Anne (Pepper) Smith was in her element and she knew it.
Martina Navratilova's serve came thundering to her backhand corner, but Smith had the solution. Her hard return landed dead on the base line in the extreme corner. Navratilova, retreating, put up a desperation lob. But Smith was ready for that, too. She crushed an overhead that Martina could only watch helplessly as the yellow ball streaked into the yellow phony flowers beyond the court.
"Go, Pepper," cried voices in the Capital Centre crowd.
Smith marched off the court confidently, almost strutting. She had broken Navratilova's serve to go up, 5-2, in the first set of their final match in the Avon Championships of Washington.
This was going to be a big-money cakewalk for Smith, just like she figured.
"Sometimes, you can see that look in your opponent's eyes," Smith said, after her 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 victory. "They dread you."
Unfortunately for Smith, this action come in the doubles championships.
There, she and partner Kathy Jordan, for two years the No. 1-ranked team in the world, crunched Navratilova and Pam Shriver.
Smith almost always wins at doubles. If she isn't the best in the world at that racket, then who is? Wimbledon, U.S. Open, French Open--you name it and Smith has carried off the big silver plate. All in the last two years.
However, in last night's singles finals, where Smith and Navratilova also met, that growing dread in the eyes could be seen in Smith's face. As Navratilova said, letting the truth slip: "She never had a chance."
Pepper Smith turned into a pillar of salt. The stroke of midnight tolled for Cinderella at 7 o'clock. Just one hour later, Smith's dream of beating four of the world's top seven players in less than a week was over.
"We knew we were up against it going in," said Smith's lifelong coach, Warren Jacques, who watched the 6-2, 6-3, defeat in 60 minutes that seemed like 60 seconds. "Martina just loves to play against Annie. Sometimes it happens like that. A great player feels particularly comfortable against you. All night, it seemed like Martina could read Annie's mind."
"I knew it right away, right in the first game when she went up, love-40, on the first three points of the match against my serve," said Smith, who, in 14 matches against Navratilova has only won once--on an injury default.
"I was nervous and lost the first set before you could blink; it was a consolation that I played her tough in the second set," said Smith who, after allowing Sylvia Hanika only six points in 10 service games in the semifinals, lost her serve the first five times in the final. "I wasn't 'Awesome Annie' tonight. She was 'Awesome Martina.' "
Actually, when the small bruises inflicted by the Navratilova steamroller have healed, Smith will recall this week--when she won $27,500--as that blessed interlude when 10 years of toil suddenly began to seem totally worthwhile.
"This is the week Annie finally got over the hump," Jacques said. "Every experience that we hoped she could have in the course of this whole year, she had, condensed into one week. We couldn't have dreamed of more."
"What I'll remember from this week," Smith said, "is that I can do it."
Just eight months ago, Smith and Jacques weren't sure that she could.
"I started her playing (in Dallas) when she was 10," Jacques said. "I watched her development, all her practice. She had all the shots. When she went on tour three years ago, I assumed it was just a matter of time until she rose to the top."
After all, Smith is the women's tour clone of Bjorn Borg. All her little nervous return-of-service mannerisms, her tennis clothes and many of her strokes are as complete a duplicate of Borg as could be found.
However, looking like a little Borg didn't win her any pro matches.
So, last May, Jacques began spending three to four weeks at a time traveling the circuit with Smith when he wasn't traveling with his men pros, such as Phil Dent. Jacques saw the truth.
"Anne always played well," he said. "But she always faded at the crucial points.
"There's something about the tennis circuit that almost requires that a top player have someone to travel with them to correct the little flaws, to encourage them, to talk to them. If there's no one there, a couple of loose days can lead to a couple of loose months. A slump can last indefinitely."
So, slowly, with her tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside, leather-faced Australian coach beside her, Smith began digging deeper within herself in those singles crises which can seem so lonely.
"She reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open in September and it hasn't stopped getting better since," Jacques said. "Five quarterfinals, one semifinal and now a final. Annie's six months ahead of our schedule. By the end of this year, I thik she'll be in the top 10 and rising."
Two moments from this week will live for Smith.
The first came when, on a hot night, she demoralized and crushed Tracy Austin. "Anne needed to prove to herself that she could beat one of the big three players decisively," Jacques said.
Then, in her next match, with her game--and particularly her serve--crumbling around her in a classic case of bad nerves and full choke, Smith, in her coach's words, "finally looked inside herself in a crisis and said, 'I'm going to go for it. I'm going to gut this out.' "
That moment came against Shriver at match point. Smith's last five serves into that court had been tentative, gutless faults. Facing a third straight double fault, Smith said to herself: "Go for the ace."
She did, completely handcuffing Shriver, whose eyes were saucerlike with surprise.
This wasn't Anne Smith, the tiger of doubles who turned into a pussycat in singles.
It was a woman who had finally found a little ice in her own stomach.
And may find more.