. That's the way it has always been, the way it always will be. Austin once told Carillo that at exactly 7:30 every morning she's home, she goes to the freezer in the garage and takes one, just one, spoonful of ice cream. Vanilla.
Says Kleppinger, only half jokingly, "Those of us who are in the business of molding and shaping Tracy's opinions have the capability of stonewalling over long periods—stalling until the time is right for Tracy to make the decision." Kleppinger has engineered some of the important changes in Austin's life—her switch from a Wilson to a Spaulding racket and from Converse to Pony shoes, for instance—all in Tracy's financial best interests, but none of them came quickly or easily. Thanks to the friendly persuasion of Kleppinger and others, Austin also has contracts with Canon cameras and Gunze, a Japanese textile firm that will produce a line of Tracy Austin tennis wear. These endorsements bring her annual off-court income to $1.5 million, to go with the half million dollars or so she can expect to earn playing.
Evert Lloyd, on whom Austin has modeled her game and to a certain degree her life, has said that the next important step for Tracy is to move toward independence, by which Chris means learning to live without the constant ministrations of her mother. Jeanne has been at the center of her daughter's peripatetic existence for so long that no one in or out of Tracy's entourage quite knows who or what will fill the void, or whether it can be filled, when the time comes for Jeanne to remain at home. "On the one hand tennis mothers are total slaves, and on the other they are the bottom line," says Peter Bodo, a contributing editor at Tennis magazine. "When you're up against the wall, whom do you turn to? But the role fosters a kind of contempt in the children. I've seen Tracy talk to her mother the way I wouldn't talk to a servant, but I've also seen real need and tenderness."
Says Kleppinger, "I think Jeanne knows that at some point her duties will become less necessary. I went to Atlanta with Tracy this year, and I saw that Tracy can handle the functional things all by herself."
"You can always learn to pack your own suitcase," says big sister Pam, "and Tracy will someday. She'll forget her socks and rackets a couple of times, but she'll learn. As for Mom, I think lately she's become more interested in the rest of us. She's coming back to reality. Before, I'd tell her something that I was doing and she'd say, 'That's good. Well, Tracy has to play so and so.' "
Evert Lloyd's mother, Colette, traveled with her daughter until she was 20, and Evert Lloyd has often spoken about how hard it is to be alone on the tour. For Austin it may even be harder. As the youngest of five children, she was even more sheltered than Evert Lloyd, the eldest of four. But in overcoming her difficulties this year, Austin has revealed a reservoir of strength that cannot entirely be explained by "relentless determination" or "tenacity of purpose." There is a new dimension to her, perhaps the one that is necessary to make a great champion out of a pampered prodigy.
Lately Austin has displayed signs that she may be getting ready to leave her cocoon—gradually, of course. Two weeks ago, at the Australian Open in Melbourne, she lost a close quarterfinal match to Shriver. Typically, after such a defeat, Austin would retire to collect herself and then, 15 or 20 minutes later, reappear for the postmatch press conference. She then would immediately return to her hotel with Jeanne. But on this day, to the enormous surprise of the locker-room sorority, half an hour after losing, she was putting on the practice green of the Kooyong Club with Rosie Casals and Connie Spooner, the WTA trainer. Perhaps Austin has learned that when you're rich and famous and pretty and talented, life has more to offer than room service.