Skip to main content
Original Issue

She Won, But Is She No. 1?

Tracy Austin was indeed driven as she won the Toyota Championships to stake her claim to the top spot in women's tennis

As the old rhyme goes, "Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,/Please to put a penny in the old man's hat./If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do...." It was that sort of year in the battle for supremacy in women's tennis: A ha'penny was the best anybody could do. Consequently, when the Toyota Championships were held last week on a holiday court of green fringed with poinsettia-red banners, three of the sport's elite were still in the hunt. For the first time, it was quite possible that No. 1 for the year would be decided by a tournament winding up Christmas week.

The victor, it developed, was Tracy Austin, who beat Martina Navratilova in a three-set final, much as she had come back against the same opponent to win the U.S. Open. Austin had cruised to victory in the semis over the third claimant to No. 1, Chris Evert Lloyd, but earlier in the week, in the best match of the tournament, Austin had lost to Evert Lloyd. Austin lived to win another day because the Toyota is one of those tournaments for which only eight players qualify, and there has to be a way to keep everybody around for the weekend gate.

It was an appropriate note on which to end a year of confusion. The winner wasn't even sure where she had won, which was the new Brendan Byrne Meadowlands Arena, a beautiful $85 million edifice that has risen alongside a racetrack and a stadium in the New Jersey marshes across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the three athletic monuments looming up like the Pyramids. But in her bread-and-butter victory speech Austin said, "New York seems to be my city, I guess." As the catcalls rained down, one especially loud local voice bellowed, "This is Joisey, you dummy."

In any event, a few days earlier, as the tournament opened before sparse crowds, an argument could have been made for all three pretenders to No. 1, but just as easily against: Scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock, rock breaks scissors. Coming into the Meadowlands, these were the curricula vitae:

Evert Lloyd—Best winning percentage (.929) and tournament victory record (eight for 13). Won Wimbledon. Tough draws all year and never failed to reach semis in any event. But choosier schedule (28 fewer matches than Navratilova) and nothing special since the Fortnight.

Navratilova—Most wins (86 of 99 matches), record prize money (more than $800,000). Quarters French, semis Wimbledon, finals U.S. Open, won Australia, a nice progression up as the year wore on. In March won Avon Championships, culmination of the winter indoor tour. Also to be considered in a tight race: lead player on world's best doubles team. But didn't win either Wimbledon or U.S. Open and failed to win 50% of tournaments. Also, two bad losses, to Claudia Kohde (ranked 67th at the time), and Betsy Nagelsen (33). In women's tennis, a bad loss means losing to a lesser light. Navratilova lost love and love on clay to Evert Lloyd this year, but even that double bagel isn't considered a bad loss; it's just a day's beating from one of your own kind.

Austin—Head-to-head edge over both Evert Lloyd (1-0) and Navratilova (3-2). Won U.S. Open. Also won Canadian Open against class field, beating Navratilova in semis and Evert Lloyd in finals. But out first third of year with sciatica, so missed French. Only quarters at Wimbledon and Australia, losing to Pam Shriver both places. Two bad losses, to Sandy Collins (29) and Sue Barker (15).

Evert Lloyd was clearly the leader. In Australia earlier this month she beat Navratilova in a prelim tournament and then lost to her 7-5 in the third set in the finals of the Open. In New Jersey she wasn't so much a loser as the victim of a bungled draw and a greedy double-elimination format that prevailed up to the semifinals.

Tennis promoters love round robins and double eliminations for the same reason NBA owners love playoffs: Drawing cards can't be rubbed out early. But such arrangements are a bastard form of the sport and invariably create distortions or fraud. Besides, the very heart of tennis competition is knockout: Losers leave. The indomitable Evert Lloyd has played many roles in her career, and even though Austin won the tournament, perhaps the fate of the martyred Mrs. Lloyd will finally cause this hideous format to be deep-sixed.

Here is how they burned her at the stake. First, although she was seeded second, Chris was obliged to face the fifth seed in her opening match. It has been worse, of course. As the top seed at both the Canadian and U.S. Opens this year, Evert Lloyd had to play fifth-seeded Hana Mandlikova in the quarters of both tournaments. That's a travesty. The first seed should draw No. 8 in the quarters, second seed No. 7, and so on. That's why you seed. To seed someone first or second and then give her the draw the third or fourth seed deserves is, to rework Lincoln some, like calling a tail a leg and thereby claiming that a dog has five legs.

Anyway, onward with Evert Lloyd. It was even more bad luck for her that Shriver, though seeded fifth, was, as everybody recognized, the fourth-best player in the field. Andrea Jaeger, the high school drop-in, seeded fourth, is never at her best in major tournaments, suffering a slight touch of Lendl's disease at these times. But at the Meadowlands she was also a shadow of her old young self. Andrea is an adorable little sprite, but she is drained. In May she jetted to Tokyo for a doubles tournament, and she took a full month off from 11th grade to play in Australia. Down Under the press excoriated her for the unbecoming petulance she is developing, and in New Jersey all the joy was missing from her labors, even when she tromped Hana Mandlikova in an opening-round match.

It's hard to believe that, only a few months ago, Mandlikova, the French champion, was the leading candidate for Player of the Year. Is she still bothered by her back injury but refusing to alibi? Or, as she maintains, is she whole of body again but still thinking of her back? Whatever, on this marvelous athletic package, suddenly much postage is due.

By contrast, Shriver has never been better. Only 19, she has grown up to become a positively stunning woman—nearly everybody's favorite, if not for her looks then for her animation. The curly-haired Shriver is rather what we can imagine Little Orphan Annie would have become if she had been given pupils and legs. Shriver pounds the stuffing out of her serve and occasionally even negotiates a ground stroke or two.

She won her first set ever from Evert Lloyd in a first-round match and carried her to a tiebreaker, too, before falling nobly, 3-6, 7-6, 6-3. That cleared the path for Evert Lloyd's Thursday-night match with Austin. If anyone ever had any doubts about Chris's determination, she erased them when she met the press after beating Shriver. "Chris," said the gentleman from The Times, "you had nine set points in the second. Have you ever given up that many set points before?"

If looks could kill. Chris stared at him before slowly uttering, "You should know. I don't ever give up points."

"Squandered?" he ventured. Yes, she admitted, that might be a record.

Austin had uncharacteristically squandered some opportunities of her own in Australia, but against Evert Lloyd on Thursday she was never more stalwart than in the seventh game of the first set, when she held serve in a titanic struggle that lasted 26 points. At least 500 shots were struck in this game, 49 in one rally alone. The seventh game of a set is always said to be pivotal, and indeed it seemed to be so here. Austin won the first set 6-4 and took a 4-2 lead in the second after hitting her first volley of the evening.

When facing Austin, Evert Lloyd may be seeing a portrait of herself as a young woman, but theirs is never any simple looking-glass war. Tracy hits hard, harder, hardest. As her coach, Marty Riessen, acknowledges, she never really plays against anybody. "Tracy's got to learn that she can do better adjusting some against different opponents," he says.

Evert Lloyd herself knows that she must vary the menu against Austin, change speeds and dink, even attempt some low-percentage shots in the same way that a pitcher wastes a few. Let Austin dig in behind the baseline and she'll win any war of attrition. What's so emotionally wearing about making her chase shots is that Austin is far quicker and a better retriever than she is given credit for being.

On Thursday, though, Evert Lloyd's more intelligent presentation eventually began to tell. It wasn't easy to see—it was like watching soil erosion, for God's sake—but there it was: Chris coming to net a little more than she had in the early stages of the match, hitting a few more shots Tracy couldn't reach and, perhaps of greater importance, a few more that forced her to hit off the wrong foot. Four straight games for Evert Lloyd and, after two hours, a 4-6, 6-4 dead heat.

Then Evert Lloyd moves ahead. She has two match points at 5-3. Austin saves. Chris serves for the match at 5-4, but Tracy breaks and then holds for 6-5. The match has now passed the three-hour mark. None of their matches has lasted so long. Austin goes up love-30. Chris comes back, winning four straight points. And now the tiebreaker. Evert Lloyd wins another four straight points. Surely it's over. No. Austin wins four points in a row. It has been three hours, 15 minutes: 4-6, 6-4, 6-6 (4-4).

And you know what happened then? Austin double-faulted. Really. For the first time in the match. That was the whole difference. You never know how you look till you get your picture took. Eighteen minutes into the fourth hour of the match Evert Lloyd won the tiebreaker, 7-5.

"I thought I was going to hyperventilate just watching them," Shriver said. "God knows how they were doing it."

"It was the most grueling match I ever played," said Evert Lloyd. "I had aches in places I never had before." But with a 2-0 record she earned a pass (as did Navratilova) into the semis. At 1-1, Austin was required to meet Mima Jausovec on Friday night before Shriver and Jaeger, the other 1-1ers, faced off. For much of the match Tracy looked like a boxer—Duran? Frazier?—who can never be the same again after one punishing bout. Austin had a blood blister on her hand and "rug" burns on her feet. Jausovec, who had never so much as taken a set from her, won the first one 6-1. Tracy finally escaped 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, but she needed two and a half hours.

Afterward came the main event of the evening. Shriver, who beat Jaeger 6-3, 6-2, flipped a coin. Heads, Evert Lloyd would get Shriver in the semis; tails, Chris would face Austin. Isn't that a great way to run a championship?

Tails. One simply had to see the reactions of the two principals to know that it was quite unnecessary to go through the motions of playing the damn thing. Austin was so thrilled about the possibility of revenge that she couldn't bear to watch the flip and sent Riessen in her place. Chris got the word back at her hotel. Dennis Ralston, her coach, came round to see her later. "What do you think?" she said glumly. He didn't even have to ask her whom she would play.

If you needed to know any more, Evert Lloyd wore black for the match. She virtually stood still, and her mind seemed to be elsewhere as Austin blasted winners all over the place. Evert Lloyd held serve once. She lost nine straight games and 14 consecutive points. Final score: 6-1, 6-2.

Well, her husband's in Australia and that affects her, people said. It wouldn't have made any difference if her husband had been the net-cord judge. "Every tense match you have drains you a little more," Evert Lloyd said. "I didn't have as much of me tonight as Tracy did of herself." Tracy said that was interesting, that she'd always heard that playing more gives you experience. Austin doesn't give an inch.

As Navratilova, who defeated Shriver 6-4, 7-6 in the other semi, would find out again. In the U.S. Open she ran Tracy off the court in the first set, 6-1, and then lost two tiebreakers. This time the turnaround was even more devastating. Navratilova won eight straight games to win the first set 6-2 and go up a break in the second. Then Austin assumed total command and finished her off four and two.

It was like two separate matches. In the beginning Navratilova was brilliant, staying back, trading ground strokes with the nonpareil of ground strokes—but undercutting almost everything, never providing Austin with the pace she favors. When Martina ventured up, it was almost always to clip off easy volleys or smashes. Typical of her superb play was the shot with which she broke to go ahead 2-0 in the second. Navratilova stepped up and sharply angled a forehand cross-court that Austin could only wave at. As Martina prepared to serve for 3-0, 1981 belonged to her.

We didn't know it then, but five points later the jig would be up. Austin broke at 15 with a backhand drive down the line, and the set was back on serve. "I started to play my own game," Austin said later, "and stopped worrying about what she was doing. I started hitting harder."

Still, as Martina ruefully admitted, she continued to play it safe, never pressuring Austin. Tracy moved into command and then in for the kill. By the end, roles had become so reversed that it was Austin who was boldly knocking off volleys. It was the most complete, all-court Austin we have ever seen.

Navratilova cried when it was over. So close. The last four times she and Austin have gone three sets, Tracy has won. And as Austin improves, who will be there to challenge her in the year ahead? But that is 1982. The jury must now rule on 1981.

Tennis has no one omniscient ranking authority, but major opinions will be offered by a board of the International Tennis Federation, by the London Daily Telegraph and by World Tennis magazine. (The latter's competitor, Tennis magazine, for some reason closed out its rankings in early December.) The choice now is obviously down to Evert Lloyd and Austin. And by a hairsbreadth, on the basis of a full year's consistency and a 7-5 third-set tiebreaker in the most grueling match she has ever played, this year's shiniest ha'penny must be Mrs. Christine Marie Evert Lloyd.



Tracy beat Martina in a U.S. Open replay.


Little got by Navratilova—until Sunday.


Evert Lloyd beat Austin, but not when it counted most.


When Shriver is on her game, as she was in New Jersey, she swoops down on the net behind penetrating, high-kicking serves.