America still searching for the lost drive of Austin

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The Independent Online

They are together again, 24 years on, Tracy Austin and John McEnroe. Back in 1979 they were celebrated as the youngest combination ever to win the singles titles at the US Open - she 16 and he 20 - and now they are part of the BBC commentary team at Wimbledon. We have been lucky enough to enjoy McEnroe's wit and wisdom for a few tournaments now, but this is Austin's first time with the corporation and her incisive reporting and insight have added greatly to coverage of the women's matches.

This should not come as a surprise since she has covered the past 13 US Opens for the USA Network. It has all helped, she explains, to keep up with the game, though she is also involved in US Tennis Association development programmes. The kid who wowed Wimbledon on her debut in 1977 as a 14-year-old wearing pigtails, a pinafore dress and teeth braces is a slim and attractive 40 now, the mother of three sons, happily married as Mrs Scott Holt and still resident in the Rolling Hills area of California where she grew up.

What she sees from the commentary box and schemes like the USTA's "mentor programme", which has her imparting expertise to the up-and-coming Ashley Harkleroad, is a rapid evolvement in women's tennis.

"When Martina Hingis was dominating in 1997 it was not the power game it is today. That was only six years ago, but Venus and Serena Williams have taken it to another level. The first part of this change was the oversized graphite rackets. Everybody was able to make clean winners from three feet behind the baseline.

"What has changed is that there are so few serve-volleyers because the serves are bigger but the returns are bigger as well. You hit a 110mph serve and you've got somebody hitting it on the rise at the other side and down at your feet. It's tough to react that quickly - passing shots are that much harder.

"And the girls are so much taller. Justine Henin-Hardenne is 5ft 5in, like me, but technically she hits the ball so well and has gotten so strong that I give her all the credit in the world.

"There were certainly a lot of serve and volleyers when I played, but it was an aggressive game I had to face, not power. Martina Navratilova didn't have powerful ground strokes but she had a big serve and accurate volleys. So did Virginia Wade, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong and on and on and on. I had to be accurate enough to pass or lob, so the points weren't going to be long, it was going to be about precision and accuracy.

"There were times when I felt the physicality of it all. Sometimes, on a faster surface, you felt you just couldn't get your foot in the door. Anything short, and Martina would chip and charge, it felt like this big monster at the net. But I remember beating her when my returns were clicking. I don't remember being overpowered by that many other players."

And, of course, Austin beat Navratilova to win one of her two US Opens in 1981, her only Grand Slams before her career was cut short by back problems. Not, she stresses, burn-out, as most people seem to assume. "I had been No 1 in the world, so being taken out of the game was very tough. I was 20 when I had to pull out of Wimbledon [in 1982] with a stress fracture of my back.

"I look back now and can't believe I only got to play six Wimbledons. I should have been able to play another seven or eight years. But I was in a car crash when I was 25 and shouldn't have lived." It happened when she was playing Team Tennis in New Jersey. A drunk driver went through a red light at 65 miles an hour and crushed her right knee.

Pointing to the scar, Tracy said: "They had to take a bone from my hip, and there is a screw in there. I was lucky to make it through that. After the knee surgery there was no way I could train the way I needed to. It was hard. Tennis was something I had done since I was two years old. I started on the tour at 14, I was No 1 at 17. Sure, I would have rather have played for more years but I feel so fortunate in many other ways, three healthy sons and a wonderful husband."

Tracy feels the age eligibility rule introduced into the women's game following the injuries suffered by Andrea Jaeger and herself has helped with mental, rather than physical, burn-out. "I slowed myself down by staying in school until I was 18. I didn't play the French or Australian Opens until after I was out of high school, though I was No 1.

"Nobody goes to school any more, they study on the internet or home schooling. I can't imagine not having gone to school. It was very important to me, not just for the study aspect but to make me a well-balanced human being. It's just a different time now. I'm not saying my way was better, I'm just glad I was able to have the balance in my life."

She regrets that no youngsters seem to be coming through in the United States. "It's funny how Maria Sharapova came over to the States from Russia at nine and has made it. It is just a question of getting an American to do that. My own kids will never make it, their life is too good. Where's the desire going to come from? So much of being successful in any sport comes from right here [she taps her heart], spending so many hours on court, giving that extra hour's practice, a desire to win when you are 5-5 in the third, not being willing to make excuses.

"I don't know where that strong, deep drive came from in me, but it certainly was there. And it's still there in whatever else I do." Anybody who doubts that should watch and listen to Tracy Austin for the rest of Wimbledon.