So much has been written about Tracy Austin, the pigtailed tennis star of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, who was so good when she was so young that she was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame when she was 29. But little has been written about the way it all started, about how a career-launching was born of innocence, boredom and, most unexpectedly, lousy weather in Los Angeles.
It was the winter of 1976. Austin was a high school kid at Rolling Hills High, who had just turned 14 on Dec. 12. Her mom, Jeanne, ran the shop at the nearby Jack Kramer Tennis Club. “She had five kids and worked six days a week,” Austin says now. “I never saw her sit down.” Her mother also became an area ranked player, and from that came days of hitting balls to, and with, her children. The seed was planted.
Her dad, George, was a military veteran and became a nuclear physicist. “He left for work every day at 7 a.m. and came home at 7 p.m.” Austin says. “He liked helping me with math problems more than talking about tennis.”
Austin lived and breathed tennis. “I just never stopped wanting to bounce the ball with my racket, everywhere I was.”
The Kramer Club was a breeding ground for tennis greatness in those days. As Austin excelled through the ranks of women’s tennis, a youngster named Sampras, nine years her junior, started to show up at the Kramer courts. Austin will always remember him as “Petey.”
It began to rain in Los Angeles in that winter of ’76. It just wouldn’t stop. Tracy Austin wanted to get out on the courts, to bounce that ball, to run after it and hit it. Mother Nature refused to budge. Day after day, the rains came.
“One of my older brothers, John, was going up to play a Futures tournament in Portland,” Austin says, “and I asked my mom if I could go along and play in the tournament. They had a women’s Futures pro event, too.”
Austin had started to play in women’s pro events here and there, but she was so young that her presence was seen more of a novelty than a certainty she would do well.
“My mom went along, figuring that she would only have to stay a few days, or as long as John kept winning,” Austin says. “Pretty soon, she had to go back to work, but she had to leave me with John because I was winning, too.”
Pretty soon, Jeanne Austin had to return to Portland. John had lost and needed to move onto the next event. Her daughter was 14 and still winning; all the way to the finals, where she beat Stacey Margolin. Tracy had even come home for a day to go to school before returning to the tennis tournament with her mother.
The strange twist to this unplanned beginning of a Hall-of-Fame career is inescapable. Tracy Austin had left L.A. to escape the rain and trampolined her future with a start in sunny Portland, Ore., which ranks third in the nation in annual rainfall. That may not quite reach the definition of irony, but it is close.
The story of the Tracy Austin career beginning doesn’t end in Portland, but Portland was the starter’s pistol. Because she had won this Portland pro event, it qualified her for direct entry into the main draws of the next two women’s pro tournaments—in Houston and Minneapolis.
“My mom was used to me playing in tournaments, but in the juniors,” Austin says. “In those, the tournaments provide housing, usually with local tennis people. Not in the pros. There, you stay in hotels. Mom couldn’t leave work again, so the only way we could work things out for me to go to Minneapolis was to have me room with the tour’s PR (public relations) person. Her name was Jeanie Brinkman.
“So, I did, and I’m sure I stayed up too late and ate badly. I was 14. I slept in the day of my first match and there was a knock on the door and it was Rosie Casals. She was a friend of Jeanie, who had left. Rosie says, ‘Let’s get room service.’ I was going to play in a couple of hours, but I said sure. I ate too much, then went out and lost in the first round.”
Austin fared better the next week in Minneapolis, where she won her first-round match and then had to play Casals, by then a top pro.
“She came out in this black velvet tennis dress with sequins,” Austin says, “and I thought that was really neat.” Casals’ serve-and-volley game was neat, too, and Austin headed home. But not before she experienced another career moment.
“They took players from the hotel to the event on shuttle buses,” Austin says. “One day, it was so crowded, I had to sit on Margaret Court’s lap.”
The die had been cast. A year before, Austin had made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a likely phenom. The headline said that a star was born, even though Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga would later settle on a different plot. But that magazine cover was speculation for the future. At Portland, it became real.
In quick order, 5-foot-5-inch, 110-pound Tracy Austin would:
–Make the world’s Top Ten at age 15;
–Win the first of her two major titles (the 1979 U.S. Open) at 16, to this day still the youngest to have done that;
–Become No. 1 in the world at 17;
–Win her second Grand Slam (the 1981 U.S. Open) at 18.
In a tennis career that ended all too soon, with injuries and a near-fatal auto accident in 1989, Austin posted a 335-90 record, won 30 titles, got to the Wimbledon semifinals twice and added a mixed doubles Grand Slam title when she won with her brother, John, at Wimbledon, the first brother-sister team to do that. That was 1980 and she was 18. She held the No. 1 spot in women’s tennis twice, over a total of 21 weeks.
After she won her first U.S. Open in New York, on the old Louie Armstrong center court, she was hungry, so she went through a McDonald’s driver-thru. She could afford it. Her prize was $39,000. When she won a tournament in Germany, one of her prizes was a Porsche. She wasn’t old enough to have a driver’s license. By the time she turned 18, she had won five Porches and a BMW.
On Aug. 3, 1989, she was with her World Team Tennis team in Milburn, N.J., and, alone in a car, was making a left turn on a green light. Another car hit her at 60 miles an hour and left her with broken bones and a broken career. Despite having her seat belt on, she was partially ejected from the car and ended up on the road on her back, with her legs and feet still resting in the car. Her first thought was that she was paralyzed and she screamed her fear. A man quickly came onto the scene, calmed her and assured her she wasn’t paralyzed. He told her she couldn’t be, because she was kicking her legs and feet.
“That’s all I needed to hear,” she says. “I was so grateful. I wish I knew who he was. He has never come forth, to this day.”
Austin is 56 now. She lives in Rolling Hills, plays tennis three days a week, has been married to Scott Holt for 26 years, probably weighs five pounds more than she did when she was playing, and has become a very good television tennis commentator for the Tennis Channel, the BBC and Canadian TV for the prestigious Rogers Cup in late summer.
But her No. 1 identity, by her own definition, is as a mom.
She has three sons, Dylan, Brandon and Sean. Dylan, the oldest, is a USC graduate and a young businessman in real estate. Brandon is finishing his senior year at USC, where he has been the team’s No. 1 singles and doubles player since his freshman year, has already won tour Challenger events, is ranked No. 535 in the ATP world listings and will turn pro at the end of school in May. Sean, the youngest, is a senior at Palos Verdes High, where he has already won tennis titles in doubles at Ojai and in the CIF tournament.
“We never pushed them into one sport or another,” Austin says. “We just gave them the opportunity to do any sport they wanted, except football.”
She says she and Scott are just proud parents, that the thrill and glamour of her tennis years have been perfectly replaced by the thrill of seeing her sons grow, excel and be happy. She says she is proud of Dylan because of the way he pursued the profession he wanted. “He must have gone through 30 interviews, with lots of rejections,” she says.
She says she is proud of Brandon because she sees how badly he wants tennis success, she sees so much of the drive for tennis that she had, and she knows what stance she will take on that.
“I will navigate the journey with him,” she says, “but he will be driving the bus.”
Sean is still weighing different schools and she said she will be there to listen and maybe nudge, but never push.
She meticulously avoids letting her past celebrity influence her boys’ lives or futures. The family doesn’t watch old films of her matches. “I don’t need to. I know what happened,” she says. They don’t talk tennis. Mom’s strategy when she faced match points or served for a Grand Slam title does not get imparted to her sons, who don’t ask. That’s their learning process, she says. When she goes to watch Brandon’s college matches at USC, she sits two courts away.
Austin’s Tennis Channel broadcasting duties took her, as usual, to the U.S. Open this September. Somebody had the sense to recognize that this was the 40th anniversary of her first Grand Slam victory, that 1979 U.S. Open at age 16. So, she was asked to take part in the women’s final awards ceremony, and to hand the trophy to the champion, Bianca Andreescu, who had upset Serena Williams.
But the millions of tennis fans watching were deprived of the significance of that moment, unless they were great students of tennis history, when the master of ceremonies and ESPN announcer Tom Rinaldi, merely announced that Tracy Austin would be presenting the trophy. No mention of the 40-year anniversary.
Austin just laughs it off now. It was just a mistake. Tom just forgot, she says. No big deal.
Which is just the opposite of what Tracy Austin’s tennis career really was.
– Bill Dwyre’s series continues next Tuesday at southerncaliforniatennis.org.