Carling Bassett is just like any other normal 15-year-old who happens to have the same first name as a brewery founded by her family. She is just like any other kid who has starred in a movie with Susan Anton. She is the newest, blondest base-liner in a seemingless endless succession that began years ago with Chris Evert. She may also be the most unawed, most unselfconscious of them.
The other day, she played on center court for the first time. "It's just the same like Court 13," she said. "It's a little more classy."
Is she ever overwhelmed? "Sometimes," she said. "But usually not till 10 years after."
Bassett, who is ranked 28th, turned professional in January, beat Hana Mandlikova, Bettina Bunge and Kathy Rinaldi this spring (and almost Evert, too). This week, she became the youngest woman ever to reach the round of 16, by beating Andrea Temesvari. She plays Andrea Jaeger, the third seed, Monday.
If there is such a thing as too much too soon, Carling Bassett hasn't heard of it. Yet.
She is sitting with her parents in the back seat of a courtesy car, riding through the countryside and the crowds on the way to Wimbledon. Her father is a former Canadian Davis Cup player who happens to be the managing general partner of the Tampa Bay Bandits in the U.S. Football League. His father was the publisher of a Toronto paper. Her mother's family founded the brewery. Their daughter has been living and training at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Florida, since she was 11.
"We're a family that exists by telephone," John Bassett said, over his shoulder from the front seat.
"Yeah, and by seeing each other on TV," said his daughter.
All week, people who do and should know better, have kept asking if she considers herself normal. Sure, she says. "I think I'm just as normal as any other kid. Maybe I'm missing out on school every day and parties but to me going to Europe and seeing the world and playing tennis every day is just as normal for me as what they do."
When it comes to seeing the world, she isn't much of a tourist. "I get bored," she said. "I'd rather look at a picture of it than go in and know about it. I'd just as soon go to Wimbledon every day."
At Wimbledon this year, the success of older players like Billie Jean King, Virginia Wade and Rosemary Casals has not gone unnoticed. "When Andrea (Leand) was playing me, I saw her go like this," Wade said, reaching for her back. "It doesn't surprise me. If you hit the ball 150 miles per hour every time, you're going to hurt yourself. That's the way they are playing. They hit so hard without playing strategically."
"It's up to the women's tennis association to put an age limit," said Casals. "It's sad because not everyone is going to be a star. Nobody is looking at the kid who is out there. A lot of them are finished at 18 or 19."
The other day, when Tracy Austin had to withdraw from the tournament with yet another injury, her mother suggested that perhaps such a rule would be a good thing. She, as a parent, felt she could not make the decision for her daughter, possibly inhibiting her development as a player forever.
Bassett said, "If you are good enough to play with the women and maybe even better than some of them, why not play. If you wait until you're 17, you might never be as good. It's our choice. We have to take the chance of doing what Tracy did."
"If I were growing up, I'd do what Carling Bassett is doing," King said. "I'd have given anything to have the opportunities they have today to go as fast as I could and be the best that I could."
But King also believes that younger players don't protect their bodies by doing stretching and warm-up exercises. How much does Bassett do? "Not a lot," she said. Five minutes before she plays, seven minutes after.
Initially, she wasn't sure she wanted to turn pro. But Bollettieri felt she was ready, that there was nothing left to prove after she won the Orange Bowl, the world's top junior event. "Actually, at first, it wasn't so much my decision," she said. "It was in the back of my mind. I don't think I would be a professional right now, if it had been all my decision. I was kind of scared at first. I wanted to but I didn't think I'd be up here as quickly as I am. I wasn't as confident then."
"The whole secret in life is timing," her father said. "When your time comes you should do it. You never get another opportunity."
He says, and his daughter agrees, that there is less pressure on her as a pro than there was in junior tennis where she was expected not to lose. "I don't know anybody who has committed suicide because of junior tennis," John Bassett said. "But some of the things that I have watched make you sick to your stomach. It's not the kid's fault. The parents, their whole ego structure, their existence, their finances, their social acceptance is put onto a 10-year-old girl's tennis career. That's sick."
That's also what makes his daughter different, he says. "If she wants to quit, it's fine. She doesn't need the money. So let her climb the ladder. If she falls off, so what? The Bassett family is not built with Carling's tennis career as it's foundation."
But, it has had an impact. His real estate holdings in Florida and his decision to get involved with the Tampa Bay Bandits was predicated on being close to where she trains. "We'd go down to see her and I'd get bored stiff," he said.
"Thanks, Dad, I really appreciate it," she replied. "I don't get bored watching your football team."
The Bassetts own a home near the academy. "It's not as bad as people say," she said about the academy. "It's like boarding school."
Some of her best friends are boys. They understand things. They are not her rivals. "If you need some advice or have some problems, the girls might even be loving it inside that it's happening because you might not be as good in tennis," she said.
But she says she doesn't often need a shoulder to cry on. "I'm never like that," she said. "I never feel like crying. It's never anything majorly serious."
Next year, she says, she wants to go back to school a half-day instead of taking correspondence courses. "If I knew I was going to make it in tennis and be No. 1 in the world, I don't think I'd be going to school right now," she said. "It's not something I thoroughly enjoy. I don't think you need algebra for your everyday needs."
If tennis doesn't work out, there's always acting, though she doubts her father would approve. Ironically, "Spring Fever," a movie produced by her father's company, was about two girls in junior tennis (she played the one from the poor family). "Acting isn't very nervous," she said. "You can do it over and over. In tennis, you only get one shot."