Interview: Tracy Austin, former tennis player
TRACY Austin recalls her brief fling at the pinnacle of tennis with no hint of bitterness or regret, as Aidan Smith discovers
It’s 8.30 on another beautiful southern Californian morning and there’s a water-polo ball in the pool, a basketball on the garage forecourt and assorted racquets and bats lying around, waiting for this sporty household to get going.
The mother-of-three, who’s modelling the classic American soccer mom look, is keen to stress the normality of family life here in Rolling Hills, and this is plain to see. Still, I want to know where I might find hard evidence of Tracy Austin, two-times US Open tennis champ. “In the family room, but only one trophy,” she says. “Pre-1980, they never gave you anything. All that work and nothing to show for it. Amazing, huh?”
Austin won the title in 1979 – aged 16 years and nine months, the youngest player to triumph at Flushing Meadows – and again in 1981. As the American writer of his generation, the late David Foster Wallace, put it in his essay Tracy Austin Broke My Heart, she was the first of tennis’s “now-ubiquitous nymphet prodigies ... beautiful and inspiring”. But the girl who had it all at 17 would lose it all by 21, her elfin frame unable to withstand any more injuries.
If you’re expecting a tale of sadness and bitterness about being pushed too hard and too far at so tender an age, however, then you’ve come to the wrong house. Better to have loved might be Austin’s credo, and looking around, she’s hardly lost in life. “Maybe if my career had been managed differently, but I was the trailblazer and no-one really knew the proper way,” she says.
She loved her incredible life then, and loves her normal life now, as first and foremost a mother, but also, as she prepares to turn 50, a stateswoman for her sport with insightful views on, among other things, wunderkinds. We get to hear these views during Wimbledon and she’s back this year as part of the BBC’s team of experts.
Austin today wears her blonde hair in a glamorous style evocative of classic, and classically chauvinist, telly commercials (“Is she or isn’t she? ... That girl’s wearing Harmony hairspray!”). But in 1977 she was ponytailed in a pinafore dress and orthodontic teeth-braces for a Wimbledon debut at 14. “What do I remember about my first time? Everything. I’d never been abroad before and first I had to play in a tournament in Scotland, only there was a train strike. My coach was with us but my mom and me, we were pretty green, and then a tennis journalist offered us a ride all the way to Edinburgh. We were amazed at that. All I can remember of Edinburgh, I’m afraid, is that it was beautiful but cold. Wimbledon kinda dominated that trip.
“The special appeal was the same then as it is now: tradition. Grass courts, players all in white, the flowers, the elegance and just the sheer beauty of the place – these were things I thought I knew from watching on TV. But to then find myself amongst it all – wow, a big world was opened up. I reached the third round, losing to Chris Evert on Centre Court. I remember being very keen to do the right thing, such as the curtsey to the royal box, but ohmigod, which foot? At press conferences I was real shy, same as at the US Open that year when I reached the quarter-finals and they told me in the locker-room: ‘Phonecall for you ... it’s President Carter.’ So I always love coming back to Wimbledon. The history, you can just feel it. And I just think: Suzanne Lenglen played tennis right here, and Bill Tinden and Don Budge ... ”
Austin’s time was no less golden: the wooden racquet time of Evert and Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Yvonne Goolagong, and not forgetting Virginia Wade, jolly good fellow and ’77 champ.
I ask her if there are fewer characters in the game now, mentioning a favourite anecdote about eternal playboys Ille Nastase and Vitas Gerulatis mis-reading the time of their doubles match at the French Open, whooping it up at assorted Paris nightclubs, then having to jog to Roland Garros and glug coffee courtside in a vain attempt to sober up. She laughs and name-checks an earlier comedy double-act, the South Africans Gordon Forbes and Abe Segal, who’d arrive for tournaments considerably less flustered in pink velvet breeks and Rolls-Royces borrowed from actor friends.
“Another great guy from the 1960s, Barry MacKay, just died. He worked for those barnstorming Jack Kramer tours where they’d put down the court, play, then drive the station wagon to the next town.
“There was no prize money; they’d play for train tickets. Now, though, there’s a helluva lot on the line and just not the same camaraderie.” Or as Abe Segal puts it: “Players these days have got managers, hairdressers, masseurs, secretaries and the secretaries have got a secretaries. How the hell can they ever smile when they’ve got to worry about paying all the bills!”
“There were proper rivalries back then, too,” adds Austin. “and a lot of the champions really disliked each other. There was Mac [John McEnroe), Jimmy [Connors], Nastase, [Bjorn] Borg the iceman and Ivan Lendl, who nobody seemed to like, and they gave those games extra electricity. Today’s rivals, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, actually like each other.”
Yes, it’s a different sport now and the beaten man will cry when he loses, something the old gunslingers couldn’t have countenanced. So what of Andy Murray, can he ever win Wimbledon? “Absolutely he can. With Roger, Rafa and Novak [Djokovic], this may be the toughest era of all, but he still has a great chance.”
Austin said this five years ago when she enthused about Murray’s “amazing hands”, touch on the drop-shot and understanding of the court’s geometry. Has he improved since? “His fitness used to be questionable; now he’s one of the fittest guys out there. He’s always thinking of how he can get even better, experimenting with diets, changing coaches and really trying his darnedest to locate the final piece of the puzzle and become a champion.”
Tracy Austin broke David Foster Wallace’s heart because her memoirs were so bland, although he was scornful of almost all sports biogs. I haven’t read her book but today I’m enjoying the colour in her stories, and the perceptiveness. “I see kids playing tennis today who don’t actually like the sport,” she says. “They’re playing because they want to become pros or they’re being pushed by their dreadful parents. You should start out from loving it.”
You can tell I think that Austin, the woman, has a deep appreciation of tennis history, not least of SW19 heritage, but you’d be wrong to assume from her ’77 memories that Austin, the girl, was a golly-gee Shirley Temple-type, in a permanent state of blushing amazement. “I had a lot of press that Wimbledon, a lot. Outside my hotel, at practice, everywhere. How did I cope? Okay, I think, because I’d had that pretty much from the start.”
Where do we begin with Austin’s remarkable story? Aged two when she was enrolled in tots’ coaching? Or a few hours before she was born when her mother Jeanne hit balls at daughter Pam and sons John, Jeff and Doug, presumably to help bring on labour? Then it went like this: aged 3 – picked out of the crowd, the gurus being impressed by the way she bounced on her feet; 4 – cover of World Tennis; 10 – American junior champ; 13 – cover of Sports Illustrated (headline: “A Star is Born”); 14 – becomes youngest winner of a pro tournament, the equivalent, wrote Wallace, of victory in the Indianapolis 500 when you’re not even old enough to hold a provisional driving licence.
The first big title came in ’79 in Rome, ending Evert’s incredible 125-game winning streak on clay, and led Austin into unchartered territory requiring a big decision. “Chris and the rest moved on to the French Open but I went back to school because I thought getting an ‘A’ in Social Studies was important. I mean, it was. I was No 1 in the world at 17 but I never played the French or the Australian because of school. I do wonder if I might have won a couple more titles if I’d put school on hold but there was no one advising me about that. And I’d have to say it was good to get back to normal at that time because my tennis life was pretty amazingly abnormal.”
The casual tennis observer might have suspected Austin of being too slight to even lift a racquet; they were quickly disabused of that. But when her bounceability removed the established order from tournaments, how did the older women react to such pig-tailed precociousness? Billie Jean King called her “the disarming moppet” and Evert was forced to concede: “I’m coming up against somebody who is a better model of me at that age ... more eager, hits the ball harder, mentally tougher.” But presumably there was some bitchiness, too.
“Well, I’m not going to tell you who was the worst – that would sell a lot of papers! Billie Jean was someone I idolised as a kid. In fourth-grade there’s a project called a book report where the subject is a famous person and she was my choice. Then suddenly I was playing Fed Cup and Wightman Cup where she was captain – amazing. A larger-than-life personality, for sure – the grande dame. You knew Billie Jean was in the room because she pretty near sucked all the oxygen out of it.
“My big sister Pam had played the tour and so some of the other ladies were friendly to me and my mom, trying to navigate our way through the WTA, though others weren’t but that’s life, right? That this 14-year-old kid comes along and starts beating them must have been real irritating.” And the route mother and daughter took could be unconventional. Rushing from her first US Open triumph to catch a plane, she was still in her tennis dress when she grabbed a cheeseburger, to the astonishment of the McDonalds staff.
In Austin’s wake, Andrea Jaeger came along with her ponytails and her precociousness. Mention of her name sparks some tetchiness. “I hate it when I get compared to Andrea, although she’s a lovely woman. Our careers were completely different, the motivation for them was completely different. My parents were the polar opposite of hers. Andrea’s very much prodded her on the backside whereas in my situation I was the driving force.” (Post-tennis Jaeger took a different path, too, becoming a nun).
Three of Austin’s siblings made the sport a career, including John, with whom she won Wimbledon’s mixed doubles in 1980. Their father George was a nuclear physicist and the year she was born their mother started running the pro shop at the newly-opened Jack Kramer Club in Rolling Hills. Now, following the Austin dynasty, Tracy’s three sons by husband Scott, Dylan, 16, Brandon, 14, and 11-year-old Sean, play tennis there.
“Mom was amazing. Now that I’m a tennis mom myself I appreciate that a thousand times more. I don’t ever remember her getting mad at me, criticising the way I’d played.
“Brandon plays national tournaments and I find it tough watching him from the stands and wanting to say: ‘Why didn’t you try this?’ But then I remember Mom, who was always so positive.” So there’s one Austin myth dispelled: she wasn’t robbed of her childhood by fiercely ambitious parents. “I missed my school prom but got to play Wimbledon six times so I think I ended up with the better deal.”
And it’s also a myth, she says, that she was a victim of burnout. “I got a lot of injuries, back and shoulder, and there was some misdiagnosis, again because these were pioneering times for young players.”
Then in 1989 her car was rammed by a drink-driver, pushing it back 70ft. The impact crushed her right knee which had to be rebuilt with a piece of hip bone. The injury still gives her gyp, restricting her to three games a week. Now she’s laughing. “I’m just Tracy Holt here, you know, because that’s my married name. When Sean was starting kindergarden one of the other moms invited a bunch of us to her country club. The conversation got round to tennis, the hostess asked me if I played and I said: ‘Yes, three times a week.’
“Friends who heard this wondered why I didn’t tell her the truth, but to me these days that is the truth: I’m Tracy Holt who manages to fit in three games while chauffeuring her sons around.”
So would she want the boys to follow in her footsteps? “I don’t want to sound cocky, but these are pretty big shoes.
“Dylan is a really nice player but at the end of the season, when everyone remembers key matches as their favourite moments, he’ll nominate the parties and the bus rides. Brandon is nationally ranked for his age group but it’s really tough even making it into the top 100. And as for Sean, he’s more keen on baseball – we’re heading off to training camp right now.”
Then she finishes with a story about Sean that tells us more about herself. “His team had a game the other day against boys from a less well-off part of the county. Our lot arrived 30 minutes before the start to find these lads, who probably never go on nice vacations, had already been working on their moves for an hour and a half. And guess what? They killed us!”
You’ve got to want to win. Some kids will make Sports Illustrated at 13 and think they’ve arrived. Tracy Austin didn’t.
• Tracy commentates for the BBC at Wimbledon. Coverage starts Monday across TV, radio and online
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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