When Tracy Austin rejoins the women's professional tennis tour as a singles player in 1989 (the decision has already been made but no target date set), she will have an extremely tough act to follow - her own! Until 1983, when she quit the tour because of injuries, Tracy was one of the marquee names of pro tennis, as much of a drawing card as Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova. She was a terrific young player, and a smart one as well. Her powers of concentration were amazing, and her two-fisted backhand as effective as Evert's.
When Tracy won the US Open singles championship from Evert in 1979, she was only 16 years old, the youngest ever to hold that title.
Only a year later, she became the youngest tennis player, male or female, ever to reach the $1 million mark in career earnings. And when she took over the No. 1 spot in the women's computer ratings on April 7, 1980, she was the first to break the Evert-Navratilova domination since 1975.
What tennis fans want to know is if Austin, now 25 but still looking as though she escaped from a Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello movie set, can make it all the way back to the top.
I put this question to her at a tennis exhibition at the Los Angeles Forum, where she and John Lloyd teamed up to beat Peanut Louie and Pete Sampras in a mixed doubles match before the main attraction, a singles shootout between Navratilova and Evert.
What I got in reply, though, wasn't exactly an answer but kind of an offhand remark that she is going to give it everything she's got. Oh, she is serious all right, except that she doesn't seem to want the public to know how serious.
``I'm not in the computer rankings anymore, and since I haven't played singles against anyone on the tour in five years, I don't know where I am in my comeback,'' Austin explained. ``All I know is that I feel great, and that I'm having fun. But to say I'm 80 percent of what I used to be, or 60 percent, well, I wouldn't want to speculate on that because I don't really know.
``Most of my tennis since I decided last summer to start playing seriously again has been in doubles, which I never played that much of before,'' she observed. ``I picked doubles because playing with a partner isn't as demanding, because I didn't want to rush anything, and because it just seemed the best way to go.
``I mean when you're tied 5-5 in the third set of a singles match, you're really pushing. You are strictly on your own. You don't have a partner and sometimes stamina becomes a problem. But that same situation in doubles doesn't seem like anything.''
While few people may remember it now, Austin and her brother John won the Wimbledon mixed doubles title in 1980.
Chances are, Tracy will know more about her singles possibilities after she plays a series of February exhibition matches against Natalia Zvereva of the Soviet Union in Canada. The feeling here is that if things go well in Canada, Austin, who has spent much of her time away from tennis simply enjoying friends, will be back on the tour in March, and at least thinking of Wimbledon. She is already working again under her former tennis instructor, Robert Lansdorp.
Asked if she thought the women's pro tour was the same as when she left it five years ago, Austin replied:
``When I stopped playing the tour, the big names were still Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. They were usually the two players you had to beat. But now it seems to be Steffi Graf's time. Actually, in terms of outstanding players, I don't think the top of the tour is all that different.
``Where the changes have taken place, I think, are with the girls who are computer-ranked between, say, 35 and 50. There are a lot better players around today than what you used to find at that level. Now they often win when they aren't supposed to, making the first round of of every major tournament a lot tougher than it used to be.''
If Austin's comeback embraces the same things that made her so strong as a teen-age star, fans can again look for a player who is all steely concentration and two-fisted backhands.
At least stylistically, Tracy will probably always be an Evert look-alike, except that she often likes to come to the net in search of opportunities to volley.
Austin's ground strokes have always been right out of a textbook, and she is constantly moving her opponents around. But she is also the type of player who is willing to take some risks in hopes of ending games quickly rather than let them drag on interminably.
In wishing Tracy many happy returns of the day, no matter when she decides to go back on the pro tour, I can't help but remember how at age 13 she whipped the most famous tennis hustler of them all, Bobby Riggs!
``I think what frustrated me more than anything during the past five years was driving past the Forum in Inglewood almost every day on the way to my physical therapy classes,'' Tracy told me. ``It made me want to play in every tennis tournament advertised on the Forum's marquee.''