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Tracy Austin Serves Up a Bubbly Life Story (review of Tracy Austin's Beyond Center Court: My Story)

by David Foster Wallace
Philadelphia Inquirer ()

Abstract

PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER TRACY AUSTIN SERVES UP A BUBBLY LIFE STORY Aug\n30, 1992 \n\nReviewed by David Foster Wallace\n\nBEYOND CENTER COURT My Story By Tracy Austin with Christine Brennan\n\nWilliam Morrow. 288 pp. 20\n\nI am a longtime rabid fan of tennis and life stories in general, and\nof Tracy Austin in particular. I've rarely looked forward to reading\na new book I was supposed to criticize as I looked forward to Beyond\nCenter Court: My Story. And I don't think I've ever felt as down\nand disillusioned and cheated by a book.\n\nHere's Tracy Austin on the first set of her final against Chris Evert\nat the 1979 U.S. Open: "At 2-3, I broke Chris, then she broke me,\nand I broke her again, so we were at 4-4."'\n\nAnd Tracy Austin 's epiphany after winning that final: "I immediately\nknew what I had done, which was to win the U.S. Open, and I was thrilled."\n\nTracy Austin on the psychic challenge of pro competition: "Every professional\nathlete has to be so fine-tuned mentally." Tracy Austin on her parents:\n"My mother and father never, ever pushed me."\n\nOn Robin Williams: "What an intelligent man."\n\nMeditating on excellence: "There is that little bit extra that some\nof us are willing to give and some of us aren't. Why is that? I think\nit's the challenge to be the best."\n\nI guess this breathtakingly insipid book has helped me understand\nwhy the whole genre of ghostwritten athletic bios is so disappointing.\nUniformly rotten and yet ubiquitous, these sports memoirs sell because\nthey seem to promise something more than the regular old name-dropping\ncelebrity autobiography.\n\nBut these corporate-PR sports bios, chock-full of truisms, never deliver,\nand Beyond Center Court: My Story is especially appalling. It fails\nnot just because it's poorly written, which it is. (I don't know\nwhat ghostwriting sportswriter Christine Brennan's enhancing function\nwas supposed to be here, but I don't see how Austin herself could\nhave done any worse than 200-plus deadening pages of "Tennis took\nme like a magic carpet to all kinds of places and all kinds of people,"\nenlivened only by howlers like "Injuries - the signature of the rest\nof my career - were about to take hold of me.") It fails, too, because\nit manages to commit what any high school senior knows is the capital\ncrime in expository prose: It forgets its audience.\n\nQuite simply, the first loyalty of a successful autobiography has\nto be to the reader. Austin has allegiances aplenty in Beyond Center\nCourt, but none are to the poor paying customer. This author's first\nloyalty seems to be to her family and friends. Whole pages are given\nover to retina-numbing, Academy-Award-style tributes to parents,\nsiblings, coaches, trainers and agents, plus glowing little burbles\nof praise for pretty much every athlete and celebrity she's ever\nencountered. Martina Navratilova: \n\n"She is a wonderful person, very sensitive and caring"; Dick Enberg:\n"Dick is such a professional"; Liz Taylor: "She was exquisite"; ad\nnauseam.\n\nAustin is also loyal in her service to her own public image, her endorsement-lucrative\nposition as a media Role Model: "Even with all this early success,\nI still considered school more important than tennis"; "I have never,\never tried drugs of any kind, marijuana, anything."\n\nThere's also a weird loyalty here to the very biographic cliches by\nwhich we tend to mythologize sports stars. One such cliche-myth is\nof course that the person who's an extraordinary athlete on the field\nis really just plain folks off the field. Beyond Center Court devotes\nmuch of its space to showing that the off-the-court Tracy Austin\nwas just a normal American teenager. The obvious problem is that,\nsince normal American teenagers tend to be rather shallow and uninteresting\ncreatures, we're flooded with data such as that Austin enjoyed watching\ntelevision ("Charlie's Angels, Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter,\nespecially"), and that she got her braces removed at age 15 - "What\na feeling!"\n\nSometimes her fondness for press-release-type truisms forces Austin\nto adopt an almost surreal narrative naivete. She protests with great\nenergy that her tennis-fan mother never forced her into tennis at\nage 2, apparently never considering the fact that someone who's 2\ndoesn't have sufficient awareness of choices to require any sort\nof "forcing."\n\nBut the biggest reason Beyond Center Court is especially disappointing\nis that it could have been so much better than the average I-was-born-to-volley\nmemoir.\n\nThe raw facts of Austin's life and rise and fall are almost classically\ntragic. She was the first of pro tennis' now-ubiquitous nymphet prodigies,\nand her rise was meteoric. Picked out of the crowd by coaching guru\nVic Braden as a toddler, Austin was on the cover of World Tennis\nmagazine at age 4. She played her first junior tournament at 7; by\nthe time she was 10 she had won the national girls' 12-and-under\nchampionship both indoors and out, and was being invited to play\npublic exhibitions. At 13, she had won national titles in most age\ngroups, been drafted as a professional by World Team Tennis, and\nappeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated under the legend "A Star\nIs Born."\n\nAt 14, having chewed up every American female under 19, she entered\nthe qualifiers for her first professional tournament, and won not\nonly the qualifiers but the whole tournament, which is roughly equivalent\nto someone who's ineligible for a learner's permit winning the Indy\n500. She played Wimbledon at 14, turned professional as a ninth grader,\nwon the U.S. Open at 16, and was ranked No. 1 in the world at 17,\nin 1980, the same year her body started to fall apart.\n\nShe spent the next four years effectively crippled by injuries and\nbizarre accidents, playing sporadically and watching her ranking\nplummet, and was pretty much retired from tennis at age 21. Her only\nserious attempt at a real comeback, in 1989, ended on the way to\nthe U.S. Open - literally on the way, driving to the stadium - when\na van ran a light and nearly killed her.\n\nThe basic problem, of course, is that top athletes turn out not to\nbe articulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute\ntheir attraction and our compulsion. The basic question is why this\nfact is so bitterly disappointing. The answer might be that products\nlike these PR- memoirs seem to promise precisely what they can't\ndeliver: personal communicative access to an essentially public performative\ngenius.\n\nBut U.S. audiences aren't stupid; we'd catch on after a while, and\nit wouldn't be so profitable for the publishers to keep churning\nthese things out.\n\nMaybe what keeps us obsessed and buying is the persistent desire both\nto experience genius in the concrete and to universalize genius in\nthe abstract. And maybe our disappointment at the vacuousness of\ntheir memoirs is our own fault. Maybe the truth is that we wrongly\nexpect geniuses in motion to be also geniuses in reflection, and\ntheir failure to be that is no more cruelly disillusioning than Eliot's\ninability to hit the curve ball or Kant's glass jaw.

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