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Champion's Alley: Tracy Austin

Champion's Alley: A series looking at the former champions at the WTA Finals. This week, Mark Hodgkinson focuses on 1980 champion Tracy Austin

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The biggest mistake you could make when playing against a teenage, pig-tailed Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova once observed, was "to think of her as a child - as if you did, she would beat you". And yet, following Navratilova's advice, and respecting Austin as a grown-up tennis player, was no protection against defeat. Even then, she could still out-play you. 

That was true in 1980 at the WTA's showpiece in New York's Madison Square Garden. For all the respect that Navratilova had her for Austin's game, and the way the teenager carried herself on court, she still couldn't stop the 17-year-old from winning the tournament for the first time. There was plenty of glory in Austin's victory, as it gave her the points she needed to move on to the top line of the rankings for the first time. 

Speaking to Austin recently, it was clear how much the tournament meant to her. "You always felt pride at qualifying as it meant that you had had a successful year, and you knew that you were a part of the elite of the game," Austin, who was the runner-up to Navratilova in 1979, told me. "There's prestige from being a part of the tournament - players will do whatever it takes to qualify and to be a part of the tournament, as they want the opportunity to win such a huge title. At regular events, you can build your way into the tournament, but you can't do that at this tournament. You need to bring your best tennis right away as you're facing one of the best players in the world from your first match. There are no easy matches. It's physically taxing as you're playing a lot of difficult opponents in a short period of time." 


Mark Hodgkinson is the author of 'Game, Set and Match: Secret Weapons of the World's Top Tennis Players' (Bloomsbury, May 2015).