Tennis: Austin back in the big time: Grand Slam stage for champion who prefers playing to commentating: John Roberts reports from Melbourne on the return of a former world No 1

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The Independent Online
OUT of the International Tennis Hall of Fame stepped Tracy Austin to play, and to win, her first match in a Grand Slam championship since losing to Britain's Jo Durie in the quarter-finals of the French Open in 1983.

'It feels awesome,' the former world No 1 said after defeating the South African Elna Reinach, 6-1, 7-5, in the first round of the Australian Open. Not so awesome, perhaps, as becoming the youngest winner of the United States Open, aged 16 years and nine months, but Austin was thrilled to sample the big time again, albeit on No 6 Court.

The match would have been switched to centre stage had not Jim Courier been taken to a fifth set by Bryan Shelton. No matter. Victories by Henri Leconte and Mats Wilander had warmed up the Court 6 audience nicely for the 31-year-old Austin. 'Court 6 was just fine,' she said. 'I was just happy to be playing. I haven't played on this centre court anyway, so I'm not nostalgic about it.'

By lasting the pace, Austin, currently ranked No 116, is assured of another day in the sun. Her second-round opponent is the German Sabine Hack, who defeated Zina Garrison-Jackson, the 11th seed, 7-5, 6-3.

Often cited as an example of prodigy 'burn-out', Austin has always insisted that her career was ended prematurely by injuries, not by stress. 'Burn-out to me means you are sick of it, you get tired of it, you don't feel like doing it any more, like Borg's retirement at 26. I was never burnt out. I was dying to play tennis, but it was my body that broke down.

'Just love of the game has brought me back. I really have a wonderful life without this. I do television commentary, I do a lot of corporate work, some speaking engagements, just got married in April, just bought a house in June. So I'm quite content. But there is always that itch.

'Sometimes at certain points I say, 'What am I doing? Life is much easier without this.' But, really, a tough match like in the second set today to sink your teeth in is the thing you miss; that adrenalin rush. Once you've had that as an athlete, that's the part you miss, that dogfight at the end.

'I enjoy being back, but it is not like you are out there saying, 'Wow, this is a picnic'. You are still fighting. You want to win. I have more in my life now than I did before, but I still think that you can focus. We have seen that with Chrissie (Evert) playing until she was 34.'

Ironically, Evert has become a factor in Austin's decision whether or not to compete in this summer's French, Wimbledon and US Open championships. 'USA network and NBC have asked me to do commentary because Chrissie is pregnant, as you know,' she said. 'I don't know. I would like to play. The commentating is much easier, that is for sure, but the tennis is more enjoyable.'

How long did she envisage playing at the top level? 'That's open-ended. As long as I feel like I'm improving, doing well, happy with it. As I said, I don't need to be doing this. They have already inducted me in the Hall of Fame, and they can't take that away.'

In view of her medical history, concern was expressed about a support she had worn on her right arm during the match. 'I changed to a different racket about three years ago and I had a problem with my arm,' she said. 'I have not had a problem for three years, but every time I take (the support) off I just get nervous. It is psychological probably now.

'Maybe this is a good goal after this tournament, to get rid of that thing, because I don't need it. It makes an awful tan mark. It is really ugly.'

Jennifer Capriati is to take a break to get away from the sport's pressures, according to the New York Times. The 17-year-old American, who is not taking part in the Australian Open because of an elbow injury, plans to remain on the sidelines until she finishes her school year, which will also rule her out of the French Open in May.

(Photograph omitted)

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