Austin, Chrissie's one-time tormentor, to make return fittingly in Evert Cup

February 23, 1993|By Marc Stein | Marc Stein,Los Angeles Daily News

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- It was once the meanest look among tennis-playing females. Pigtails and braces had Chris Evert quaking.

Here was Evert, the sport's queen, who had supplanted Billie Jean King and engaged Martina Navratilova in what would evolve into the most enduring racket rivalry ever witnessed.

Yet for all those wondrous strokes, her unparalleled focus, Chrissie couldn't hang with little Tracy Austin.

"I was probably more threatened by Tracy than anyone, including Martina," Evert said recently. "I thought, 'She has the same game I do, she hits harder and is a little more mentally tough.'

"She was up and coming. She was fearless. I said, 'Whew, this girl is going to dominate the next five, 10 years.' "

On the day of Austin's return to competition, Evert was hardly the lone admirer to reminisce about pre-trauma Tracy. In good health, Austin was the Monica Seles of her time, a teen-ager tormenting elders with a relentless baseline attack.

Austin knows she won't be approaching the Seles stratosphere this week at the $375,000 Evert Cup in Indian Wells. She reasons that she doesn't need to.

It should be sufficient enough a treat for Austin fans to watch her play in an opening-round match today against 119th-ranked Rennae Stubbs, Austin's first sanctioned outing in four years. Injuries and a devastating auto accident -- not burnout -- are what took the Rolling Hills, Calif., native away from tennis.

No one can blame Austin for departing prematurely, and several thousand Evert Cup ticket-holders are preparing to welcome the 30-year-old back in. Almost a half-decade since Austin's last tournament, which was five years after her initial retirement, she again can claim a court presence.

"Why?" said Austin, whose recent connections to the game were TTC limited to television commentary, her 1992 autobiography and speeches and clinics.

"Because I love tennis. It's in my blood. The other things I enjoy, but I don't want to look back in 10 years and feel there was an opportunity of going back, and that I didn't take advantage."

Now, little voices will no longer be nagging at Austin. Whatever the result today, no matter how many tournaments her comeback lasts, getting to the court was Austin's improbable dream.

The auto wreck on Aug. 3, 1989, crushed the bone below her right knee. Austin was in New Jersey, playing TeamTennis, when a van struck Austin's car from the side.

Bone from her right hip was needed to repair the knee. Crutches and therapy were required just to get Austin walking. With all the new pain she was experiencing, Austin didn't waste many thoughts on the recurring neck and back trouble that originally pushed her to the TV booth in 1984.

Before the many setbacks, Austin won 27 titles from 1979 to '81, including two U.S. Opens. At 16, she became the youngest Flushing Meadow champion by beating Evert, 6-4, 6-3.

It happened a lot in the early days. In one stretch, Austin took five straight matches from Evert. She was also 5-0 against King, 5-1 against Andrea Jaeger -- and an admirable 11-13 when facing Navratilova.

Evert, who beat Austin only five times in their 13 meetings, said: ++ "She was one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen in my life."

That made clear, there really should be no surprise Austin decided to train furiously for a return. For the past five months, she has been lifting weights and practicing with longtime coach Robert Landsdorp.

It didn't sound quite right for Austin to be the youngest inductee in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Oh, she's proud to be in. She just didn't want to stop playing so soon.

"When your career is done at 21, for sure you feel shortchanged," said Austin, engaged to be married April 17 to Scott Holt, a mortgage banker.

"When you think about it, I've only played a couple of tournaments in 10 years. It's a lot of time to make up for. But I'm not worried about it. I've already proven myself."

She doesn't want to be likened to Bjorn Borg, who appears to be forced by a money shortage to keep trotting out his racket.

Austin derives fun -- finances had no impact on her decision, she said -- from the relearning process.

She has been calling every touring pro in the area in search of practice partners. Austin termed a recent afternoon session with Landsdorp "a lesson," as if she was a junior being tutored on the basics.

No matter how rusty she is, Austin undoubtedly has retained a strong grasp of the fundamentals. Word from Eliot Teltscher, King and others who have worked with Austin is that she has adapted well to the Dunlop mid-size frame used by Steffi Graf and John McEnroe.

Stubbs, based on an undistinguished past, isn't an overwhelming first opponent. Austin should have a shot at winning.

"It's in her back yard," Evert said. "She'll have a lot of support.

"What does she have to lose? She is enough of a person now. She's had that much time to spend by herself. I would say, 'Go for it.' Why not? She'll know after about three or four tournaments what's going on."

Tournament promoter Charlie Pasarell said: "I'm going to be as excited as anyone to watch her play and see what she can do. If she sticks with it, I'm sure she can crack the top 20 in the world."

Austin, not even sure what her next event will be, can speak with certainty about only one ranking: Today's match is a lock to make Austin more uneasy than she was in any of her previous 410 singles starts, 337 of which were wins.

"I don't feel I have to figure out what I'm going to gauge it on," she said. "One thing I can tell you, I'm going to be nervous as heck.

"I was always nervous when I played, but it was a good nervous. You need to be nervous to have that adrenaline rush.

"I'm sure I'll be extra nervous. There's no way to get around it."

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