Wednesday was a fine day for Charleston sports fans.
The city hosted not one, but two former athletes that reached No. 1 world status. Evander Holyfield was in town to promote the USA Boxing Junior Olympic National Championships. And then, on the Charleston Tennis Club courts, Tracy Austin revisited a familiar haunt.
Ah, yes. Back in 1970 to ’88 Charleston was quite the tennis hotbed. The city hosted the USTA Girls 16 National Championships. The first winner: Chris Evert. Mary Joe Fernandez won in ’84.
And the 1978 winner was none other than Austin, who two years later held the distinction of being the No. 1 women’s tennis player for the latter part of 1980.
“I think I came here for the first time when I was 13 and played Jeannie Duvall a three-hour match on one of these courts,” Austin said after holding a clinic at the CTC. “I came here in ’77. Then I came here in ’78 and won the title. So I have good memories here.”
Austin, now 51, lives in Rolling Hills, Calif., with her husband and three sons. She’s a commentator for the Tennis Channel and works Wimbledon for the BBC.
Austin said she sees a healthy state of professional tennis, even if the sport’s popularity has waned somewhat in the Kanawha Valley.
“I think the kids are playing so many sports,” Austin said of the local downturn. “There are so many choices at such a young age. We in tennis have to do a better job of getting some of the good athletes interested. To produce some of the great champions we’ve had in the past we need to get some of the great athletes involved. And as far as tennis players, so many kids get hooked on other sports first. I’ve seen that with my sons’ friends. As a mom you sign them up for Little League at 5 and they get hooked on that. Or you sign them up for soccer. It’s kind of the thing to do. I’d like to see us try to get younger kids involved right away.”
The results can be surprising. Austin moved from her win in Charleston into a golden era of tennis. She was the only one to break up the volleying of No. 1 status between Evert and Martina Navratilova until Steffi Graf came along in 1987. A series of injuries prevented Austin from doing more.
“It was very exciting,” Austin said. “Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe ... I mean, so many personalities. The personalities crossed over to the regular public. More than just tennis players knew them. The dynamic of feisty John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors versus the ice of Bjorn Borg was interesting. Chris Evert and Martina [Navratilova]. The personalities made it so interesting.”
Austin was one of them because of her youth at the time. She is still the youngest female U.S. Open champion, completing the feat at 16 years old. She became the youngest inductee ever of the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Tennis these days?
“I think it’s great,” Austin said. “For Maria Sharapova to win her second French Open before she won her second among other [Grand] Slams was quite ironic. She was never comfortable on clay. Many were doubtful she could win on that surface and now she’s won the French twice. An incredible competitor with incredible toughness.
“Women’s tennis is very healthy. We’re seeing some younger players start to come through. Eugenie Bouchard is very impressive. Sloane Stephens is very impressive. [French Open runner-up] Simona Halep is only 22. Some of the young blood has a lot of promise.
“And on the men’s side [the sport is healthy] as well. You have [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic and [Roger] Federer is still playing well at 32.”
On Wednesday, though, Austin worked with the CTC members with a smile on her face on a humid, overcast day.
“I love to do this,” she said with a smile. “I love to teach. I don’t do it that often. But I love to see improvement quickly, and the people out here today were very motivated and into tennis. It was a good time.”
Just like the old times.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.