Young And Old, Wise And Goofy

Barbara Potter, tennis' newest star, is half grown-up, half schoolgirl and, on the court, all hate-to-lose singlemindedness
March 08, 1982

Winning is like getting in a car accident. You can't totally imagine it until you've done it yourself.

When people say I'm an overnight success, I want to shred them.

My mother will be polishing my manners until I'm 90. There's no way around it. It's simple motherdom.

If someone offers me a lot of money to do something, and it can be worked into my schedule so it doesn't interfere with my practice and my rest, and it is something that contributes to my hopefully classy image as a tennis player, then I'll do it. I won't do pimple cream.

For somebody who's fairly together in life, which I am, I'm very untogether when it comes to having the right color headband to go with a particular outfit. Sometimes I'm just a klutz.

If you have guessed that the speaker isn't John McEnroe, you're correct. The voice is a new one in tennis circles—well, not exactly new, but newly attended to. There is nothing like winning for getting folks to listen to you, and Barbara Potter, at 20, is now a bona fide winner. In January, Potter cleared that most formidable hurdle in a young player's education—she won her first grown-up tournament, the $150,000 Avon Championships of Cincinnati. As for the other four Avon events she has entered this year, her record is: semis, semis, finals, quarters. Until last week in Oakland, where she lost to Andrea Jaeger, the only player who had beaten her in 1982 was Martina Navratilova, and she hasn't lost to anybody this year. Potter's victims include Jaeger, Bettina Bunge (twice), Billie Jean King and Kathy Rinaldi. For her play in 1981, when she made a respectable semifinal showing against Tracy Austin at the U.S. Open and leaped from 26th to eighth in the world, she was named Tennis magazine's most improved woman player of the year. No wonder a good many people want to know what Potter has on her mind.

Fortunately, she has a lot. In fact, she seems to have been storing up her thoughts for just such a moment, so that they now come tumbling out, sometimes tripping over each other in the rush to become words.

"It's interesting that these girls mature so thoroughly on the court and as travelers and as worldly-wise people by the age of 15, 16," says Potter. "At 17 they are old women in several ways. And yet, not really, because if you put them in a different situation, anything off their beaten track, they'd probably come up with gaping holes in their development. Some of them may never catch up, and that's sad, because to survive after tennis they have to have a certain understanding of how real life works, of day-in and day-out jobs, of fending for yourself. An income of $200 a week, not $2,000 a week, is really what life is about."

Barbara Potter—Barbie to her family, Potsie to her friends older and younger than her years—resists condensation. She is the daughter of an artist, the granddaughter of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaperman and the product of a conservative New England prep school and an upbringing that placed a higher value on culture than on wealth.

Were it not for tennis, she would be a junior at Princeton, where she was accepted in 1978, the year she graduated in the top 10% of her class from the Taft School in Watertown, Conn. Instead, she is one of a roving band of professional athletes, being paid, very well, to pursue an obsession in public. After three years on her chosen path she says, "It is as worthy a process as any other in life."

Potter is tall (5'9") and slim (135 pounds). Her skin has the pale perfection of the beauties painted by Lawrence or Gainsborough. Even after a strenuous match her cheeks take on only the faintest pink tinge. Off the court her style is upper-middle-class suburban. She wears pearls when she dresses up, has her hair cut at Elizabeth Arden and looks equally at home in a silk dress or a sweat suit.

On court she is still half schoolgirl, gawky at times, given to occasional goofy mannerisms as she tries to goad herself into a state of ever greater intensity. Austin has described Potter's big left-handed serve as "the toughest in women's tennis if it's working. She has so many different kinds—flat, slice, American twist." Like Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, Potter plays an attacking game. A major factor in her success the past year is her vastly improved second delivery, crucial for a net rusher.

But of greater significance is her growing tactical sophistication. "There are so many situations, nobody can be in control of all of them, Chris and Tracy included," says Potter. "However, they have a greater understanding of how to play the important points than most of the other players. I'm improving my understanding of it every day, I hope. But, I'll tell you, that's where it's at, concentration wise."

The greatest current influence on Potter's game is Bill Drake, the professional at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He has been her coach since she turned pro in January 1979. Drake travels with his star pupil six or seven weeks a year, but more often they meet in a bubble on top of a parking garage in downtown Boston. Before he turned to teaching, Drake played Forest Hills twice and toured Europe a couple of summers, just enough play to give him a taste of the pressures that a player of Potter's ability faces.

Drake has devised an approach to coaching that both he and Potter think is unbeatable. "We never stress whether she's going to win or lose," he says. "Emphasis on that can stifle the ability to grow and improve. Even a loss can be a step forward. We try to be realistic in our evaluation of each match. It helps to defray the pressure of big-time tennis if you can put the matches in perspective. Barbara can never really be beat. She can only be postponed."

"You have to enjoy the process," says Potter. "The idea of building, and overcoming your weaknesses. If you do, then, when you have reached the moment of truth, it's almost like you have a base to fall back on. I hate to lose. I hate to lose. But if you've given a match your best shot and nothing has stopped you except fate or circumstance or the fact that the opponent was too tough that day, then you have nothing to complain about."

The test of Drake's system comes each time Potter reaches a new level—when she defeated Sue Barker in 1979 for her first victory over a Top 10 player, for instance, or when she qualified for the Avon Championships in New York City last year. "It's an aftershock," says Drake. "The system is shook. The question then is, is it going to stay together? Her solid family backing helps here. She has enough stability that we can plug her back in and she's ready to go."

Potter is the fourth of five children and the only girl in a family of unusual attainment. Her father, Mark, is a painter and a teacher of art who has been inspiring Taft students since 1955. Her mother, Bobbie, who travels with her most of the year, is a collagist. Barbara's maternal grandfather is Hanson W. Baldwin, the celebrated former military editor of The New York Times and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for foreign correspondence in 1943.

For most of her life Barbara's home has been a 1760 farmhouse on the banks of the Weekeepeemee River in Woodbury, Conn. The rooms are furnished with antiques and Oriental rugs, and the walls serve as a gallery for the creative efforts of the entire family. Mark's studio is 20 yards from the house in a converted barn, and his subject matter is most often the nearby countryside. Occasionally he also paints portraits. One of them, of Barbara at age 9, hangs in the living room. "I remember earning 25¢ per hour posing for that," she says. "I had just received a little metal bank for Christmas, and the kerchink of a quarter going down into the box was the most satisfying sound of my whole childhood."

The Potter boys, led by their father, were hockey players. Because organized hockey wasn't available to Barbara, she was introduced to skiing at 5. By 10, she had become a promising junior racer. "She was the most unbelievable skier I ever saw," says her father. "She could wedel like crazy at 10."

Eventually, for reasons of safety and sanity, tennis was presented as an alternative recreation to Barbara. At 12 she was playing local age-group tournaments, albeit without lessons or coaching. Within two years she had become the top-ranked 14-year-old girl in New England, and at 16 she was 16th in the country in the Girls' 18s. In short, Potter was a fine junior player, but hardly a prodigy.

Bobbie, who has accompanied her daughter to tournaments since Barbara started playing, is as much her alter ego as a mother can be. They dine together, go to movies and museums together and generally keep each other's spirits alive through the ups and downs of a competitive existence. "We're a good match," says Barbara. "Mother is very communicative. I'm not uncommunicative. I've become more and more open since I've grown up a bit. We have a lot of fun together; that's really true."

Money was usually in short supply when the Potter children were growing up, but their lives were no less gracious for its lack, thanks to Bobbie's special genius for resurrecting and making over and doing it with considerable flair. "My mother could entertain the Queen of England on $10 a day," says Barbara.

"If Bobbie had been a man in World War II, she'd have been a great scrounger," says Don Usher, an old friend who is coach of the women's tennis team at Harvard. "It's an unbelievable expense to train a professional tennis player indoors. She worked hard to get things so that everybody came out a little bit ahead and Barbie got helped."

It was Usher who first spotted Barbara at a New England junior tournament and who helped her find a coach and money to travel. "I felt anybody who wanted to work as hard as she did had to be given the opportunity to fail," says Usher.

"He is a crusty, charmless, generous man," says Barbara.

These days Usher makes sure that Potter has courts and practice time and partners, usually a member of the Harvard men's team, when she's around Boston, which is most of the time she's not playing a tournament. While there, she lives in the spacious Chestnut Hill home of her business manager, Fred Sharf, where she has her own room.

And oh, does she practice. No one on the women's circuit works as hard. "Barbara is a prime example of someone who has made it by dint of hard work rather than God-given talent," says Sharf. "When she's at our house, she leaves every morning at 7:30 and doesn't return until suppertime. Virtually the entire day she's either on the court or exercising. One night we had a dinner party. About 10:30, while everyone else was watching TV, the lights on my court went on. I went out and saw Barbara hitting serves. She said she hadn't hit the number of buckets she had set out to hit that day and wouldn't go to bed until she had."

One day recently, after a workout with two Harvard players, she realized she was referring to them as boys, though both were seniors and two years older than she. As she arranged ice bags around her left ankle and left elbow and shoulder, a preventive measure she takes after playing, Potter speculated aloud about why.

"Maybe on the tennis tour there are people and places and situations that I've seen that they haven't," she says. "I've waded through more muddy puddles, perhaps. It sounds kind of jaded and cynical and old, and that's hardly what I am, but think about the out-for-the-big-buck kinds of people, that sleazier half of the world that seems to flock to the big-money professions like tennis. They don't hang around the Ivy League too much. But they're there in the tennis world, and they have to be dealt with."

Potter is shielded from the excesses of the hustlers by Sharf, a 47-year-old Harvard-educated businessman who inherited a sporting-goods concern and from it has built a fortune that allows him to indulge his fancies—collecting 19th century American art and managing the financial affairs of some 35 women players, none of them a superstar. Compared with Mark McCormack and Donald Dell, the giants of the tennis managing world, Sharf's Pender Sports Corp. is a cottage industry. But his concern for his clients, no matter how little money they earn for him and themselves, makes him possibly the world's best-loved agent.

Now that Potter has won a tournament she is potentially a big earner. "In the last year good opportunities have been coming to her," says Sharf, "but she's not taking a lot of them because of her tremendous desire to concentrate on her tennis." Of the immediate future, however, Sharf says: "In 1982 her off-court income will be a meaningful amount." On the court Potter made $172,867 in 1981; this year she's already won $73,900.

For one who vividly remembers the satisfying kerchink of a hard-earned quarter. Potter is still admirably serene about money. "My idea of security is having a couple of books lined up to read, and luxury is having the time to read them," she says. "The more you win the less time you have to read. Richer and dumber, poorer and smarter, I guess."

As for the formal education she has set aside for now, she says, "The tennis tour has been an out-of-classroom education that most students at Princeton won't ever get, or if they get it, they'll get it much later, when it might be the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself."

Getting rich, maybe, but certainly not dumb.

PHOTOA formidable serve and improved concentration have vaulted Potter into the Top 10. PHOTOBobbie is a collagist, and Mark, who executed this portrait of Barbara, is a painter. PHOTOSharf's clients are as fond of him as he is of 19th century art. PHOTOPotter forwent Princeton to taste tennis.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)