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She arrived in Great Britain at 6:30 on a miserably cold and rainy morning, but two dozen reporters and photographers were there to meet her anyway. During the following week she was given official escorts and the kind of attention reserved for personages. Then on the big day, her picture was splashed across several columns on the front pages of London's three most distinguished dailies. The Times caption began: RESTING BEFORE THE ORDEAL.... The marvelous saga of Tracy Austin had wound its way to Wimbledon.
Over the 100 years of the lawn tennis championships of the All England club, there never had been anyone quite like Tracy Austin. The debuts of Evonne Goolagong (at 19) and of Chris Evert (at 17) had been noteworthy and charming. Lottie Dod had won the tournament back in 1887, after the invention of strawberries but before the founding of the BBC, and she was only 15. But their appearances paled before that of Austin.
And her braces. And her pigtails. And her size 6� feet. And her cute little bib-and-tucker Disney World waitress pinafores. And, of course, her age.
"Fourteen," Chris Evert sighed one day, letting it sink in. "Eight years younger than me. Eight years!"
When the All England club rescinded its hoary age rule that competitors had to be at least 16, it was considered some kind of public-relations gimmick to capitalize on Austin's publicity, or to add much-needed interest to the women's draw, or to placate Captain Kangaroo or something. Though the club had a legitimate excuse because of her precocious achievements, it is doubtful that even the blue-blazered fathers of Wimbledon had any idea how well the kid could play.
Last winter, following her victory at Portland on the Avon futures circuit, Tracy left Dapple Gray School in Rolling Hills, Calif. during show-and-tell period to go up to the big league where she won four matches in four Virginia Slims tournaments, including defeats of Greer Stevens, the top-ranked woman in South Africa, and Dianne Fromholtz, eighth-ranked in the world. Twice she extended Rosie Casals, who was forced to stop hitting ground strokes and resorted to drop shots to wear Tracy down.
Like Evert back in her bassinet days, Tracy is all steely concentration and double-fisted backhands. Unlike Evert, she spurns long rallies to go for the big winners. She loves to charge the net searching for volley opportunities, which is not only rare for a girl of such tender years but also fairly dangerous for anyone who, at 4'11", 90 pounds, just makes it over the tape with her nose.
The British were captivated with Tracy. She seemed so fresh, bright, unaffected, cooperative, polite, outrageously nice—and had such a wonderful metallic smile—that everyone wished her well and predicted superlative things. More to the point, with women's tennis in its parlous state—Goolagong-Cawley a new mother, Margaret Court an old mother, Billie Jean King aging, Evert movie-star dating—Tracy just might have to be great. As Francoise Durr says, "Zere is no secret to Tracee. We need 'er so bad."
And here she came last week, scurrying along the paths and up and down the ancient staircases of Wimbledon; gaping at the players, buildings and enormous crowds; making such observations as "They should put tunnels in this place," and "If I eat one more strawberry, I'll throw up," and "All the women in London have red hair."
Tracy would sit with her mother in the lobby of the Gloucester Hotel and gawk at the famous faces. Billie Jean would walk up to tell Tracy that B.J.'s sheepdog, Lucy, could not make the trip and that the child should keep a diary for the future. Ilie Nastase would pass by, whereupon Tracy would tug her mother's sleeve and gasp, "Look, look, it's him! Oh Mom, don't look!"