A pair of tweets I saw Friday about Coco Gauff gave me two flashbacks, one to the 1977 U.S. Open, and another to the 1994 French Open — and both involving Tracy Austin.
Memories can get distorted over time, but I remember walking into a Northern Virginia indoor tennis facility where I hung out as a teen one day during the ‘77 Open, and people there were gathered around a TV watching 14-year-old Austin play Virginia Ruzici in the round of 16. They weren’t the only ones. As the New York Times reported, President Jimmy Carter saw the match and called Austin afterward to congratulate her. In the previous round, Austin had crushed the No. 4 seed, Sue Barker. As a result, the hype was intense, even way before 24-hour TV, internet or social media.
One moment during the Ruzici match stuck somewhere in my memory, and Friday’s tweets (by Hannah Wilks and Courtney Nguyen) jarred it loose. We were all rooting for Austin. So were the fans at Forest Hills (the last year the tournament was played there). A woman near me watching the match on TV said something like, “I can’t imagine anyone is rooting for Ruzici.” And everyone there agreed.
All of that came back to me on Friday. I can understand, sort of, why we pull for adolescents to beat adults. There’s the feeling of watching history, and everyone likes to be in on history. On Friday I was showing family members a brief video I shot with my phone while in the stands for Gauff’s first WTA main draw win, against Caty McNally at this year’s Miami Open. My way of saying I knew her before she was famous.
But Gauff’s victim on Friday, Polona Hercog, is 28 years old, ranked 60th in the world, and has been toiling away on the WTA tour for more than a decade. Her Grand Slam record is almost entirely filled with R128s and R64s. She’s never reached the Round of 16, and now everyone is delighted that a child stopped her from getting there while achieving it herself for the first of what will surely be dozens of times. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to root for Hercog? Gauff has time. Lots of it. She may be playing for titles for the next quarter-century. Think about it: Gauff could quite plausibly be in the second week of Wimbledon in 2041.
But then I had my second flashback. I was helping the Associated Press cover the French Open in ‘94, and Austin was there as part of a comeback — two years after being inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Her brilliant record as a teen, including winning the U.S. Open in 1979 and 1981, assured her a place in Newport. Injuries cut her career short. She tried comebacks, one of which was stopped when she was in a serious auto accident in 1989.
In 1993-94 she tried again, playing the ‘94 Australian Open and then the French, even though she hadn’t played a Slam in 11 years. I remember attending a press conference she did in a small interview room at Roland Garros, I believe before her first-round match — which turned out to be her last in a Slam. Austin’s appearance at the French that year didn’t get as much attention as one might have expected. Then again, she had been out of the sport for so long that many in the media had never even seen her play, and she didn’t last long enough at the tournament to create a buzz.
Two U.S. Opens and a No. 1 ranking are a great career. Thankfully, when Tracy Austin was a teen she wasn’t thinking she had many years to win big tournaments. She went ahead and won them when she could.
Even with that in mind, I’ll be pulling for Simona Halep against Gauff on Monday, because Gauff probably has many years to win Slams. Probably. But you never know. She should try to win them as soon as she can.