Austin clambers to top of broken-rung tennis ladder

As elated as Tracy Austin was when she won the 1979 United States Open Women's Tennis Championship, she was happier this time -- even if she didn't do another victory jig.

"This one means more to me, because at 16, the first title came so fast," she said after a tough 1-6, 7-6, 7-6 triumph over a rejuvenated Martina Navratilova at the National Tennis Center. The win was worth $60,000 in regular prize money plus a 10 percent bonus given this year because it is the centennial national championship.

Though still a teen-ager, the third-seeded Austin has had to fight her way back to being the Tracy of old. A career-threatening injury sidelined her the first four months of this year. Suddenly, the ladder of success, which she had always climbed with predictable regularity, dealt her a broken rung.

Not being able to play made the country's youngest athletic millionaire realize just how much the game means to her, and generally gave her a new perspective.

Chris Evert Lloyd, top-seeded, noticed the difference.

"The layoff gave her a lot of time to think about herself as a person, not as a tennis machine," Chris said. "She's not concerned only with Tracy; she's more unselfish, more giving. It may be the best thing in the world, maybe ever, for her career. She can still keep her determination, guts, and intensity, but maybe she'll be able to separate it off the court."

Evert Lloyd, of course, once went through an introspective, though voluntary, layoff of her own. Ironically, Tracy may have prompted it via her mastery of Chris during a stretch that began with the '79 US Open final.

Their career parallels have been numerous, right down to the two-fisted backhands they utilize so effectively. Both come from very tennis-oriented families, have impeccable court manners, and show little emotion on court. Both also project a very feminine image in dress and grooming.

Some would say Tracy has copied Chris's success formula, especially as regards her incredibly steady baseline game. The two of them have made it the dominant style of the mid-'70s to the present.

Certainly this style has received the US Open seal of approval, since Evert Lloyd and Austin have now combined to win the last seven American women's crowns.

That streak appeared in jeopardy when Navratilova used her big serve and stinging volleys to dominate the first set.

Austin, after breezing through her first five opponents, including 11 th-seeded Barbara Potter in the semifinals, obviously had met her match in a rededicated Navratilova, whose game had slipped since back-to-back Wimbledon titles in 1978 and 1979.

Troubled with personal problems, Martina had let her attention slip from the game. But now she's back on track, reaping the rewards of a more rigorous practice regimen, added quickness, a more thoughtful approach to strategy, and less shakable concentration.

The Open was the ideal proving ground for the slimmer, stronger, Czech native. She had never reached the final, and, having become a US citizen earlier this year, she was now playing for her official national championship.

To win it, though, she would have had to beat Evert Lloyd and Austin only 24 hours apart. That was a tall order, and indeed she seemed a bit mentally and physically drained after beating Chris in perhaps the best women's match of any recent Open.

"I felt like this was the final," she said after eliminating Evert Lloyd in a nationally televised semifinal match 7-5, 4-6, 6-4. The match was a glowing endorsement for the women's game, but a real blow to the loser.

Going into the match, Chris had lost only two of 53 matches all year. A victory here, she said, would make this her best year ever, and only the second one in which she had won both the Wimbledon and US championships.

"Victory would be much sweeter now because there are so many good players," she said. "When I won in 1976 there was only one other top player, Evonne Goolagong, and then Martina came along. Now there are five top players."

Besides herself, Austin, and Navratilova, they are Australian and French Open champion Hana Mandlikova and US Clay Court champion Andrea Jaeger. Mandlikova lost to Evert Lloyd in the quarterfinals here, and Jaeger was upset in a second-round match.

An indication that Austin may be No. 1 came before the Open, when she strung together wins over Pam Shriver, Navratilova, and Evert Lloyd to win the Canadian Open.

Deep, penetrating ground strokes, pinpoint passing shots, and an upgraded serve have been the keys to the 18-year-old Californian's recent success, and they are what turned the tide against Navratilova.

Tracy even aced Martina a few times, thanks partly to conditions that made the court seem like a wind-swept flight deck. In the first women's Open final ever to produce two tiebreakers and the only one -- men's or women's -- decided by one in the last possible set -- Austin won the big points.

Throughout the tournament, Tracy credited new coach Marty Riessen with helping her game. He, in turn, said his pupil's serve and court sense are improving. "She's adjusting," he observed. "When something's working, I've told her to exploit it. Before, she was good; now she's more flexible."

Against Navratilova, for example, she quit hitting short to her foe's backhand and began drilling shots down the line.

"The only thing for me is to go to the net more," Austin said, adding with a laugh, "I always say that."

The suggestion that her game might be too conservative and dull brings a quick rebuttal. "I feel like I'm an aggressive player," she counters. "Even a baseline player has to open up the court to get winners. I try to hit deep and wait for the opening, then put the ball away. I hit the ball hard."

That she does, and not even Navratilova, perhaps the game's hardest hitter, is apt to argue the point right now.

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