Martina Navratilova, who is noted for her habit of talking severely to herself on court, delivered an impassioned complaint late in the first set of her final match against Tracy Austin in the women's pro tennis tournament in Washington, D.C. last Sunday. "It's so boring I can't stand it," she yelled.
From which it might be inferred that she was several miles in front of young Austin, 16 years old and a professional since way back last October. That wasn't the case. In fact, she was down 5-2 and headed for a straight-set loss, 6-3, 6-2. And if she really was bored, she was the only one among the 5,000 fans who had crammed themselves into the little Smith Center arena at George Washington University.
But last Friday, minutes before Austin was to meet Pam Shriver in their quarterfinal, La Navratilova was in an imperial mood. "I don't care which of these kids wins," she announced dismissively. A moment later, though, she was wryly noting that even if she had won this particular tournament—now renamed the Avon Championship—three of the last four times, everybody's attention this year was on those same kids. She turned to Ann Kiyomura, whom she had just beaten in her own quarterfinal, and said haughtily, "Nobody is interested in us flyweights. All they want to do is watch the heavyweights."
Although Navratilova had just won 6-3, 6-1, she had looked no sharper than she had in the early rounds. Certainly she had produced majestic cross-court shots and occasional majestic aces, but she had also committed a lot of unforced, unmajestic errors, throwing away points like an Arab prince ridding himself of riyals at a casino. She had coughed a lot (a cold had plagued her all week), had cursed a lot in Tex-Slovakian and had given the umpire a rude gesture before she came through.
All of which seemed to indicate that either Shriver or Austin, if one of them reached the final, might have a prime opportunity to terminate Navratilova's recent Washington near-monopoly.
This was not the only reason, though, for the special excitement in the air at Smith Center on Friday night. The indoor arena is only about 50 miles from Lutherville, Md., which is Shriver's home. And, as she was to say later, quite unselfconsciously, "I guess I'm the darling of the area. They think I'm kind of cute." Gauged by the number of buses with Maryland license plates parked outside, she was almost certainly right. A lot of the fans who filled the arena had come to see Pam. In particular, to see Pam beat Tracy.
The match involved a minor piece of tennis history, also. In junior events all over the country, Tracy had a 9-0 record against Pam. Now, though, they were meeting for the first time as official adults. Whatever had happened in the past didn't count. As far as the computer that ranks tennis players was concerned this was a fresh start. They were both 16, and although Pam is still an amateur, from now on it's serious.
As far as the crowd was concerned and the pundits also, the battle lines were clearly drawn. It would be a contest between Austin's skill in all aspects of the game, her coolness and her comparatively greater experience vs. Shriver's aggression and powerful serve. But the serve didn't appear to impress Austin a great deal. Wearing her look of perpetual worry, as if she knew she shouldn't be out this late, Tracy banged it straight back at Shriver—and broke her serve. From the crowd came a long moan of disappointment.
It was justified. Austin might look just a touch like a Raggedy Ann doll, but Shriver was playing like one. Austin's modest service, maybe the least impressive part of her game, had Pam putting forehand returns into the net or firing past the baseline. Once, furious, she kicked the ball into the crowd. Her lack of match practice—her last serious game had been in the 1978 U.S. Open final in which she lost to Chris Evert—stood out like a double fault: her misjudging of short balls at the net was characteristic.
Meanwhile, Austin's return of Shriver's service was almost impeccable. Again and again she scored with hard shots from defensive positions. At the end of the first set it was 6-3, and it must have seemed a smart idea to a lot of people to go out and make sure of a good seat on the bus.