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Young And Old, Wise And Goofy
Sarah Pileggi
March 08, 1982
Barbara Potter, tennis' newest star, is half grown-up, half schoolgirl and, on the court, all hate-to-lose singlemindedness
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March 08, 1982

Young And Old, Wise And Goofy

Barbara Potter, tennis' newest star, is half grown-up, half schoolgirl and, on the court, all hate-to-lose singlemindedness

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Potter is tall (5'9") and slim (135 pounds). Her skin has the pale perfection of the beauties painted by Lawrence or Gainsborough. Even after a strenuous match her cheeks take on only the faintest pink tinge. Off the court her style is upper-middle-class suburban. She wears pearls when she dresses up, has her hair cut at Elizabeth Arden and looks equally at home in a silk dress or a sweat suit.

On court she is still half schoolgirl, gawky at times, given to occasional goofy mannerisms as she tries to goad herself into a state of ever greater intensity. Austin has described Potter's big left-handed serve as "the toughest in women's tennis if it's working. She has so many different kinds—flat, slice, American twist." Like Navratilova and Hana Mandlikova, Potter plays an attacking game. A major factor in her success the past year is her vastly improved second delivery, crucial for a net rusher.

But of greater significance is her growing tactical sophistication. "There are so many situations, nobody can be in control of all of them, Chris and Tracy included," says Potter. "However, they have a greater understanding of how to play the important points than most of the other players. I'm improving my understanding of it every day, I hope. But, I'll tell you, that's where it's at, concentration wise."

The greatest current influence on Potter's game is Bill Drake, the professional at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. He has been her coach since she turned pro in January 1979. Drake travels with his star pupil six or seven weeks a year, but more often they meet in a bubble on top of a parking garage in downtown Boston. Before he turned to teaching, Drake played Forest Hills twice and toured Europe a couple of summers, just enough play to give him a taste of the pressures that a player of Potter's ability faces.

Drake has devised an approach to coaching that both he and Potter think is unbeatable. "We never stress whether she's going to win or lose," he says. "Emphasis on that can stifle the ability to grow and improve. Even a loss can be a step forward. We try to be realistic in our evaluation of each match. It helps to defray the pressure of big-time tennis if you can put the matches in perspective. Barbara can never really be beat. She can only be postponed."

"You have to enjoy the process," says Potter. "The idea of building, and overcoming your weaknesses. If you do, then, when you have reached the moment of truth, it's almost like you have a base to fall back on. I hate to lose. I hate to lose. But if you've given a match your best shot and nothing has stopped you except fate or circumstance or the fact that the opponent was too tough that day, then you have nothing to complain about."

The test of Drake's system comes each time Potter reaches a new level—when she defeated Sue Barker in 1979 for her first victory over a Top 10 player, for instance, or when she qualified for the Avon Championships in New York City last year. "It's an aftershock," says Drake. "The system is shook. The question then is, is it going to stay together? Her solid family backing helps here. She has enough stability that we can plug her back in and she's ready to go."

Potter is the fourth of five children and the only girl in a family of unusual attainment. Her father, Mark, is a painter and a teacher of art who has been inspiring Taft students since 1955. Her mother, Bobbie, who travels with her most of the year, is a collagist. Barbara's maternal grandfather is Hanson W. Baldwin, the celebrated former military editor of The New York Times and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for foreign correspondence in 1943.

For most of her life Barbara's home has been a 1760 farmhouse on the banks of the Weekeepeemee River in Woodbury, Conn. The rooms are furnished with antiques and Oriental rugs, and the walls serve as a gallery for the creative efforts of the entire family. Mark's studio is 20 yards from the house in a converted barn, and his subject matter is most often the nearby countryside. Occasionally he also paints portraits. One of them, of Barbara at age 9, hangs in the living room. "I remember earning 25� per hour posing for that," she says. "I had just received a little metal bank for Christmas, and the kerchink of a quarter going down into the box was the most satisfying sound of my whole childhood."

The Potter boys, led by their father, were hockey players. Because organized hockey wasn't available to Barbara, she was introduced to skiing at 5. By 10, she had become a promising junior racer. "She was the most unbelievable skier I ever saw," says her father. "She could wedel like crazy at 10."

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