Women’s professional tennis has had its share of golden eras, but the powerful game of Serena Williams appears to have made the current one that of dominance.
That wasn’t the case almost 40 years ago when Tracy Austin, freckles and braces intact, appeared on the cover of the March 22, 1976 issue of Sports Illustrated clutching the tool of her trade — a wood-framed tennis racket.
Water-cooler conversations about the rise and fall of professional tennis are mostly based on what was considered the most exciting time for the sport — the 1970s, when there was balance and unpredictability in majors.
Don’t tell that to Austin, who is just as excited about the game today, at the age of 51, as she was that spring day when she adorned the front of the nation’s most popular sports magazine.
“I think it’s a wonderful time (for tennis),” said Austin, who will be at the Charleston Tennis Club on June 11 conducting tennis clinics for juniors and adults, as well as playing an exhibition match. “It was a wonderful time then with Billie Jean King, Chris (Evert), Martina (Navratilova). It was diverse and dynamic, but, at the same time, I love the era now. Maria Sharapova is a dynamic personality, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are great players, but more important, they are phenomenal people. Bring (Novak) Djokovic in there, Andy Murray winning a few. I don’t like to name one golden era.”
Austin’s most memorable competition in the 70s while she still was a teenager included seasoned veterans like King, who was in her 30s, as well as Evert and Navratilova, both of whom were in their 20s. Evonne Goolagong, also in her 20s, was included in the mix. Austin even had competition among her contemporaries, with Andrea Jaeger, who was 15 when she lost in the 1980 U.S. Open semifinals.
However, Austin’s competitiveness, even at 16, set her apart and added undue pressure to the life of a mere child, especially after beating Evert in straight sets to win her first U.S. Open in 1979.
“With me being a mother of an 18-, 16-, and 13-year-old, and to think that my 16-year-old would be winning his first U.S. Open and my 18-year-old would be winning his second, puts it in perspective,” Austin said. “I think I did a really good job of compartmentalizing. I stayed in school, realizing I had something other than tennis.
“There was a tremendous demand, playing Chris (Evert) and Martina (Navratilova) on the weekend, making commercials at the Plaza Hotel in New York and going to school on Monday,” she added. “I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think I handled it well.”
Her attention has shifted to her network contributions and focus on promoting the game.
“I did tennis commentary from 3 a.m. for six to eight hours and then watched the women’s Fed Cup for three or four hours,” the two-time U.S. Open champion and 1980 Wimbledon winner said. “My husband asked if I ever get tired of it yet and I said no.”
In addition to providing commentary for NBC and the USA Network and authoring the book, “Beyond Center Court: My Story by Tracy Austin,” she remains diligent in her efforts to maintain interest in the game that has shaped her life. Despite reaching No. 1 in the world and winning three Grand Slam titles, Austin never sustained dominance during her time on the tennis scene, primarily because of circumstances beyond her control.
She was the youngest women’s singles champion at the U.S. Open and, in 2002, became the youngest inductee in the history of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Back injuries and an automobile accident shortened her career, forcing premature retirement in 1994 at the age of 26. On Aug. 3, 1989, a van that ran a red light at high speed struck the vehicle Austin was driving. Doctors told Austin she suffered a bruised heart, bruised spleen and a sprained back. In her book, Austin explains that she was unable to move normally until a year after the accident.
The incident derailed her career, but she felt lucky to be alive.
“It’s funny, the other day on Twitter, the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) mentioned that I became No. 1 in the world, they said on April 7, 1980, and I was the only player other than Martina and Chris for a 10-year period who was No. 1,” Austin said. “I’d like to think I would’ve won some more and that I would’ve been in the mix with Martina and Chris, but I don’t sit and think about that. That’s not the way it was and the way it went. After the car accident, I realize there’s no way I should still be here. I’m very appreciative. When you look at the damage to the car, it puts things into perspective. You wonder, ‘How did I get out of this situation alive?’”
Austin will be making a return to Charleston where she competed in the national 16s for “two or three years.”
She recalls flying in “on top of a mountain,” referring to Yeager Airport.
“It was a big deal, the way I remember it,” she said. “If you were seeded, local car dealerships would provide your parents with a car for use for the weekend … a red convertible,” she said. “It was a big deal in town.”
The clinic is scheduled for June 11 with the adult clinic tentatively set for 10 a.m.-noon. Lunch will be served at noon with the junior clinic slated for 2-4 p.m. Austin will meet with parents from 4:30-5:30 p.m. followed by an exhibition match from 6-7:30 p.m. and a cocktail party at 7:30 p.m.
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Rich Stevens at email@example.com or 304-348-4837