Tracy Austin bounded onto the court Tuesday, her blonde hair in a ponytail, a gold chain around her neck and gold loops in her ears.
She had a comeback on her mind.
After a five-year absence, the one-time pigtailed kid from Rolling Hills returned to tournament singles as a 26-year-old bringing her familiar two-fisted backhand into unfamiliar territory.
Perhaps surprisingly, she discovered this: “The fires are still there.”
Austin did not win, but she did play remarkably well at times against seventh-seeded Nicole Provis, the No. 25 player in the world.
Provis defeated Austin, 7-5, 5-7, 6-1, in a first-round match in the Virginia Slims of Indian Wells and then said Austin showed her something important.
“She has to be mentally tough to come back,” Provis said.
The match lasted 2 hours 20 minutes, but it was one for which Austin has waited since 1984, when health and injury problems curtailed her game and then forced her out.
In something of an upset, it was not an easy match for Provis. Austin had her moments, just not too many of them while serving.
Austin, who last played a tournament singles match in February, 1984, committed 10 double faults and failed to hold serve nine times in 15 service games. She also admitted to running out of gas in the third set.
Those were the bad parts. But there were also enough flashes of the good to keep herself and the pro-Austin crowd of 2,450 enthusiastic about her comeback.
For example: Facing set point at 5-5 in the second set, Austin engaged Provis in a 23-shot rally and forced deuce when the 19-year-old Australian popped a forehand into the net. Austin broke Provis, then served out the set to even the match at a set all.
“The wheels just weren’t there,” Austin said.
All in all, it was an encouraging performance for Austin. Late in the afternoon, as the sun disappeared behind the stands at Hyatt Grand Champions, Austin cast a long shadow across the court. Perhaps it is not as long as when she was the No. 1 player in the world.
But although the sun went down, it must also come up again, reasoned Austin, who had mixed reactions about her first match in her comeback.
“Concentration and footwork and match play--it just wasn’t there,” she said. “I can’t expect it to be there. I’d play three great points and three terrible points.
“But I think I’ll be encouraged if I look back at it. This is a pretty major step for me.”
“I have a lot to work on, but there’s a lot there, too. This is a start, a beginning.”
Austin said she always planned on coming back, she just didn’t know when it would be or that it would take so long. She has always been eager to play, even if it was for only five minutes when that was all the pain in her back would allow.
“People have a passion in life,” she said. “Playing the piano. Knitting. Playing basketball. I really love to play tennis. I’ll probably be playing tennis when--I was going to say 50, but that doesn’t sound too old--when I’m 80.”
Hana Mandlikova, who has a head start on Austin in the comeback department, continued her recent habit of playing on the edge and still winning.
Mandlikova needed three sets to defeat qualifier Akiko Kijimuta in a first-round match, 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
Ranked No. 51 in the world, Mandlikova is playing in her fifth tournament since coming back from a sixth-month hiatus. Since then, she has played 15 matches and eight of them have gone three sets. Mandlikova has won all the three-set matches.
“You don’t win 8-0 in three-set matches unless you’re a fighter,” said Mike Estep, Mandlikova’s coach.
Only four years ago the No. 3 player in the world, Mandlikova will play top-seeded Chris Evert in the first match on Stadium Court today. Mandlikova has already played and lost to No. 2 Martina Navratilova twice and to No. 1 Steffi Graf once in 1989.
“I’m not thinking, ‘Hana, you’re back,’ because it takes a long time,” Mandlikova said. “I have to accept that. I have to tough it out and maybe lose some matches.”