Tracy Austin Serves Up a Bubbly Life Story (review of Tracy Austin's Beyond Center Court: My Story)
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRERTRACY AUSTIN SERVES UP A BUBBLY LIFE STORYAug 30, 1992 Reviewed by David Foster WallaceBEYOND CENTER COURTMy StoryBy Tracy Austin with Christine BrennanWilliam Morrow. 288 pp. 20I am a longtime rabid fan of tennis and life stories in general, and of Tracy Austin in particular. I've rarely looked forward to reading a new book I was supposed to criticize as I looked forward to Beyond Center Court: My Story. And I don't think I've ever felt as down and disillusioned andcheated by a book.Here's Tracy Austin on the first set of her final against Chris Evert at the 1979 U.S. Open: "At 2-3, I broke Chris, then she broke me, and I broke her again, so we were at 4-4."'And Tracy Austin 's epiphany after winning that final: "I immediately knew what I had done, which was to win the U.S. Open, and I was thrilled."Tracy Austin on the psychic challenge of pro competition: "Every professional athlete has to be so fine-tuned mentally." Tracy Austin on her parents: "My mother and father never, ever pushed me."On Robin Williams: "What an intelligent man."Meditating on excellence: "There is that little bit extra that some of us are willing to give and some of us aren't. Why is that? I think it's the challenge to be the best."I guess this breathtakingly insipid book has helped me understand why the whole genre of ghostwritten athletic bios is so disappointing. Uniformly rotten and yet ubiquitous, these sports memoirs sell because they seem to promise something more than the regular old name-dropping celebrity autobiography.But these corporate-PR sports bios, chock-full of truisms, never deliver, and Beyond Center Court: My Story is especially appalling. It fails not just because it's poorly written, which it is. (I don't know what ghostwriting sportswriter Christine Brennan's enhancing function was supposed to be here, but I don't see how Austin herself could have done any worse than 200-plus deadening pages of "Tennis took me like a magic carpet to all kinds of places and all kinds of people," enlivened only by howlers like "Injuries - the signature of the rest of my career - were about to take hold of me.") It fails, too, because it manages to commit what any high school senior knows is the capital crime in expository prose: It forgets its audience.Quite simply, the first loyalty of a successful autobiography has to be to the reader. Austin has allegiances aplenty in Beyond Center Court, but none are to the poor paying customer. This author's first loyalty seems to be to her family and friends. Whole pages are given over to retina-numbing, Academy-Award-style tributes to parents, siblings, coaches, trainers and agents, plus glowing little burbles of praise for pretty much every athlete and celebrity she's ever encountered. Martina Navratilova: "She is a wonderful person, very sensitive and caring"; Dick Enberg: "Dick is such a professional"; Liz Taylor: "She was exquisite"; ad nauseam.Austin is also loyal in her service to her own public image, her endorsement-lucrative position as a media Role Model: "Even with all this early success, I still considered school more important than tennis"; "I have never, ever tried drugs of any kind, marijuana, anything."There's also a weird loyalty here to the very biographic cliches by which we tend to mythologize sports stars. One such cliche-myth is of course that the person who's an extraordinary athlete on the field is really just plain folks off the field. Beyond Center Court devotes much of its space toshowing that the off-the-court Tracy Austin was just a normal American teenager. The obvious problem is that, since normal American teenagers tend to be rather shallow and uninteresting creatures, we're flooded with data such as that Austin enjoyed watching television ("Charlie'sAngels, Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter, especially"), and that she got her braces removed at age 15 - "What a feeling!"Sometimes her fondness for press-release-type truisms forces Austin to adopt an almost surreal narrative naivete. She protests with great energy that her tennis-fan mother never forced her into tennis at age 2, apparently never considering the fact that someone who's 2 doesn't have sufficient awareness of choices to require any sort of "forcing."But the biggest reason Beyond Center Court is especially disappointing is that it could have been so much better than the average I-was-born-to-volley memoir.The raw facts of Austin's life and rise and fall are almost classically tragic. She was the first of pro tennis' now-ubiquitous nymphet prodigies, and her rise was meteoric. Picked out of the crowd by coaching guru Vic Braden as a toddler, Austin was on the cover of World Tennis magazine at age 4. She played her first junior tournament at 7; by the time she was 10 she had won the national girls' 12-and-under championship both indoors and out, and was being invited to play public exhibitions. At 13, she had won national titles in most age groups, been drafted as a professional by World Team Tennis, and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated underthe legend "A Star Is Born."At 14, having chewed up every American female under 19, she entered the qualifiers for her first professional tournament, and won not only the qualifiers but the whole tournament, which is roughly equivalent to someone who's ineligible for a learner's permit winning the Indy 500. She played Wimbledon at 14, turned professional as a ninth grader, won the U.S. Open at 16, and was ranked No. 1 in the world at 17, in 1980, the same year her body started to fall apart.She spent the next four years effectively crippled by injuries and bizarre accidents, playing sporadically and watching her ranking plummet, and was pretty much retired from tennis at age 21. Her only serious attempt at a real comeback, in 1989, ended on the way to the U.S. Open - literally on the way, driving to the stadium - when a van ran a light and nearly killed her.The basic problem, of course, is that top athletes turn out not to be articulate about just those qualities and experiences that constitute their attraction and our compulsion. The basic question is why this fact is so bitterly disappointing. The answer might be that products like these PR-memoirs seem to promise precisely what they can't deliver: personal communicative access to an essentially public performative genius.But U.S. audiences aren't stupid; we'd catch on after a while, and it wouldn't be so profitable for the publishers to keep churning these things out.Maybe what keeps us obsessed and buying is the persistent desire both to experience genius in the concrete and to universalize genius in the abstract. And maybe our disappointment at the vacuousness of their memoirs is our own fault. Maybe the truth is that we wrongly expect geniuses in motion to be also geniuses in reflection, and their failure to be that is no more cruelly disillusioning than Eliot's inability to hit the curve ball or Kant's glass jaw.