"She has a tunnel vision...no, that sounds bad...a tenacity of purpose unequaled by any athlete we've ever represented. She has relentless determination such as I've never seen, and she's been that way since the age of 12 as far as I can tell."
—DONALD DELL, SENIOR PARTNER/DELL, CRAIGHILL, FENTRESS & BENTON, ATTORNEYS-AT-LAW; U.S. DAVIS CUP CAPTAIN, 1968-69
Sometimes an athlete has to prove himself again and again before he succeeds in overcoming an odd and very personal sort of resistance on the part of the sporting public and press. In tennis, women face this obstacle more often than men. Hard as it is to believe, now that she has been enshrined as the game's good and gracious queen, Chris Evert Lloyd had to win four U.S. Opens in a row before she conquered the hearts and minds of her countrymen. They had adored her, briefly, when she was a 16-year-old Florida schoolgirl who reached the semifinals at Forest Hills in 1971. But not long after that she came to be perceived as the Ice Maiden, and the romance cooled. Chris learned to live with her fate, but she never liked it.
In the late '70s Martina Navratilova won two Wimbledons and played some of the most exciting tennis the women's game has ever seen. But not until last September, after she had lost gallantly in the final of the U.S. Open, did she at last receive the outpouring of affection from fans and the media for which she had once longed.
And that brings us to Tracy Austin, who beat Navratilova on that emotional September afternoon at Flushing Meadow and this week may well face her again, in a showdown for No. 1 in the world at the Toyota Series Championships at New Jersey's Meadowlands. Austin, too, is one of those players the fans have resisted. Neither her baseline game in all of its extraordinary effectiveness nor her controlled and entirely professional on-court behavior has yet captured the public fancy. And because her private life has been that of a rich and famous but otherwise normal teenager—no scandal, no romance, no excess—she has not acquired a persona for tennis followers to hang their expectations on.
However, if Austin pines for public affection, she has never let on. In fact, she has seemed almost to thrive on the lack of it. In 1979 she and Pam Shriver, both then 16, played a match in front of a large, vociferous and entirely pro-Shriver crowd in Washington, D.C. Austin won the first set, 6-3, but in a dramatic turnabout, Shriver won the second 6-1, and the crowd went berserk. Between sets Austin wrapped her head in a towel to shut out the noise. In the third set she jumped out to a 4-0 lead. At that point, while the crowd whistled deafeningly and Shriver groaned, Austin stopped, bent down and spent a full minute retying her shoelaces. She closed out the set 6-1.
"I'll deny I ever said this," says a longtime acquaintance, "but I think she sometimes creates such situations because they help her to be competitive."
Even when Austin was an undersized 14-year-old wearing pinafores with sashes that tied in the back, the press more often thought of her as a marauding animal than as a child. She stood barely 5 feet and weighed only 90 pounds, yet one sportswriter called her the "hummingbird who plays like a killer hawk."
He wasn't wrong. Austin looked like a child, and off the court she was a child. But when it came to tennis she was from another planet, one peopled by small, emotionless, relentlessly determined adults. She smiled past her braces, she giggled girlishly, and she remained completely unawed.
But as soon as the fans figured out that child or no child, Austin wasn't an underdog, the honeymoon was over. When she won the U.S. Open as a 16-year-old pro, beating Good Queen Chris to become the youngest winner ever, her now-familiar victory jig, the one that was so cute when she was 14, somehow seemed inappropriate. Actually the jig is more of a hop. She clenches her fists, lowers her head, lifts one knee and hops, smiling delightedly all the while.
But Austin has always done things in her own way, secure in the love of her large and loyal family and insulated by the devotion of several layers of coaches, lawyers, agents and family friends. Just as she has never made excuses when she has lost, she has never taken less than full credit when she has won. She learned early, and experience has reinforced the knowledge, that if she did her part, success would follow. Conversely, when she lost, it wasn't that she had been beaten but that she had failed to do her part. Hers was a formula for inducing and maintaining confidence, and it paid off; before turning 16, she had won 27 national junior titles.