TRACY AUSTIN'S return to tournament tennis last week after a four-year absence was encouraging on a personal level. Unintentionally, it also may have sent a message that women's tennis seems to need right now - namely, that maturity counts for something and that leaving the game doesn't have to be an irreversible act.
A teen star during the 1970s and early '80s, when she won the 1979 US Open at 16, Austin had several sensational years before a succession of injuries appeared to derail her career. By one estimate, she's played just five official matches since 1984. After a serious car accident in 1989, she retired, presumably for keeps.
Her love of the game has drawn her back. In reaching the third round of the Evert Cup in Indian Wells, Calif., she upset second-seeded and 12th-ranked Katerina Maleeva. Then came a full-strength reminder that there is more work to do, as Stephanie Rottier defeated her 6-1, 6-0.
"The biggest thing I learned was I'm right in there," Austin said. "I know the mental toughness is still there." Now she is contemplating entering the Lipton Championships that begin in Key Biscayne, Fla., March 12. Following her April 17 wedding, she may play some European events.
Tennis is just about the only women's sport that receives major media attention, so Austin's comeback assumes added importance. If successful, it might encourage fellow thirtysomethings to return to the tour. Those already on it might recognize the possibilities for temporarily leaving it, even if just long enough to gain some perspective. As it is, the women's game now seems largely populated by young players in a hurry - women whose meteoric careers are subject to quick burnout.
If Austin can take her knocks and be satisfied with playing for the joy of it, she might inspire others - much younger than herself - to do the same. Such leavening could improve the tour. The fine art of dunking (and rim-hanging)
While truly a high-percentage maneuver, basketball's dunk shot involves more skill than some might imagine. For example, consider the practice required to cleanly and safely slam the ball through a steel hoop. The shot is generally delivered with great force, yet seldom with noticeable harm to arms, hands, or fingers. Sometimes, for safety reasons, the player dunking the ball momentarily grabs onto the basket ring.
This is acceptable practice in the National Basketball Association, so long as it's done for protective purposes. Deliberate rim-hangers are assessed unsportsmanlike technical fouls and a $100 fine. But since intent is nigh impossible to judge, it's a seldom-called rules violation.
Rim-grabbing dunks are a nightly sportscast feature. The most notable recent example was turned in by rookie Shaquille O'Neal of the NBA's Orlando Magic. The 300-lb. center brought a goal down during a game in Phoenix, when a support broke on the backboard. Said Jerry Colangelo, president and chief executive officer of the Phoenix Suns: "I've seen the glass shattered. I've seen rims torn down. But I've never seen the whole thing go."
The game had to be delayed 37 minutes for repairs. Touching other bases
* Those who would accuse the latest occupant of the Oval Office of going in policy circles are sure to make light of the quarter-mile running track under construction at the White House. But if President Clinton is serious about running - and it appears he is - his critics probably shouldn't make too much of the $30,000 loop, being built with private donations (including one from the New York Road Runners Club) on the South Lawn. It beats letting him block city traffic. Putting the president on a treadmi ll is ill-advised, for the symbolism of it.
* The name of Converse's recently unveiled sneaker, the "Run 'N Gun" was in such bad taste that the manufacturer almost immediately renamed it the "Run 'N Slam." Given connections between sneakers and youth violence, the original name was offensive even if a clever reference to a basketball playing style.
* It says a lot about the late Arthur Ashe that he penned not a self-indulgent, ghost-written autobiography, but a 571-page history of the African-American athlete ("A Hard Road to Glory").