The champ is the one with the chewing gum. She's wearing the little apricot-jam-colored dress, and bouncing around on her friend's knee, and laughing uproariously about something, and singing.
Tiny ball girls thrust tournament programs toward her, stricken with shyness.
She signs them without looking up. The tail of the N loops around to cross the T.
It was such a delicious public scramble, this quick and streamlined ascent to the top. Tracy Austin showed up one day at Wimbledon -- mouth full of braces, blond ponytails flying, 90 pounds in her lacy blue-trimmed pinafore -- and marched to the court against the best female tennis player in the world. She lost. She came back the next year. She lost again. She played harder, and played better, and learned to cry at news conferences, and charmed the socks off almost every audience that watched her, and kept fighting back, until earlier this month she beat Chris Evert-Lloyd for the most prestigious tennis title in America -- the U.S. Open.
Newspapers and magazines all over the world carried pictures of her victory -- that wonderful Rumplestiltskin dance, her head thrown back in sheer delight. She was 16 years old and nobody, not Chris Evert or Maureen Connolly or any of those imagination-grabbing gifted kids, had ever taken the title so young.
People cannot seem to let go of Tracy Austin. Cameras lined up to record her return to high school. She was headlined in the English press: LITTLE MISS ACE. Around the circuit they started calling her Awesome. The Japanese are crazy about her and have put her name on a sportswear line.
Strangers yell to her on the street: "Hey! Tracy!"
Here she is at her very own hangout, the West End Tennis and Raquet Club in Torrance, Calif., and children she sees every day are asking for her autograph.
The big America's Sweetheart doily has been dropped into Tracy Austin's lap:
Her accuracy dazzles.Her persistence inspires. Her little-girl ponytails still add some bouncy innocence to an on-court steadiness that is almost unnerving. And Austin bowls 'em over every time she walks off a tennis court and turns into what by all reports is a bright, affectionate, 16-year-old girl.
No movie star-weirdo-drug bust-mondo arcane business here.
No Brooke Shields filmy sexuality for this kid.
"She's really delightful," says her father George Austin, an aerospace engineer, who still remembers Tracy knocking over lamps with wild hits from the sawed-off tennis racket he gave her when she was two years old! (The racket is still kept in a closet by the kitchen): "She's very, very peppery. A live wire. Never still: Always wants to do something. The only time she'll sit is when she has to study."
Pertinent facts about T. Austin:
She has a weakness for mint chip ice cream. McDonalds' quarter pounders-with-cheese-fries-and-a-Coke, tacos, and vanilla shakes.
She watches "Mork and Mindy," and "Three's Company."
She is partial to stuffed animals, particularly dogs, and in moments of frivolity will place hats on the heads of the numerous animals in her bedroom.
She beats her best friend (a fetching blond named Cari Horn) at miniature golf, pinball, and Spit, which is a frantic cardgame played mostly by teen-agers who end up shouting a lot and messing up the cards,
She likes Billy Joel, Blondie, Donna Summer, the Jet Stream ride at Magic Mountain, and the newspaper horoscopes (she is a Sagittarius).
She is in the eleventh grade at Rolling Hills High School, where she is enrolled this year in U.S. History, 20th Century Literature, and English Composition. She is reading Mark Twain. She gets mostly A's but has been known to falter in such electives as Typing and Cooking.
She goes to the movies with her friends, and eats popcorn. She yelled during the scary parts of "Foul Play," and thought "Meatballs" was pretty funny.
She owns a red Porsche 924, which she won in her first pro tournament, and which she cannot drive because she has never had time to take driver's education.
She plays an absolutely breathtaking game of tennis;
News conference. Sept. 16, 1979, Second Annual Tracy Austin Pro-Celebrity Tournament, West End Tennis and Racquet Club. Various reporters, tape machines at the ready, are gathered around a perfectly pleasant looking kid, who only minutes ago rushed by to shower and change, crying, "Hi, Mom!" as she passed.
So, um, it's been a week since you won. Um, Has it been a short week or a long week?"
"It went so fast, I can't believe it. I came back, and I went to school, and it's just unbelievable how fast."
Do you like this fame?
"It started when I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, when I was 13, and after that, but um, you know, it's been really nice because a lot of my friends have given me telegrams, and you know, it's just kind of nice. And hopefully I know they're behind me, because they send me little telegrams."
What is your ultimate goal?
"I guess to be number one in the world."
"Why?" She blinks, but doesn't burst out laughing or anything. She is learning to handle this sort of thing. "The reason I started was because my family played, and I think that's just the kind of person I am. You know. You can ask a lot of my friends, or my brothers, or whatever. I always wanted to try and be the best."
Do you think about all the money you're making?
"It's nice to know that you have it, but I don't play this tournament 'cause there's more money. Money doesn't -- I don't think about it that much . . . I think, you know, it'd be nice to have a big house for my parents or whatever."
What excited you most, besides actualy winning the tournament?
"I was really excited when I found out that I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. My brother, he lives in Westwood, and I guess they get it a few days before . . . I was so mad when he came home, and he didn't bring it home! I was so mad at him. So I had to wait like two more days to see it. But that made me happy. I couldn't even concentrate on my homework, and I had a big test the next day."
What are you goint to do? The kid is 16 years old. She smiles a lot, studies hard, raises her hand frequently but not too much in class, winces when her schoolmates tease her about her Knudsen yogurt commercials, jokes around with her friends, and takes off every afternoon to play three hours of tennis, for which she receives 10 "work experience" credits from her high school. The word people use most often to describe her is "normal."
"There's just nothing put-on about Trace," says Ruth Horne, Austin's high school English teacher during the past two years. "When she wins -- that smile -- that little jump she did -- that's really Tracy. No hokum. Her smile is so sincere. What's wrong with a 16-year-old giggling?"
"She's still just a kid," says Bill Ryan, Austin's high school counselor, who has grown just a tiny bit testy about having to field press inquiries from all over America. Ryan and Austin talk about pressures, course loads, college, maybe law school, she'd just as soon not be involved in that kind of conversation," he says. "I think she feels this is her last sanctuary where she can be 16."
The new women's U.S. Open champion has played tennis, in some fashion, for seven-eighths of her life. She has one sister and three brothers, all of whom play excellent tennis (her brother Doug is the only one who has never played professionally), and George Austin says he was not sure what to expect when he handed the baby a short-handled racket. But it was obvious almost immediately that something special was going to happen.
Her eye-hand coordination was exceptional: "She would ask me to play tennis when I came home from work," he says. "At age three, the manager of the tennis club we belonged to told her he'd give her a trophy if she could hit the ball against the wall five times in a row. She had the trophy in a day or two."
"She started wanting to be No. 1 when she was about six years old," says Austin's mother Jeanne, who runs polite but firm interference when the public starts to claw. She watches Tracy sprint through the club office, and shakes her head. "The first time she said it, it astounded me -- 'I want to be No. 1 in the world.' It astounded me. She thinks big."
Jeanne Austin says she remembers a coat of arms Tracy drew as a small child -- sketched in, like a rampant lion, was a tennis racket.
Tracy was seven years old when she entered her first tournament, playing against 12-and-unders. Her opponent in the first round was a seeded player. Austin got whomped. She smarted briefly and kept right on practicing.
"There'd be tears when she got beat, for 10 minutes." George Austin says, "and then it's all over. All over. I don't hear anything about it . . . She goes out, and she plays, and she concentrates, and it's over."
Nine and a half years ago, Robert Lansdorp first saw her play. "Little tiny girl," he says. "Two-handed forehand. Two-handed backhand." Lansdorp, a muscular dark-haired man with the traces of a Dutch accent, became Austin's tennis coach -- running her hard, coaxing her through the afternoons of tears and hyperventilation, forcing her up to the net and back to the baseline over and over, pushing her through repetitive drills when what she really wanted was fast competition, and finally standing on the sidelines as the kid started turning into a star.
At 11, she won the nationals for 12 and under. At 12 and 13, she won it for 14 and under. At 14 she won it for 18 and under, and that was the year that Austin made history by becoming the youngest ever entrant to both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Billie Jean King was reported to have urged Austin to write about playing at Wimbledon. 'I'd just write how big everything is and how the people are all piled around," Austin replied. "And the strawberries, they're great too."
In October 1978, at the age of 15, Tracy Austin became a professional tennis player. "She is just one of those girls that wants the best, that wants it all," Lansdorp says, smoking a cigarette on the balcony of the West End Club. "She doesn't only want to be No, 1. She wants to be recognized as the greatest . . . . I think that is just something within. Some people just strive for the best, and once they see that is possible, that pushed them a little bit more."
So you are 16 years old, well-liked, owner of a red Porsche (with sun-roof), holder of a big and rapidly-growing bank account, and -- for the moment, anyway -- the best female tennis player in America. Where do you push next?
"Hey," Landsorp says. "That's only the U.S; Open. There's Wimbledon. There's the Grand Slam. There's five years of Wimbledon, five years of U,S. Open . . . It would be very easy to just pitty-pat the ball around and say, 'Hey, Trace, we've won it all, let's just pitty-pat.' But you go back, you work on certain shots. You've got to do that or you become complacent."
And she still shows up at high school in the morning, dropped off by her mother in the Porsche, carrying notebooks and paperbacks and Rise of the American Nation under her arm: Austin, T. Her victory was announced one morning at Rolling Hills over the loudspeaker, and that was that. She preferred it that way. "She's rich and famous, and she's worked her butt off. But she's only human. Just leave her alone, and let her live her life."