- Joel Drucker
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Thirty years ago this week, two American teenagers from opposite coasts made their singles debuts at the U.S. Open. Tracy Austin was 14, John McEnroe was 18. History would find them joined in ways neither could anticipate, right down to the broadcast booth they'll be sharing these two weeks at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center as TV analysts for USA Network.
To see them now -- the clear and kindly Austin, the blunt and complicate McEnroe -- is to see quite viscerally just how much tennis is a sport of exceptional individualism, in which every competitor is no role player, but the entire franchise.
Roll the tape back three decades and contemplate where Austin and McEnroe each stood. If in some ways the two were joined by their upper-middle class backgrounds (rare for most tennis champions), superb tennis skills and refreshingly unguided ambitions, in other ways they couldn't have been more different.
That year also happened to be the tournament's last year at the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y. Tennis by then had outgrown its clubby past, at that point in time Forest Hills was a cluttered carnival of commerce and commotion.
Yes, the Bronx was burning, a reality Queens resident McEnroe, having spent hundreds of hours throughout his adolescence riding subways, felt in his bones. He may have been the son of a Wall Street attorney, but such was city life that even McEnroe was hardly shielded from at least some measure of urban grit.
Austin was a child of Los Angeles' suburban sprawl, this daughter of an aerospace engineer's sensibilities informed by the nearby Pacific Coast Highway, the vast blue ocean, freeways and shopping centers.
But despite the constraints of McEnroe's clammy New York and the expansiveness of Austin's dry Los Angeles, McEnroe's aggressive playing style veered toward the expressive, while the cornerstone of Austin's game was her ability to win battles of attrition. If it was rare to see McEnroe strike the ball the same way four consecutive times, Austin's asset was her skill to repeatedly deliver depth and pace. McEnroe was a stiletto, Austin a hammer.
Earlier that summer, they also had made their first trips to Wimbledon. McEnroe had been the Cinderella, winning three matches in qualifying and five in the main draw before losing in the semifinals to Jimmy Connors.
"This kid is difficult to play," Connors said. "He tees off on everything and hits winners from impossible places."
Just a year earlier, McEnroe had lost in the final of the National Boys 18s, a playing standard that had earned him a scholarship to Stanford but even in his eyes made him far from a quality pro. But as the man who beat him in that final, Larry Gottfried, said, "It was as if one day John woke up, realized he really wanted to be a tennis pro -- and took things to an entirely different level."
Austin too had made waves at Wimbledon. While McEnroe's splash had been a surprise, her arrival in London had been anticipated. Earlier that year, she'd won a WTA event in Portland, Ore. At 13, she'd been on the cover of Sports Illustrated. At 4, she'd adorned the cover of World Tennis.
"At Wimbledon there were photographers everywhere, from the minute I got off the plane to the hotel to the courts," Austin said. She reached the third round before losing a match to her generational predecessor, Chris Evert.
"She didn't miss, and she concentrated so well," Billie Jean King said.
But if for Austin precocity was business as usual, for McEnroe it came as a jolt.
In his autobiography, "You Cannot be Serious," McEnroe said, "At first, after my return [from Wimbledon], I felt like the same person I'd always been. But from the moment I got back, the people I had grown up with wouldn't let me feel the same, or so I thought. Suddenly I was Somebody, while they were still nobodies, just the way I'd always been. Part of me had enjoyed being anonymous, but part of me had wanted -- badly -- to go on and become a star. Now there was no turning back."
And so each arrived at the 1977 U.S. Open. Besides being the swan song Forest Hills, it was also the same summer as the violence-laced New York power blackout, the opening of Studio 54, an acrimonious mayoral race and mass murderer "Son of Sam," who had killed at least one person in Forest Hills.
But McEnroe and Austin were shielded somewhat from Manhattan's misery. Each occupied the suburbs, McEnroe still residing at his parents' home in Douglaston 15 minutes away, Austin in Port Washington at a house owned by a man who'd run the local academy where McEnroe had cut his teeth.
"I liked being away from Manhattan," said Austin, "liked being at a house with a court."
While Austin had never been to Forest Hills, McEnroe knew it quite well. He was a ball boy at the tournament only a few years earlier, spent hours watching tennis through his teens and in large part was still surprised that he'd become a player worthy of serious attention.
"The plan was always that John was going to go to Stanford," said his father, John Sr. "Everything that happened that summer took us by surprise."
One thing that added even more surprising dimensions was what happened during McEnroe's third-round match against fourth-seeded Eddie Dibbs. As more noise than usual came from the stands, the umpire informed the players that someone had been shot. "I'm out of here," said Dibbs. But then the umpire announced an update. A fan hadn't been shot after all. He was merely in shock. McEnroe went on to win the match -- at which point he and Dibbs learned that indeed, a stray bullet from the streets of Queens had nicked a spectator. Such was New York in the summer of 1977.
"I was aware of Son of Sam, but not much else around New York," Austin said.
Austin had always been keenly focused, so why make exceptions during this event?
"In a lot of ways the U.S. Open was much smaller, more intimate before it moved the next year to Flushing Meadows," she said. "My mom dropped me off and then looked in the neighborhood for parking, which pretty much cracks me up when you see how everything is now. I just stayed to my routines." One of those routines came after each match, when the Austin family headed to a nearby Baskin-Robbins to pick up Tracy's nightly snack, a pint of pralines and cream.
In the third round, Austin beat fourth-ranked Sue Barker. "That was huge, but again, the U.S. Open was just a part of the American summer," Austin said. "It's not like in those days the USTA was paying all this attention. What I did wasn't part of a plan."
Following Austin's win in the next round over Virginia Ruzici (who won the French Open the next year), she received a phone call from tennis fan and President Jimmy Carter. "When they told me in the locker room that he was on the phone I thought it was a joke," Austin said. "I'm sure I said a maximum of seven words."
Austin lost in the quarterfinals to Betty Stove, McEnroe in the fourth round to Manuel Orantes. And while certainly each prodigy was swarmed by various agents and corporations, the din was nowhere near as loud as it currently gets for aspiring tennis players. Instead, each headed back to school, Austin to her public high school, McEnroe to Stanford.
But events moved swiftly. In 1979, when the tournament was held at the new venue in Flushing Meadows for only the second time, Austin and McEnroe each won the singles; their respective victories were highlighted by Austin's final thumping of Evert and McEnroe's dispatching of Connors. Only two years earlier, the new guard had arrived. Now it had conquered.
Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes about tennis for Tennis Magazine and The Tennis Channel.
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