Wednesday, March 25, 2020

What Ever Happened to Tracy Austin's 1989 Singles Comeback?

Tracy Austin during an exhibition against Natasha Zvereva on Feb. 7 1989. 

Came across this fascinating Tracy Austin profile in the Christian Science Monitor from December 1988, outlining her planned singles comeback for 1989. Although I was her biggest fan, this is the first I'm hearing about it -- "the decision has already been made but no target date set" -- which isn't entirely surprising given how hard tennis news was to come by back in those days. (I'd let my subscription to Inside Women's Tennis expire when I started college.)

She'd been off the circuit a good six years at this point -- her run to the final of the 1983 Family Circle Cup was really her last hurrah, and that was on yet another comeback trail from injury -- but had played seven doubles tournaments with minimal success in 1988. (I'd only hear about those matches by looking through the scores in the paper.)

With Wolfgang Mack in 1988

At the time of the article, she'd apparently just played an exhibition at the Los Angeles Forum, where she and John Lloyd teamed up to beat Peanut Louie and a 17-year-old Pete Sampras in a mixed doubles match. Perhaps fittingly, or painfully, this was before the main attraction, a singles shootout between her former rivals Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. And she was looking forward, with some exhibition matches scheduled in Canada for early '89 against Natalia Zvereva of the Soviet Union (aka Natasha Zvereva of Belarus).

At the 1989 U.S. Open, weeks after breaking her leg in an automobile accident

Although she frequently cites a near-fatal car accident in New Jersey as the end of what we might call Chapter 2 of her career -- in early 1990 she filed a lawsuit against the glass company whose van plowed into her, claiming the injury interfered with her professional tennis comeback -- the wreck didn't happen until August 1989.

She was in the Garden State playing Domino's Pizza TeamTennis(TM) for the New Jersey Stars, and according to the WTA site, she had played just one doubles event and zero singles in the seven months leading up to it, which led me digging. I'm not sure if the database is 100% accurate. But I did learn that she couldn't even get through an entire singles match against Zvereva in that exhibition -- she retired in the second set. And an old Washington Post article says she was slated to play doubles with Elna Reinach in the Virginia Slims of Washington, but "pulled a hip muscle." Then in a New York Times writeup about her playing TeamTennis -- apparently she could have been a Real Housewife: She was dating a chemical engineer from Franklin Lakes and wanted to be near her him! -- I learned that a chronic injury in the arch of her left foot had kept her out of singles for much off '89 and mostly playing doubles for the Stars.

At that point, Austin, still just 26, sounded a lot less certain about her future than she did in the December 1988 article. ''Right now, I'd like to play full time on the circuit again, but then that might change,'' she said. ''A lot depends on how well my foot comes around.''

''I'm a different person,'' she said after leaving the small stadium with her (boy)friend Wolfgang Mack, who attends all of the Stars' home matches. ''There are a lot more things in my life nowadays, and I'm a much happier person. And I'm enjoying tennis more.''

An unfortunate outfit, and a rare moment of looking back in 1989.

As I recall, Pam Shriver opined in her own autobiography, "Passing Shots," that she thought Tracy never really came back all the way out of fear of not being as good as she had been. And perhaps by waiting to come back full time until 1993 (Chapter 3), all of the pressure was off because she was already in her 30s (ancient at the time) so no one was expecting very much. (I think Chris felt Tracy was so gritty she could crack the Top 20 again.) But I think a better explanation was that her body just kept betraying her each time she attempted to restart her career. Tracy has never been one to look back -- she's gone on to raise a beautiful family and has a successful career in broadcasting -- but it's still hard for this fan not to think about what might have been.

At the the Family Tennis Challenge during the 1989 U.S. Open 

During my research I discovered this photo of the handshake from the infamous 1982 meeting with 13-year-old Steffi Graf, who didn't make much of an impression on Tracy at the time! (Tracy was oft-injured by this time, but won 6-4, 6-0.) The next time they played, during Tracy's Chapter 3 phase (1993-94), the German would defeat her heckler 6-0, 6-0.

Tracy at the 1986 U.S. Open


And here's a great NYT article during an attempted comeback in 1984.

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