While Julie played, Lori banged balls against the house, occasionally breaking a window. She hit alone for hours. "We used to play mini-tennis out in the garage," Julie recalls. "Lori wanted to win so bad. She'd beg me to play. It was ridiculous. The racket was as big as she was."
Lori tagged along to Julie's tournaments. Pretty soon she was telling her father, "I can beat all of them." Finally, Herb and Marilyn entered her in a tournament. A man took one look at the half-pint and quipped, "She ought to be in diapers." Lori won.
In the summer of 1973 she faced Julie in the Memphis City girls' 12-and-under finals. Julie was so nervous she fainted during the match and defaulted. Immediately afterward, Lori, proud as she could be, ran up to the tournament director and asked him, "Can I have my trophy now?" Lori got so good so fast that before long Julie had to offer her sister $5 just to get her to hit with her. The Kostens had a prodigy.
As an 11-year-old Lori was short and a bit pudgy, but while the other girls just pushed the ball back, Lori blasted away and went for the lines. "I beat almost everybody 0 and 0," she says. "I didn't just beat them. I destroyed them."
She won the national 12-and-under indoor title and the Orange Bowl 12s in 1976 and the Orange Bowl 14s in 78. "I used to be into every point," says Lori. "People said, 'She plays every point like it's match point at Wimbledon.' I was never comfortable unless I was up 6-0, 5-0, 40-love."
Roland Jaeger remembers a final between Andrea and Lori when they were 12. Andrea seemed distracted. Later, Roland wanted to know why. Andrea shrugged. "I didn't think I could have won," she said. "Lori's still too good for me." But Andrea could forget her losses. As it developed, Lori never could.
Of course, her downfall didn't happen all at once. Just as it takes time to build champions, their unraveling doesn't occur overnight. Through her 12th, 13th and most of her 14th years, Lori's titles piled up. During the 1976 Sugar Bowl tournament, Lori was introduced at half-time at a New Orleans Jazz basketball game in the Superdome. Two years later Eddie Sapir, a Kosten family friend, Billy Martin's lawyer and a confidant of Joe Namath's, introduced Lori to Leif Garrett when the teen idol was grand marshal at a "parade of champions" in New Orleans before the Ali-Spinks fight. She and Garrett became good buddies. One teen magazine captioned a picture of Lori "Women's Tennis Star." Namath wrote her letters of encouragement. She met other celebrities.
But Lori grew uncomfortable being at the top, at having—rather than simply trying—to win. After she won the national 12-and-under indoor title, she stayed in her room for two days, refusing interviews with local newspapers. Once friends at school asked about an article on her in the morning paper. After class Lori went home, found the story, ripped it into little pieces and threw the scraps on the floor of her parents' bedroom. She was starting to come apart.
Friends now talk about Lori's sensitivity, and it's true that any slight, real or imagined, brings a stricken look to her face. "Lori gets hurt easily," says Julie. "To me she was like a Brooke Shields. How can you lead a normal life? It was so competitive, sort of like who is going to break first. And it's worse with girls. They put more pressure on themselves than the guys."
Julie became accustomed to people asking, "Are you the good one or the bad one?" But she stuck with tennis, crying after every loss. Then one day she didn't cry. "That's when I knew I didn't care anymore," she says. From then on, if she and Lori were playing the same event, Julie couldn't wait to get off the court so she could watch her sister.