In toting a tennis racket from room to room at age three, Tracy Austin endangered lamps and tables as much as she intimidates court opponents today. At 17, she is attempting to defend her singles title at the US Open. four others of the women quarterfinalists are teen-agers and the field's oldest surviving player is 25-year old Chris Evert Lloyd.
Austin is certainly not the first teen to come down the tennis pike, but she stands as the cynosure of the game's current youth movement.
Some wonder if the influx of young female players will make women's tennis like women's swimming or gymnastics, where teen-age stars are the rule rather than the exception.
To some degree, this is the case already. At the open, for example, Andrea Jaeger, Pam Shriver, and Hana Mandlikova join Austin as authoritative teen shotmakers. Altogether 16 teen-agers were accepted directly into the women's draw, with more than a third of the overall field made up of players 21 or under. The larger men's tournament, by contrast, accepted only four teens and sixteen 21-and-unders directly into its field.
As a general rule, boys take longer to develop the power that's more critical in the men's game. Even small girls, however, can utilize a consistent baseline game to outlast older, more experienced opponents.
Evert Lloyd was perhaps the first player to prove the value of machine-like efficiency, reaching the semifinals at 16 in her Open debut nine years ago. Since then Austin and Jaeger have basically copied her "human backboard" act.
Concentration appears to be the watchword in the women's game right now.
"Tracy Austin has the most determined concentration at this point," says Don Petrine, a keen observer of junior players and organizer of the Orange Bowl Junior Tennis Championships in Miami Beach. "I mean she outdid Chris [Evert Lloyd] in concentration in last year's US final."
In terms of pure tenacity, however, no one can currently outdo Jaeger, the gritty 15-year-old from Lincolnshire, III.
A jungle fighter is what Petrine calls her, adding that she's "like an animal surviving." She runs down everything, refusing to believe there's a shot beyond her reach. Waist- length sandy hair and her habit of twirling rackets like six- shooters give her something of an Annie Oakley image. In fact, when she's playing you almost wonder if she isn't inwardly singing, "Anything you can do I can do better. . . ."
"I'm just a normal kid who happens to play tennis better than some others," Andrea says modestly. But while she may share much in common with others her age -- she loves riding mini-bikes, for example -- she is perhaps better conditioned than most. "I can play three three-set matches a day and not be tired -- and play some more after that," she boasts.
Young women train hard, aware that they can become world-class players at an early age.
Jaeger, who's coached by her father, Roland, a former boxer, is the youngest player ever to make the Top 10 and is seeded eight here.
Shriver, a 16-year-old Open finalist in 1978, has worked out extensively using a Nautilus weight-lifting machine. The workouts are geared to strengthening an injured shoulder that's put the Lutherville, Md., product on the comeback trail at 18.
More and more juniors gravitate to summer tennis camps, and some even to tennis academies. Kathy Horvath, who returned to the Open this year after competing at 14 a year ago, now spends most of her time at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, where good weather and a strict tennis regimen have lured her.
Horvath, unlike Jaeger, has remained an amateur, electing to play age-group tournaments along with a sprinkling of pro events. Junior tourneys have multiplied and today are fiercely competitive. Petrine says he gets 3,000 requests from players in 56 countries to play in the Orange Bowl championship. "Anyone who gets into the tournament is virtually guaranteed of earning a college scholarship," he indicates. "There were so many coaches there last year that they even looked for kids in the pre-tournament qualifying matches."
The prospect of landing a free ride to college has certainly been bait on the tennis hook. More women are getting scholarships, too, because of legislation requiring greater funding of women's athletic programs.
Though more and more good players are coming out of college, some young women have passed up or dropped out of college to enroll full time on the pro circuit. Others, like Austin and Jaeger, are combining high school with pro careers.
Turning pro at the tender age of 15 has drawbacks, especially in the isolation the young player sometimes feels from others on the tour. It's hard to knock the pay, though. Austin has already won nearly $500,000 so far this year, and she's making another bundle on endorsements.
Jaeger, who's fast approaching a six-figure income, doesn't actually feel or act any richer. "Just because I've made a lot of money doesn't mean I spend like crazy," she says."It would be a little strange for a 15-year-old to carry $ 25,000 around in her purse."
Hana Mandlikova, perhaps the hottest newcomer in tennis, might not be making anything right now if it weren't for Martina Navratilova. Until Navratilova defected to the United States five years ago, her winnings were funneled into the Czech tennis federation. The authorities, possibly to guard against future defections, have permitted promising young players to keep their prize money and given them greater freedom to travel.
Hana, who's been taken under the wing of veteran Betty Stove, knocked off Navratilova in a four-round match, Mandlikova's second victory in nine days over her idol. She also won the New Jersey tournament that precedes the Open. "This girl is the perfect superstar," Petrine says of the 18- year-old with the fluid, athletic game. "She has personality and court presence. Win or lose, you love her."
Teen-agers often seem fearless on the court, which may account for some of their success. With no mouths to feed, they don't have to worry about the size of their paychecks. Also, because they're not expected to beat the established players, there's very little pressure -- at first, anyhow.
While the men's draw doesn't produce the number of young stars the women's does, a look at the quarterfinal pairings reveals 20-year-old Ivan Lendl and 21 -year-olds John McEnroe and Eliot Teltscher still in the running.
And though eliminated by Roscoe Tanner in the second round, 16-year-old wild card entry Jimmy Arias became the youngest male competitor in Open history.