Just when Martina Navratilova thought she had the world by the tail, Tracy Austin, 17 years old going on 30, gutsy, determined and disciplined, scampered (Austin doesn't run, she scampers—fast) into her life and spoiled it all. Navratilova was ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row, she had won five of the six tournaments she had entered on the winter circuit, and she had breezed through her preliminary matches last week at the $300,000 Avon Championships at Madison Square Garden without breathing hard. With Chris Evert Lloyd gone from the tennis scene, no one was asking her whether she thought she deserved to be No. 1. They were asking how it felt. "Wonderful," she said. "I don't have to prove myself anymore."
Now that Austin, Navratilova's only rival, has won this winter's big one, a $100,000 Avon first prize, people are going to begin asking Navratilova the same old questions all over again.
Although the final went to three sets, 6-2, 2-6, 6-2, which only three other matches did all week, it was fairly typical of the tournament. It was never close. The winner of each set dominated that set, and there were so many unforced errors that Austin later remarked, "It seemed like whoever made the first error won the point."
To beat Austin's nearly impenetrable baseline game, Navratilova, the serve-and-volleyer, had to make her first serves good, so that she could then attack the net. Against any player except Austin, Navratilova would have followed her second serve to the net as well, but she had too much respect for Austin's passing shots to take that chance. Thus, when her first serves failed—she missed on 27 of 66—she was left at the baseline playing the game that Austin owns. Navratilova's other weapon, her mighty forehand, also failed. She made 20 unforced forehand errors and hit only four winners with it. Austin had 14. "The only place I could try to go with my forehand was crosscourt," said Navratilova afterward. "Tracy knew that and was always waiting for it."
There is a history of one-sided matches between these two. Since the beginning of 1979 they have met 14 times. Their only other three-setter was the final of last year's Avon Championships, which Navratilova won 6-3, 3-6, 6-2. Their only truly close match was Austin's 7-5, 7-5 win in the semis of the U.S. Open last September.
When Austin was playing last week, her most loyal fans sat in the third row of a courtside box—Jeanne, her mother; Jeff, her brother; Sara Kleppinger, her business manager; and Donald Dell, Kleppinger's boss at Dell, Craighill, Fentress & Benton of Washington, D.C., the agency that also handles Arthur Ashe, Roscoe Tanner and Stan Smith. Others, such as Ted Tinling, the designer of Austin's dresses, came and went. But always present was Robert Lansdorp, her coach.
Lansdorp is Dutch by birth, grew up in Indonesia and Holland, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1960. He is a big man of 40 with ice-blue eyes, a deeply tanned face and a voice that carries across several courts. He has been Austin's coach, first at Jack Kramer's club and then at his own, for 10 years. Despite that long association, Austin also enlisted the coaching services of Roy Emerson shortly before the 1979 U.S. Open. During the tournament Emerson sat with Austin's entourage, and when she won and the media were trying to mine her short history for its few nuggets, Emerson, the Aussie tennis hero of the '60s, made a better story than Lansdorp did. As a result, Lansdorp thought he hadn't received his share of the credit for creating the youngest Open champion in history. Lansdorp endured this indignity until the Colgate Series Championships in January, when Austin lost to Navratilova 6-2, 6-1. He quit, and Austin lost to Navratilova again, 6-2, 6-0, at the Avon tournament in Los Angeles, her home ground. She also lost to Greer Stevens 6-0, 6-4 in the quarterfinals of the Avon tournament in Houston.
Last week Lansdorp was part of the team again. In fact, he was the team. Emerson remained in California. "It has been proved to me over the last two months that my presence makes all the difference," said Lansdorp, following his pupil's 6-3, 6-1 semifinal win over Billie Jean King. "Tracy's game has been half what it should be. It is knowing her game, knowing what to tell her, knowing how to get her to play up to her best, it's being there for her confidence, telling her what to do. For her to play 100% she needs me 100%. Even more than before I feel that I am 100% responsible, and I feel very good about it. I am even more eager now. I feel she can be the greatest ever."
Austin's young face, with its very straight teeth and deep-set blue eyes, seemed to reflect Lansdorp's confidence all week. She didn't say a lot, but she smiled a good deal. Once a reporter, trying to pry something pithy out of her, got a rise—though not the one he had hoped for—when he asked if it bothered her to think that there was a country full of "nasty young players out there" getting ready to do her in.
"Don't call them nasty," snapped Austin. "Why do you call them nasty?" she insisted.
"I was joking," said the reporter.
"Oh," said Austin.
Navratilova's confidence was high, too, and with good reason. Her game seems to have reached the promised land. Her mastery of the serve-and-volley style of play is complete. Evonne Goolagong said of her last week, "Her aggressiveness throws me off a bit. She just charges the net, and I think to myself, 'Here she comes!'" When Navratilova faltered, which she did when-she dropped a set to Goolagong in the semis, it was her serve that hurt her most. But she didn't panic as she might have a couple of years ago. Instead, she broke Goolagong's serve in the second game of the third set, thereby seizing the momentum, and ran out the match 6-0. "I felt that I'd lost that [second] set, not that she'd beaten me, so I thought, I'm not going to do that anymore," Navratilova said.
The day after her Colgate Series Championships victory over Austin that decided the No. 1 ranking for 1979, Navratilova said, "Last night was as close to perfection as I can play, I think. I want to still get better, but I don't know if I can."
Adding to Navratilova's feelings of well-being are factors outside the game. Her parents, who arrived in the U.S. in December, have now settled in Dallas, in a house three doors away from her own. She has recently signed up with Mark McCormack's International Management Group, a decision that will probably improve her financial situation considerably over the next few years. Though she intends to keep her base in Dallas, she recently purchased, for an estimated $450,000, a 27-room house on eight acres of land in fox-hunt country near Charlottesville, Va. "It's a place to get away from everything," she says. "It's on a hill surrounded by trees and grass, and from it you can see the Blue Ridge Mountains. It reminds me of Czechoslovakia. That's how I fell in love with it."
Navratilova's intellectual growth is keeping pace with her tennis. "I'm interested in literature and art," she says. "I don't watch TV much anymore. I'd rather see a good movie or a play." While she was in New York, staying—as befits a First Lady—at the Carlyle Hotel on upper Madison Avenue, instead of at the Essex House or the St. Moritz where the rest of the contestants were housed, she managed to see two plays and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in addition to playing in a tennis tournament.
Eras are never so tidily delineated as historians and sportswriters would like them to be, but if they were, women's open tennis could be divided into three periods—the Margaret Court-King era, the Goolagong-Evert era and now the Navratilova-Austin era. Of course, Goolagong's best years actually preceded Evert's; and Navratilova in fact became an ominous cloud on Evert's competitive horizon long before Austin ever played with grown-ups; and King, after 15 years, still stands astride the sport like a talkative Colossus of Rhodes. Nevertheless, Navratilova at 23 and Austin at 17 are the heirs, apparently, now that Evert is gone. They are ranked 1 and 2, respectively, and they lose to each other (Austin losing more often than Martina, so far) but rarely to anyone else. The 11 tournaments on this year's Avon circuit produced only three winners—Navratilova with five victories, Austin with four and King with two. King, who claims to be in better physical shape at 36 than she was at 22, despite her patchwork knees, can, on a given day, still play brilliantly, as she did when she upset Navratilova to win the Avon tournament in Houston a month ago.
Another surprising spoiler lately has been Goolagong, who returned to contention when she won the U.S. Indoor title last fall after two years of injuries that at times seemed certain to end her career prematurely. She didn't win on the Avon circuit, but she reached the finals three weeks in a row, and fans as well as promoters welcomed her with open arms.
In the second round, amid a welter of lopsided matches, Goolagong and Austin played a three-setter, with a tie-breaker in the third, that was truly glorious to behold. Goolagong fielded virtually everything Austin threw at her, making one acrobatic retrieve after another. She stroked shoestring volleys for winners and feathered drop shots that had her young opponent lunging and squeaking. (Austin doesn't grunt—yet.) In the end, Austin's consistency and tenacity won out, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6, but it was Goolagong's virtuosity that made the evening.
Depth is the hot issue in women's tennis at the moment. The boosters say that new talent is rampant and that players such as Andrea Jaeger, 14, Kathy Horvath, 14, and Hana Mandlikova, 18, will soon be reaching the semis and upsetting the established players. The critics say that the talent may be there, but that by the time it begins to surface everyone will have perished from the boredom of watching preordained finals between Navratilova and Austin. Either way, with Evert Lloyd gone, 1980 is a year of transition. Possibly '81 and '82 will be, too. But Jaeger has already served notice that she soon will be a force. She reached the semifinals in her second major tournament as a pro, in January in Seattle, upsetting Rosie Casals, Wendy Turnbull and Sue Barker before losing to Austin 6-2, 6-2.
So maybe the boosters are right. Significantly, or symbolically, it was on the day of that semifinal match in Seattle that Evert Lloyd, who had the flu, withdrew. She was the first seed, and she was scheduled to play Virginia Wade at 6 p.m. The organizers, faced with what they feared might be a riot, quickly threw together an exhibition between Wade and Pam Shriver and then announced to the 10,500 customers at the Seattle Center that Evert Lloyd wouldn't play.
"There was a sort of sigh," says Mary Gibbons, one of Avon's touring staff, "and two people asked for their money back, but the rest were there, we realized, to see Jaeger and Austin, the kid versus the kid."
Austin took home a silver trophy and the first prize of $100,000.