Six years ago Tracy Austin was the youngest player on the women's tennis circuit. Today she is a veteran of 20 who has already made one comeback and faces a serious challenge in re-establishing herself as a champion.
Even though she was ranked No. 4 in the world in 1982, it was a subpar year by her own lofty standards. She won only one of a dozen tournaments, down from 12 of 21 in '80, and 7 of 14 in '81.
Last year's disappointing performance was generally attributed to a lingering injury that limited her playing time. Yet that problem appears behind her now as she's back to playing full time, seeking a return to her earlier form.
By her own admission, a curtailed playing schedule has actually been a help in one way. Time off the circuit gave Austin time to think, slow her life down a bit, and mature. ''Life was going so fast before,'' she says. ''Last year gave me time to learn more about life, to grow as a person, and it made me realize what's really important is being happy and doing something you love to do. Right now, I love tennis, and I love my life style.''
What she has dearly missed, however, is winning. Austin's last tournament victory was in August of last year. She has been showing signs lately, though, that she may be about ready to break out of her victory drought. So far in '83, Austin has reached the semifinals at Houston, Chicago, and Boston, then two weeks ago she got to the final of the Family Circle tournament in Hilton Head, S.C., and took a set from Martina Navratilova before bowing 5-7, 6-1, 6-0.
Her main obstacle now is in regaining the mental aspect of the game. ''What I need now,'' she relates, ''is more tough, grind-it-out matches, so I'll be mentally tough again. I didn't have enough of them last year.''
Austin notes that things started getting better last November. ''I got more motivated, and played more matches. I'm now realizing how mentally tough I was before my injuries. As I'm coming back it takes a while to stop thinking things like 'that lady in the stands is wearing a nice dress,' instead of the score being 30-15. I need to work on my concentration once again. I never realized how well I concentrated before.''
Though Austin has worked diligently to improve her all-around game, she has no illusions about ever becoming a great serve-and-volley player.
''I want to be more aggressive,'' she says, ''but my game will always be a ground stroke game. It's my style of game and I'm not going to completely change what has brought me success.''
Her confidence has carried her this far, and it continues. Her main strength, she says, is believing in herself.
In spite of setbacks in her career, she has never been outside the top 10 in the world since 1978. In 1979 Tracy won her first major title at the Italian Open, where she snapped Chris Evert Lloyd's 125-match clay court winning streak. The same year, at age 16, she became the youngest player ever to win the US Open. And in the summer of 1980 she gained the No. 1 world ranking.
All this was only the continuation of her junior days, when she won nearly everything in sight, including a record 25 national junior titles. She began playing in junior tournaments as well as the pros, gaining both experience and confidence in her play. In 1977, when she was only 14, she won the National 18 -and-under title and went on to reach the quarterfinals of the US Open.
In reflecting back to her formative days as a pro, she observes that for a while it all seemed relatively easy. Winning the US Open at 16, along with a number of other titles early in her career, she admits, could have been more detrimental to her than helpful at that point. ''It could have been too much too soon, but I wouldn't take those championships away, either!,'' she says. ''But because I won when I was so young, I expect so much of myself, and others expect a lot from me, too. And I don't want to let myself down, or let anyone else down either,'' she claims.
''Winning the Open at 16 was something I never expected to happen,'' she continues. ''It was nice, but winning it again in '81 meant more to me since I had to work hard to win it and I really wanted it.''
While remaining positive about her prospects during the current season, she is careful to keep her aims within reach.
''I don't think you should set goals too high,'' she says. ''My goal should not be to be the No. 1 player in the world, but it should be to win the tournament I'm playing in at that time. I'm not working on being No. 1. I'm working on my volleys and on being more aggressive. I'm basically just working on my game, trying to improve and be a better tennis player.''
Her determination to succeed on the tennis court may be what it takes for Austin to dominate again, says Marty Riessen, who coached her the last couple of years. She has since returned to Robert Lansdorp, her original mentor.
According to Riessen, ''Tracy has the championship quality of a Bjorn Borg, a quality very few players actually possess. She has tremendous will power and great discipline, and works as hard as anyone on the tour. With the amount of effort she has put into tennis lately, I'll be surprised if she doesn't have a great season.''