That was indeed Tracy Austin prancing around on a tennis court last week, looking 16 again even though her teeth were no longer in braces, her racket didn't need a press and her hair was tucked into a baseball cap instead of being tied in pigtails. At the Evert Cup in Indian Wells, Calif., Austin, 30, won her first tour match in nine years and pulled a major upset in the second round before losing to a no-name in the third. Was this a genuine comeback or just a sweet apparition? Even Austin seemed taken aback by what she had accomplished. "Do I look like I've been hit with a stun gun?" she said.
When a former tennis champion comes out of retirement, it's often to satisfy vanity or to keep a fading name alive in lucrative customer circles. Whatever Austin's reasons for entering her first tour event since 1989, she became the main event at Indian Wells. She first defeated 114th-ranked Rennae Stubbs of Australia 7-5, 6-4. Then she dealt Bulgaria's Katerina Maleeva, the No. 12 player in the world, a staggering defeat, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3. A reality check was issued by 76th-ranked Stephanie Rottier, a heavy hitter from the Netherlands who blew Austin off the hard court 6-1, 6-0.
Austin hasn't played the circuit since 1984, when she was forced from the court by sciatica and other injuries. A comeback in 1989 was cut short when she injured her right knee so badly in a car accident that it had to be rebuilt with bone from her hip. Since then Austin has developed thriving careers as a television analyst and as a crowd pleaser in corporate tennis events. She has also acquired a fiancè, Scott Holt, whom she will marry on April 17. But she has never stopped toying with the idea of returning to the tour. Said Austin, "I didn't want to get to 40 and say, 'Gee, if only....' " Last September she began training in earnest.
Although she is a two-time U.S. Open champ and reached the top of the world rankings, Austin was clearly a stranger in a strange land at Indian Wells. She referred to Katerina Maleeva as Manuela, mistaking Katerina for her older tennis-playing sister. She had to have Rottier pointed out before their match.
However, if Austin was in a haze off the court, she was very focused when on it. Her hitting is unprepossessing by modern standards, but her concentration and her refusal to make mistakes remain fierce. Chris Evert, who once regarded Austin as her nemesis, even taking a hiatus from the tour in 1980 after losing three matches to her in two weeks, applauded Austin's nerve. "I'd have been double-faulting all over the place," she said.
The weight of Austin's reputation was far heavier than the balls she hit. Against Stubbs, a 21-year-old serve-and-volleyer, Austin simply kept the ball within the lines and let the kid panic. "I did everything wrong," said Stubbs after having spewed shots all over Southern California. "Let's put it this way—I don't think Tracy will get the comeback player of the year award." Maleeva choked, too, finishing dismally after having thrashed Austin in the second set. "Let her play a few months, and then we'll talk," said Maleeva.
How much Austin plays in the next few months will determine whether she is making a serious comeback or just trifling. "I don't have a plan," said Austin last week, adding that her biggest concerns right now are a couple of bridal showers and her wedding. She does have a commitment to play World Team Tennis this summer, and she has entered next week's Lipton Championships, in Key Biscayne, Fla. Robert Lansdorp, her coach of 23 years, maintains that the top 20 isn't out of the question for Austin, but only if she commits to playing the tour for six months. "She can't take just one tournament and call it a comeback," he said. "We'll see what she does. I think deep down she wants to do it."