Tracy Austin and Why Ex-Players Aren’t Always Good Explainers

Why tennis players don’t always make the best tennis commentators.

Tracy Austin was a roving reporter at the WTA year-end championships this year. I often watch sports on television while I’m doing paperwork and answering my email, so much of the time I listened to Tracy rather than watching her. I would have been listening even if I hadn’t been multitasking because most of her commentary flew over the onscreen tennis action, and maybe it’s not fair to critique someone without paying full attention, but I have always found her commentary very vanilla relative to the fierceness that must reside somewhere in her body and mind given her remarkable playing career.

Which, by the way, looked like this:

Age 4: Appeared on the cover of World Tennis Magazine

Age 10: Won the national girls 12 and under

Age 14: Entered her first professional tournament as a qualifier and won the title

Age 16: Won the US Open

Age 17: Reached the number one ranking in the world

She won her second US Open in 1981 at the age of 18 but it was all downhill from there as injury after injury of the “overuse” variety – back injuries and sciatica in particular – left her sidelined for long periods of time. She won her last even in 1982.

I was thinking about Austin because I’m reading Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, known in these parts for the quasi-devotional piece in the unfortunately now defunct Play Magazine about Roger Federer. In the book, DWF completely slams Austin’s 1992 “written with” sports autobiography in a piece titled How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.

It’s not just Austin, DWF laments the perennial disappointment that comes with reading any sports memoir. We desperately want to get into the head of a champion and see what made them exceptional because we all want to be exceptional. My favorite reading in the world is a New Yorker profile because I’m looking for a “manual for life.” What makes Michael Moschen the most original juggler in the world? How could Lionel Trilling hate himself so much yet be so successful? And, consequently, can a self-critical being like me ever succeed?

But players seldom deliver the goods. Being a good tennis player doesn’t make you a good journalist or psychologist, it just makes you a good tennis player. And it’s celebrity that sells books. Readers want inspirational tales something like a longhand version of a People Magazine story, not an analysis of greatness.

DWF is not entirely correct, there are good sports memoirs out there and we saw one just this year. Pete Sampras’s memoir, A Champion’s Mind, does in fact give you good insight into the clear divide between the champion’s mind and the runnerup’s mind. Sampras suffered a competitive crisis after winning his first slam – which he won under no pressure at all because no one expected him to do it. It took him another three years before he figured out what it took to win a slam and whether or not he was up to it.

It doesn’t look like Austin had any such crisis. Whatever she put her mind to, she could do. Her game was grinding, outlasting her opponent, keeping the ball in play, and driving herself to perfection on the practice court. It wore Austin’s body down to the point that her career never got past her teenage years and you might think that the disappointment would have led to some reflection on her part. “Did I drive myself too hard?” “Did my family push me too hard?” But it didn’t. As DWF points out, the same mentality that drove her to greatness is the same mentality she used to deal with a near-fatal car accident that smashed her leg and derailed a comeback in the late 1980’s. She told herself that there was nothing she could do about it but accept it and that’s exactly what she did. The endless inner mental warfare ran along at a lower volume in her head.

Lack of self-reflection doesn’t make for good sports commentary. Some people have way too much self-reflection, you could even call them tortured, and they are the better candidates. Of course, I’m talking about John McEnroe and the volume in his head leans toward overload. And you have to be a bit nasty. Not nasty, exactly, but Austin’s sweetness keeps her from challenging players as much as she could.

In the video clip above, Austin is willing to give Agnieszka Radwansks a pass after Radwanska did her best to annoy Maria Sharapova’s serve at the US Open last year by creeping up to the service line. As far as Austin is concerned, it’s within the rules and that’s enough for her. I don’t want to turn her into Jim Courier, who postures unpleasantly here and dismisses Austin’s take, I just want her to be willing to have someone mad at her now and then.