Profile: Return of a baseline kid: Tracy Austin: Bud Collins traces the comeback of a tennis prodigy whose career has been blighted by injury

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The Independent Online
THE DOCTOR looks in a sombre way at his 26-year-old busted-up, plaster-encasted patient. 'I'm afraid you'll never be able to work again, ' he says.

She begins to cry, and he responds to the tears with: 'You'd better face reality, Miss Austin.'

Tracy Austin, aka Mrs Scott Holt of Rolling Hills, California, whose work was and, sort of, is tennis, and was the youngest major champ of the post-1887 Lottie Dodd era, smiles: 'There were soap opera qualities to that scene, all right. It was 1989, the low point of my life, right after what could have been a fatal car accident.'

At the time, the scrappy little blonde, whose demure appearance masks a heart of a tigress, was making yet another comeback, young enough to think she might smell the roses (and the US mint's printers' ink) once again.

Fast forward to this week. She's elderly, at 31, considering the inactivity and hard wear on an otherwise athletic, though svelte, 114lb frame, but Tracy Austin is training hard for her return to the Big W.

'It's going to be exciting to step on to that grass again,' says she who had a great shot at the title in 1980. She was overtaken by the champion, Evonne Goolagong, in a thrilling three-set semi, 6-3, 0-6, 6-4. Austin last walked away from Centre Court after a squeaker of a three-set quarter-final defeat by Billie-Jean King in 1982.

Just in case she doesn't go all the way to the title, Austin has some back-up insurance as a TV babbler in the NBC jock block that includes John McEnroe.

Back together again, Tracy and John. In 1979 - she 16 and he 20 - they were the youngest combination to win US championships. If she is realistic, Austin can expect, with a favourable draw, to win one, maybe two, Wimbledon matches.

And she's not in on a nostalgic wild card gift, either. Persevering, while a lot of the circuit's kiddies wondered 'Is this old doll out of her mind?', she has notched wins here and there, working her way up to No 78 on the computer after reappearing at No 159 last August. She has compiled a 5-7 match record for this season.

Earlier this year she made a mark in tennis history by winning a round at the Australian Open. Thus Austin is the lone player to have been inducted into tennis's International Hall of Fame, and then return to win a match in a major tournament.

'But . . .' she says, prior to playing the French final from a commentary booth high above Court Central at Roland Garros. 'But the loss here was a real bummer.' She was pulverised 6-0, 6-1 at the starting gate by Marketa Kochta, an obscure German ranked No 54. 'I feel like I'm almost starting all over again. Clay was never my best surface.'

A California hard-court honey, she won her two US titles over the icons, Chris Evert in 1979 and Martina Navratilova in 1981, on the asphalt of Flushing Meadow. In 1979, she also clipped Evert's record 150-match clay-court winning streak in the Italian semis, and went on to win the tournament.

The German Sabine Hack, a quarter-finalist in Paris, wasn't too complimentary after pulling away from Austin in three sets at the Australian Open. She suggested that Austin was out-of-date, and didn't know how to use the power of today's lightning rods to generate rolling waves of topspin.

'That's the kind of talk that just makes me more determined,' Austin says. 'I gave her a tough match. I'm not that ancient. People like Andrea Temesvari were hitting with a lot of topspin when I was at the top. But my game has always been based on depth and angles. It hasn't come back completely yet, but my coach, John Lloyd, and I think it will.' This week they'll be prospecting for those vanished angles together at Eastbourne.

'I just want to show I can play respectably again with the best players,' she says. 'I don't have any fantasies about being No 1 again. I know my time is running out. I don't know how much longer I can keep it up - but it's fun. I just love playing competitively. And my husband is so supportive. I know he's the real thing because we met right after the accident. Scott went through the long hours of getting well with me. This hasn't been easy for him.'

Scott Holt, a darkly handsome and athletic real estate entrepreneur, the rookie room-mate of almost one year, says: 'True, this has been a little hard on our marriage. I encouraged her when she was going through the rehab grind, but I never thought she'd want to play professionally again.

'The doctors said it would be too much pounding on the right leg that took the beating in the wreck. A knee replacement and arthritis are probably inevitable, and will only be hastened by her going back on the tour. But,' he sighs, 'she wants it right now. It makes her happy, so OK.'

Clearly, Austin feels cheated, is trying to recapture time lost to the vagaries of her body and a drunken driver who nearly killed her. But she's good-natured about it. That is, until she hears or reads one more report coupling her with the 'burn-out' syndrome.

'That makes me furious. I didn't burn out. I was injured when I was very young. Burn-out means you're sick of playing, like Bjorn Borg or Jennifer Capriati. I never was. I also get annoyed when Martina says I played too much when I was too young. I didn't. It's just that I wasn't as strong as her. At the end of 1980 I could hardly walk, but I beat Andrea Jaeger for the Avon Championship.

'Then I rested for four months and came back to beat Martina for the US Open title in '81, and played one more Wimbledon in '82. I won my last title that year in San Diego. I couldn't play too much after that.' She was through at 20, after winning 29 titles over four and a half seasons.

As new treatments restored her back, she began talking comeback as long ago as 1986. She played Team Tennis, entered some WTA events but only in doubles. Billie-Jean King said at the time: 'I wish she'd try singles again but I think she's afraid she'd look bad against the kids.'

Austin takes up the story: 'By the summer of '89, I was feeling great. I was playing Team Tennis, eager to try to tour again. And then, 3 August . . . this guy ran a red light and hit my car broadside at 65mph. The seat belt saved me. But the impact snapped it, sprung my door, and I was thrown out of the car. I'm lying dazed in the middle of the street, thinking 'I'm gonna die . . .' '

She laughs, blue eyes glittering. 'Apparently I didn't' She shakes her straw mane. 'I was lucky. But the doctors in New Jersey wanted to put all sorts of screws and plates in my shattered leg. No way. Somehow I got myself on a plane to Los Angeles, and my own doctors.'

They did put one screw in. Then it was a year of intensive rehab therapy. 'I'd been so close before that I couldn't stop thinking I'd play again. Scott was such a great sport, keeping me positive.

'If anybody was glad to see me back, I don't know. The only players I knew, anyway, were Martina and my childhood rival, Pam Shriver. But I had to learn about all the new faces, for the TV part of my life if nothing else.

'Sure, I agree with Martina that so many of these kids playing today are too young. There should be a minimum age for the pro tour. A kid should stay in school, finish high school as I did, lead as normal a life as possible. I would go away to play, but I finished school legitimately. No faxing homework, or correspondence courses.

'Your parents have to regard you as a daughter first, money- making player second. Poor Jennifer (Capriati) - for her it was the other way around. Sure, my parents were interested in my career, cheered me on, were supportive (her older sister, Pam, and brothers John and Jeff were also touring pros). But I wasn't the centre of their lives.

'In fact,' she giggles, 'at Indian Wells this year I was to play Graf and I called my father to tell him. He said, 'That's nice, dear, good luck, but I have my computer club evening that night.' I said, 'Dad] It's Graf. I want you there.' So he came, but you get the idea that my folks had, and have, lives of their own. Kind of refreshing when I thought it over.'

Seventeen years ago, baby Tracy won her initial Wimbledon match, then made her Centre Court debut, against the defending champ Chris Evert, who won a contest of lusty ground strokes 6-1, 6-1. Barely 90lb, wearing what seemed like a nursery school pinafore, Austin was received grandly by a curious, expectant crowd. 'Everybody acted as though Tracy were Jesus Christ in drag,' wrote Italian journalist Jianni Clerici in Milan's Il Giorno.

It won't be same in this second coming, but Tracy doesn't mind. 'Just to be back and playing Wimbledon again is enough.'

To that, Mr & Mrs Kent, the fun couple of the Royal Box, would certainly cry out: 'Hear, hear, my dear]'