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Looking Back at a Legend... Tracy Austin

She shone brightly but all too briefly, and she was at her very finest at Flushing Meadows.

Published September 10, 2010 12:00

Looking Back at a Legend... Tracy Austin
Tracy Austin, Wimbledon, 1977

Weeks at No.1: 21...11th on all-time list
Tour Singles Titles: 30…16th on all-time list
Grand Slam Singles Titles: 2
Career Match Win-Loss: 335-90 (.79)

From Maureen Connolly to Chris Evert, American tennis had known prodigies before Tracy Austin. But never had a player's destiny seemed so certain. The night before Tracy was born, her mom, Jeanne, was out hitting practice balls with her other children. Tracy was two she started tennis lessons, and when she was three a London paper sent a journalist to see what all the fuss was about. At four, Tracy was on the cover of World Tennis; at 10, she was playing the likes of Roy Emerson and Bobby Riggs in exhibitions. She won the first of 25 national junior titles at 11 and when she was 14 Sports Illustrated was ready to proclaim: 'A Star is Born'. 

But somehow Tracy's trajectory wasn't weird. The affluent Austins were an avid tennis clan: older siblings Pam, Jeff and John all became professionals, and her other brother, Doug, was a top college player. The daughter of nuclear physicist George, Austin benefitted from top notch coaching at the legendary Jack Kramer's club near her home in Southern California. Her first coach was Vic Braden, who had a background in psychology, but from the age of seven her game was shaped by a Dutch drillmaster called Robert Lansdorp, who knew how to exploit his charge's innate drive and discipline.

"He was part father, part brother, part tyrant - the perfect coach," Austin later wrote, adding she still had fun. Indeed, while the early start would play a role in her truncated career, which led to age eligibility rules for young players, love of tennis was clearly instilled in the young Tracy. This surely helped her through dark times, and is plain to see 30 years after her peak - in her work as a respected commentator and public speaker, in her charitable efforts and attendance at events celebrating the game. She's went from 'It Girl' to 'What If?' girl, and yet bitter doesn't seem to be in her vocabulary.

Braces and Backhands

Perhaps still running on the unspent energy of her playing career, the "disarming moppet" - as Billie Jean King once described Austin - has grown into a stateswoman of the sport. But, back in the day, her steely nerves, fleet footwork and relentless groundstrokes made a devastating impact. The pigtails and pinafores reflected her age and upbringing, but they were also a ruse: Here was a competitor as tenacious as she was tiny. "One cannot think of Tracy as a child," said Martina Navratilova. "If you do she will beat you."

Austin won her first adult title at the Avon Futures of Portland in 1977, when she was barely 14. Earlier that year she played Evert for the first time, in the round of 32 at Wimbledon. In 1978 she lost to Navratilova in the round of 16 at the All England Club, but won the girls' title there. It was only after falling to Evert in the quarters of the US Open that she eventually turned pro.

In 1979, Austin raised the stakes in a big way with her first major title at the Italian Open. The tournament is remembered not for her finals defeat of Germany's Sylvia Hanika, but for the fact she beat 24-year-old Evert in the semis, snapping the older American's 125-match clay court winning streak. Then, as now, it was the single surface match-win record, and one of Evert's most cherished achievements.

Adding insult to injury, that September Austin ended Evert's 31-match US Open winning streak to become the event's youngest champion, at age 16 years, nine months. It would be the first of five consecutive straight-set defeats dealt to a reeling Evert by her double-fisted mirror image. ''My feeling in that match was, okay, I've come up against somebody who is a better model of me at that stage,'' Evert recalled. "I've come up against somebody who is much more eager, who hits the ball harder, who's mentally tougher."

The Queen is Dead... Long Live the Queen?

While Evert contemplated retirement, Austin kept the records coming. On April 7, 1980, she became to that time the youngest No.1-ranked player in the Open Era (17 years, 3 months, 26 days). Among other things, this meant that for the first time in five years neither Evert nor Navratilova was queen bee. That year Austin was also part of the first brother-sister team to win Wimbledon's mixed doubles title (with John) and became the youngest athlete, male or female, to reach $1 million in career earnings.

Austin won the Avon Championships and Colgate Championships in 1980, and the Toyota Championships in 1981 - all season-ending showcases of the day. She won the US Open for a second time in 1981, defeating Navratilova in an historic third set tie-break. That year, as in 1979, she achieved the rare feat of beating Evert and Navratilova back-to-back. Twice. 

In 1982 the Austin juggernaut slowed considerably, however. Sciatica had sidelined her for eight months from late 1980 till the summer of 1981, and while she had successfully returned to win her second Grand Slam title, her back was hurting again. She lost to Hana Mandlikova in the quarters at both Roland Garros and Flushing Meadows, and to Billie Jean King in the same round at Wimbledon. Along with ominous early losses to lesser lights, Navratilova beat her both times they met, and her season ended with a humbling double-bagel loss to Evert at the Toyota Championships.

Still, no-one could have imagined the sole title Austin did win, at San Diego, would be her last.

The Long Goodbye

Though she managed a full schedule in the first half of 1983, Austin retired in the second set of her semi against Wendy Turnbull at Eastbourne in June. Her next appearance on the Tour was in February 1984, when she played two indoor tournaments on the Virginia Slims Circuit. But she was a shadow of former self, both outings resulting in second round losses to journeywomen.

After that, injury kept Austin out of the game for more than four years. Determined to return, she played doubles in seven tournaments in the second half of 1988. Two singles tournaments in the spring of 1989 resulted in first round losses but a real blow came on August 3, when Austin was badly hurt in a car accident. Her broken leg required surgery and it was a year before she could move normally, let alone play competitive tennis.

While Austin attempted another comeback in 1993-94, she knew there was more to life and this time her quest had the air of a farewell tour. The wins were sporadic - and during this period she married Scott Holt, with whom she would later have three sons.

After falling in the first round at Eastbourne in 1994, Austin called it quits for good - two years after she had become the International Tennis Hall of Fame's youngest inductee, at 29 years, seven months. Truth is, she could have stopped playing a decade earlier and still been accorded that honor. But giving up just wasn't her style.

Notable H2H: vs. Evert 8-9… vs. Goolagong 4-4 ... vs. Jaeger 8-2... vs. King 5-1…vs. Mandlikova 7-2...vs. Navratilova 13-20…vs. Wade 7-3

Gallery: Click here for a pictorial celebration of Austin's career.
Quotes on Tracy: What has been said about Austin?

To submit a fan tribute for Tracy, email Adam Lincoln at
alincoln@wtatour.com

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