WTA Moments is a video series highlighting key historic milestones at the tour's biggest events. This week, WTA Moments: Rome celebrates both Chris Evert's unmatched winning streak on clay and the day it ended at the hands of Tracy Austin at the Foro Italico.
On this day, 41 years ago, 16-year-old Tracy Austin put in an unrelenting performance to edge top seed Chris Evert in the semifinals of the 1979 Internazionali BNL d'Italia, ending the Queen of Clay's historic 125-match win-streak on clay. Earning her second win in six matches against Evert, Austin rallied from 1-4 down in the third set to hand the World No.2 her first loss on clay in nearly six years, winning 6‐4, 2‐6, 7‐6(4).
"Chrissie was so difficult to play on clay," Austin said. "Her game style was perfect for the surface."
Evert's incredible streak on clay remains unmatched and the numbers behind her domination on the terre battue speak for themselves. Her 125-match win-streak on clay remains the longest single-surface winning streak in the Open Era. Further underlining her status as the Queen of Clay, Evert lost just eight sets during her win-streak and 71 of the 258 sets she played over that span were won 6-0.
But all good things must come to an end. "After winning 125 consecutive matches on clay, my best surface, it was only inevitable that I was going to lose at some point," Evert said.
The odds may have been stacked against Austin, but ignorance was bliss for the American teenager.
"I felt pretty confident going into the semifinals against Chrissie," Austin said. "I didn't know her record. That, I think, was extremely helpful because she had not lost since the Summer of 1973. This was the Spring of 1979, so you're talking almost six years."
"It was like playing a mirror image. We were both consistent, hit the ball deep, moved well, and had terrific powers of concentration. We weren't going to give you too many free points. That was difficult when playing Chrissie. She had the will of a champion."
"I got down 4-2 in the third and I was exhausted physically, exhausted mentally. Somehow I felt stronger and I was able to just continue to battle. I won 7-6 in the third and that only got me to the finals."
Here is how The New York Times reported Austin's final set comeback:
"The final set was a grim baseline battle in which Miss Evert kept the momentum for a 4‐1 lead. But Miss Austin, whose concentration never wavered, scored with down‐the‐line, forehands that finally evened the set at 6‐6. She quickly got to 5‐2 in the tiebreaker, again on her down‐the‐line winners. At match point, a wild one, she took the net and smashed a lob that caught Miss Evert out of position.
“I don't remember what happened on the last point,” Miss Austin said later. “I was just swinging my racquet around in the air and I just wanted to break her streak.”
Miss Evert took the defeat philosophically, saying: “I'm not disappointed about the streak. The match was more important to me. I just have to hand it to Tracy. She was loose and hit the winners when she needed them.”
"It was a tough loss for me but looking back I'm glad it was against Tracy Austin, who's a great competitor," Evert said. "She was young, very talented, and she just put pressure on me the whole match. She played a better match than me. But I still can't believe I lost 7-6 in the third."
Twenty-four hours later, Austin would go on to defeat Germany's Sylvia Hanika to lift the trophy, the first European clay title of her prodigious career. Four months later, Austin became the youngest woman to win the US Open at the time, defeating Martina Navratilova and Evert back-to-back to hoist her maiden major, paving her path to becoming the WTA's fourth World No.1 less than a year later.