Teen-ager Carling Bassett adds bright new look to women's tennis

Carling Bassett is 15 years old, model-like in appearance, and possessor of the same mental toughness that characterized Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, and Andrea Jaeger when they first joined the women's pro tennis tour. Most of her tan is so rich that it looks as though she used industrial-strength cocoa butter.

Forty years ago Carling would have been cast as one of Mickey Rooney's girlfriends in an Andy Hardy movie. She knows how to dress; how to talk; how to conduct interviews; all the while maintaining that fresh-scrubbed look. Her keen interest in boys also gives her youth away.

The world got its first real look at Bassett through national television last April, when she went to the finals of the $250,000 WTA Championships at Amelia Island in Florida. Carling had hooked into Chris Evert Lloyd for a 4-2 lead in the third set of their match and then blew it when she lacked the necessary experience to reel her in.

But Carling is learning; each win or loss against a top player driving another staple into what is already a near unflappable disposition on a tennis court. It takes more than just a big name on the other side of the net to beat Bassett; it also takes consistency.

Basically, Carling returns service well, but her main strengths right now are her footwork (she gets to nearly everything), plus a better-than-average forehand. Already she has beaten several of the best young players on the tour, including Hana Mandlikova and Bettina Bunge.

Bassett seems to be insulated from ordinary pressures by the kind of confidence that comes when you believe that if you don't beat your opponent this time, then you surely will the next.

This is the same fabric from which champions are cut, and most tennis experts rate Carling's steady improvement on a par with what Evert and Austin were able to accomplish while they were still kids. Already opponents have begun to note the increased variety and imagination in her game.

Carling's father (John Bassett) is a clever businessman, a millionaire who is also the principal owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. Bassett and his wife, Susan, have three other children besides Carling, including one son, John, and two more daughters, Vickie and Heidi.

Their home base is Toronto and they spend a lot of time together as a family, except when Carling is taking lessons at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy in Florida. Even then her father, who was a member of Canada's Davis Cup team at age 20, sometimes jets down on weekends.

For a young lady who has never had to worry about finances in terms of lessons, clothes, or travel expenses, Carling has an enormous amount of drive. She is the kind who pushes herself naturally; understands the value of practice; and will spend hours working with a coach, which probably explains why her ground strokes are so good.

Where most young players nearly always think safety first on the big points, Bassett often hits all out. Obviously she loves competition. Give her a challenge and she'll respond to it; give her a set up and she is quick to take advantage of it. The women's pro tour, which can always use a new personality with talent, especially with Martina Navratilova dominating everything right now , is delighted to have her.

While most people might find it difficult to think of Carling as ''the girl next door'' off the court, her likes and dislikes are no different than most teen-agers. When she isn't on tour, according to reports, she makes do on an allowance of $10 a week.

When John Bassett decided to turn movie producer last year, Carling of course thought that she should certainly be in his first picture, especially after reading the script and discovering a part for a teen-age, tennis-playing daughter.

At first her father wasn't too keen on her leaving the tennis tour and becoming a temporary actress. In fact, he actually auditioned several other girls for the role. But eventually Carling ended up playing Susan Anton's daughter in the film ''Spring Fever,'' which opened in theaters around the country last December.

''Having a part in that picture was a lot of fun,'' Carling told reporters. ''It didn't make me nearly as nervous as playing tennis, because if you goof up a scene, you can always go back and do it over. It sure wasn't like tennis, where you have to learn to live with your mistakes!''

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