Tracy Austin said she didn't see or sense anything extraordinary across the net, didn't notice the controlled but intense passions that were driving Chris Evert Lloyd, burning like a bonfire inside her always cool exterior.
Austin -- dethroned today by Evert as champion of the U.S. Open -- said she didn't see the desire in Chrissie's eyes, but she must have been the only person at the National Tennis Center who missed it. Most of the 20,047 spectators who attended a fascinating and dramatic women's semifinal day saw, and knew that they were witnessing something very special.
It was evident in her play, and in her presence. Evert's competitive fires -- which not long ago were reduced to seemingly dying embers -- had been stoked to a raging blaze for this match, which Chrissie considered one of the most emotional and important of her enviable career.
Psyched higher than the melancholy gray clouds overhead, at times pumping her arm and slapping her thigh, exhorting herself in the manner of her ex-fiance, Jimmy Connors -- who was among the all-star cast of spellbound observers at courtside -- Evert beat her nemesis, 4-6, 6-1, 6-1, to reach the final of the Open for the sixth successive year.
Only one other player, Pauline Betz Addie, reached six straight finals, in 1941-46.
On Saturday afternoon, on national television, Evert will play Hana Mandlikova, the richly gifted 18-year-old Czech who ousted 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger, 6-1, 3-6, 7-6, in another gripping semifinal duel today.
The victor will collect $46,000 and America's premier tennis title, the one Evert monopolized for four years until Austin took it away in last year's final and became -- at 16 years, nine months -- the youngest champion in the tournament's history.
Starting with that showdown a year ago, Austin had not lost a set to Evert in five meetings. In January, she trouced her three times in 11 days, an experience that demoralized Evert and sent her on a four-month sabbatical.
If she couldn't rekindle her dwindling competitive instincts, a shell-shocked Chrissie said several times, she would contemplate retirement.
If she couldn't be a contender for the preeminent position she held in women's tennis for five years, starting in 1975, she wasn't sure she wanted to keep playing the game that had always been second nature to her since her teaching-pro father, Jimmy Evert, had taught it to her as a kid growing up in Fort Lauderdale.
During her leave of absence from the tour, Evert realized that tennis, and winning, meant more to her than she had ever realized before. She had always taken them for granted. Now she missed them. She wanted to come back and become the queen again.
Since returning to the tour in May, Evert has won 41 of 42 matches. She has won the Italian, French and Canadian Opens, the U.S. Clay Courts and helped the U.S. defend the Federation Cup. She beat Martina Navratilova -- who succeeded her as No. 1 last year -- at Wimbledon, and was runner-up to Evonne Goolagong Cawley for the title.
But she had not played Austin, her stylistic clone, the new Queen of the Baseline who, by beating Chris so often and so decisively at her own game, had badly bruised her ego and psyche in the process.
Today's immensely popular victory -- a triumph of will, patience, perseverance and a tactical flexibility that Evert has seldom shown -- legitimized her comeback. That is why it meant so much to her.
Minutes after the one-hour, 48-minute match -- which began tediously, with Austin "moonballing" and Evert piling up error after error en route to a 0-4 deficit in the first set -- Evert was asked if she was proud of herself.
"Yuh," she said, with a little giggle and a big smile. Then she paused, thought for a moment, and gave a reflective, satisfied sigh that spoke volumes.
"That was a very emotional match for me. I've dreamed about this day, because I knew that I would have to beat Tracy to a) win this tournament and b) be No. 1 again."
"I'm still not No. 1 again, and I know that, but I'm a step further, a step closer. Even if I had won this tournament and not beaten Tracy, it wouldn't have had as much meaning for me. She's been my nemesis. I've beaten Martina this year, I've beaten Hana, I've beaten Andrea, but I hadn't beaten Tracy. So beating her means more to me than beating anyone."
In the first set, as Austin won 18 of the first 23 points, it looked as if the pattern of their most recent five matches would be repeated.
Evert was pathetic, making clusters of the unforced errors that used to be so foreign to her. Austin scampered and scrambled and retrieved everything hit at her, squealing as she lunged to keep the ball in play, perhaps chortling to herself as she hoisted lazy, high-arc loopers that gave Evert no pace to feed on and taxed her patience.
But this time Evert was determined to be patient. She hung in and picked up the tempo of the rallies. When Austin double-faulted ot lose her serve in the fifth game, then missed a couple of shaky forehands as Evert held at love for 4-2, Chris knew she was in the match.
She sensed in Austin's erring forehand -- which was to prove a major blemish on her game this day -- that Tracy was feeling pressure. She got back from 2-5 to 4-5 as Austin missed four of five serves and committed three more unforced forehand errors to lose serve in the ninth game, and saved two break points from 15-40 in the 10th game.
After having climbed so far back, Evert lost the next two points and the set -- netting a running forehand off a spectacular, all-court point, then dumping an easy forehand into the net. She curled her lip, disgusted with herself for doing that on set point, but she was not discouraged. The way she had made the first set a battle gave her heart.
"It was very important. If I had lost that set 6-0, Tracy would have gotten very confident. As it was, I felt like I was just starting to get into the competitive feeling, and into the match at that point," she said.
She was right. From 1-1 in the second set, she won 11 of the last 12 games -- 14 of the last 17 in all.
"I still was confident that I could stay with her and I sensed that she was making a few errors on her forehand, and I was mainly trying to hit to that side because I knew I could out-steady her," said Evert, now 25.
"That's why I lost to her the last five times, because I was the one who lost patience, and Tracy was able to outsteady me. She's been willing to stay out there all-day if necessary to beat me. I've said all week that's the attitude I would need in order to beat her."
Easier said than done, but Chrissie was eager. Oh, was she eager.
"I was able to be patient because I wanted it so badly. I think it's the same old thing; when I was younger and I was winning matches, it didn't have the same meaning for me that it does now. Now it seems like I care more, and I feel more emotion when I'm out there playing," she said.
"I really wanted this. I told you two days ago that this might be the biggest match of my (she stopped short of saying her career, hesitated, and went on) of the year for me. If I had lost, I would have failed in that respect. But I put that pressure on myself, and it's nice to know I can come through under that pressure."
The desire, the renewed ambition, was obvious as Evert ran Austin around the court, driving groundstrokes hard and deep into the corners with the old precision, pulling her out of position with wonderfully disguised drop shots, jerking her around the court with clever variations of pace and spin, moving her to and fro as if on a string, finishing off tactically astute points with buzzing passing shots, with winning lobs, with crunching overheads.
"I always told you I was a versatile player, but you never believed me," said Evert with a wicked wink at a reporter who asked if she had ever used such tactical variety in a big match.
"Her groundstrokes are so tough that I didn't want to just keep trading groundstrokes with her. I wanted to mix up her game, pick it apart. I think watching Evert play her (in the Wimbledon semifinals) helped me, because Evonne ran down everything. Basically, that's what I had to do."
Evert also learned from Wimbledon -- where she beat her other arch rival Navratilova in the semis, then lost unexpectedly to Goologong -- not to let down before the final. She said she would ease herself down from the euphoric high of whipping Austin during a leisurely afternoon, than psych herself up tonight to play Mandlikova.
Evert has beaten Mandlikova three times this year, but the enormously talented Czech -- an aggressive serve-volleyer with splendid racket control and feel for the ball -- has matured as a match player in recent weeks. She beat Navratilova and Jeager to win a pre-Open tournament in Mahwah, N.J., and the same formidable players here to reach her first Grand Slam final.
"I think Chris will win because she has better, lower return of serves than I do," said Jaeger, the candid Little Miss Spunk, who fought fiercely before losing a thrilling match in the final set tie breaker, seven points to four. "She's experienced, and she'll know what to do with Hana's serve.She can overpower her from the baseline better than I did.Maybe if Hana's really playing well she can pull it out, but I don't think so."
Certainly the crowd will be cheering for Evert, the exemplary champion who was so impassive for so long, and had to become vulnerable before the public realized that she is warm and human, not really "The Ice Maiden." She showed another side of her humanity today -- the fire beneath the ice -- and it burned brightly until turned to husband John at match's end, victorious, and positively glowed.