Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, Tennis.com presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You’ll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.
(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)
Years played: 1977–1994
Major titles: 2 (1979, 1981 US Open)
“The Tracer,” she was dubbed by Bud Collins when she debuted on tour in the late ’70s. The nickname made sense for two reasons: This sprite-like Southern Californian could put a ball on a dime, and she was aiming straight for the women at the top of the game.
Austin may not have been tennis’ original child prodigy, but she was its most celebrated. She and her pigtails were introduced to the world at 13, when they appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated beside the headline, “A Star is Born.” At least at first, Austin avoided the magazine’s cover curse. Sporting a pinafore dress made by her mother, she debuted at the US Open in 1977. Two years later, at 16, she became the youngest player ever to win her nation’s Grand Slam.
“She was a mental giant,” her coach, the legendary SoCal ground-stroke guru Robert Lansdorp, once said. Of all his famous students, which included Pete Sampras, Maria Sharapova, and Lindsay Davenport, Lansdorp said she was the toughest. Austin played a condensed, utilitarian, mind-bendingly consistent version of the baseline game that an earlier prodigy, Chris Evert, had pioneered. Using a two-handed backhand and a flat forehand, Austin didn’t waste any motion; her mind and her strokes were grooved to go all day. She ground her older opponents down, and quickly rose in the rankings.
The best of those older opponents, of course, was Evert, and Chris could see her younger döppelganger roaring up in her rearview mirror. Evert won their first three matches, but by ’79 Austin had caught her. She ended Evert’s 125-match clay-court win streak in Rome, and ended her four-year title run at the US Open. By 1980, Austin had taken Evert’s spot at No. 1, and she would win nine of their 16 career meetings.
In 1981, Austin went on a 26-match win streak and beat her era’s other great star, Martina Navratilova, in a thrilling, three-set US Open final. She looked to be a new star for a new decade, but, sadly, that would be Austin’s last major title. Her career was cut criminally short by chronic back problems; by 21, she was out of the Top 10. A comeback in 1989 was ended before it had a chance to begin when Austin was involved in a near-fatal car accident in New York.
Austin had the potential to be one the Open era’s all-time champions, but she remains one of its what-if stories instead. Yet her three-year prime was enough to put her in the tennis Hall of Fame—the youngest ever to be inducted, of course.
Defining Moment: In her 1981 US Open final against Navratilova, Austin showed that she was more than just a ground-stroking machine. Three times in the decisive third-set tiebreaker she surprised Navratilova by changing her normal pattern and going down the line with her forehand; three times she won the point.
Watch: Tracy Austin’s incredible history at the US Open:
FOLLOW THE MEN’S AND WOMEN’S COUNTDOWNS OF THE 50 GREATEST PLAYERS OF THE OPEN ERA THROUGHOUT THE MONTH OF FEBRUARY RIGHT HERE.