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Tennis's Potter upwardly mobile

What is a Connecticut Yankee like Barbara Potter doing near the pinnacle of women's tennis?

That question has struck more than a few observers in these days when so many top young pros seem to grow up in warm weather sites playing virtually 12 months a year. Potter herself went along with geography for a while, concentrating on ski racing as a child, but eventually decided to try for the top in tennis despite the vagaries of New England weather. And so far it has looked like the right move.

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Since joining the pro tour in 1979, she has emerged as an outstanding all-around player who is ranked No. 6 in the United States and No. 10 in the world. She could be headed higher, too, if she can keep up the sort of performances she gave last week at Wimbledon, where she reached the quarterfinals before bowing to defending champion Chris Evert Lloyd.

Now in her fourth pro season, the 5 ft. 9 in. left-hander has a number of goals she would like to accomplish. ''Generally, I want to be the best tennis player I can be,'' Barbara says. ''Specifically, I feel there is much more for me to improve upon, but I'd like to be in the top five within the next 12 months. I don't think I'm reaching too high.''

Barbara comes from a talented and industrious family in Woodbury, Conn. Her father, Mark, is a professional artist, and her grandfather, Hanson Baldwin, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. Her upbringing taught her that success is achieved through hard work, and her play exhibits that kind of approach.

Before each match, she and her coach, Bill Drake, emphasize improved performance more than winning or losing, and they attempt to draw on lessons learned in previous matches.

Athletics have been a big part of Barbara's life from early childhood. Her four brothers were hockey enthusiasts and she loved skiing, a sport she began at five, and at which she won several age-group medals. When she became interested in tennis, though, she gave up skiing. ''I skied well enough to know how dangerous it can be. Also, I like to do things very well, and you can't always do two things well at once.''

As for the geographical obstacles, well, perhaps they just made her try a little harder.

''To be a tennis pro from New England,'' she explains, ''you really have to want it. You can't just step out on to a sunny court like you could if you grew up in another part of the country. Many people suggested that I go to school in the South and leave my family. But I fit in school, my family, and tennis, all of which are important to me.''

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In January,1979, after having graduated in the top 10 percent of her class from the Taft School, in Watertown, Conn., Barbara chose to delay entry into college (she was accepted at Princeton) in order to join the women's tennis circuit full-time.

By 1981, even though she did not win any tournaments, she was a major factor on the tour - posting a 19-8 match record, leaping from 26th to eighth in the world, qualifying for the Avon Championships, reaching the semifinals of the US Open, and earning $170,000. She gained a lot of respect for her aggressive and consistent play, and was voted Tennis magazine's most improved Woman Player of the Year.

Last January, in Cincinnati, Potter defeated Bettina Bunge to win her first pro tournament. She was a finalist in Kansas City and a semifinalist in the Washington D.C. and Seattle Avon events, but lost on each occasion to eventual champion Martina Navratilova.

In order to beat the tour's top players, she feels it is necessary to increase her mental toughness and use more strategic shots.

Potter plays an attacking game similar to Navratilova's. According to Austin , Potter's serve is ''the toughest in women's tennis if it's working. She has so many different kinds - flat, slice, American twist.''

Barbara considers her serve her biggest weapon, but does not stop there. ''I also think I run as well as virtually any woman on the tour,'' she adds.''There are still some things I have to learn, though. Most importantly, concentration and learning how to play the big points in big matches.

''I am making great strides in the mental part my game. I was never a natural at concentration, like Tracy or Chris, but concentration can be learned. It's a skill, like a forehand. The harder you work at it, the better at it you'll become.''

There are many young pros who show signs of wanting to improve, and Barbara is aware that even the best don't always achieve their goals. ''There are so many factors which lead to success,'' she says. She's convinced, though, as is much of the tennis world today, that many of them are presently working in her favor.

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