Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"Look at the little rascal hustle!"

Some time during the third set, that's what commentator Tony Trabert shouted when Tracy Austin scrambled around the court picking up ball after ball in the 1981 U.S. Open final. Tennis Channel showed the match last night as part of its "Classic Matches" series.

I enjoy watching that match because it took so many twists and turns: Martina Navratilova cleaned up in the first set, but then she started throwing forehand volleys into the net, and she couldn't stop double-faulting. With the wind constantly blowing, Austin did anything she could think of to keep Navratilova on the baseline, including hitting a good many lobs over her head.

There were some great rallies, and on three occasions, Navratilova made over-the-shoulder shots with her back to the net. Two of them were good, and one of them was a stunning winner.

Navratilova had just become a U.S. citizen in the late summer of 1981, and she had never won in New York, so her desire to win was huge. She would have to wait, though: Austin defeated her, 1-6, 7-6, 7-6. When the match was finally over, Navratilova sat down and cried.

Sadder, though, was Austin's fate. She was out for a few months with a back injury before the 1981 Open. When she won the title, she must have thought that the worst was over, but it wasn't. Austin's back problem became so bad that it took her out of serious competition and forced her to retire at a very early age. Hers is, in fact, one of the really sad sports stories because her potential was so great. She won the U.S. Open twice, and we can only guess how many more big titles she would have claimed had she remained healthy.

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