Philadelphia Inquirer (1992)
PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER TRACY AUSTIN SERVES UP A BUBBLY LIFE STORY Aug
Reviewed by David Foster Wallace
BEYOND CENTER COURT My Story By Tracy Austin with Christine Brennan
William Morrow. 288 pp. 20
I 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 and cheated 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
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
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 to showing 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's Angels, Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter,
especially"), and that she got her braces removed at age 15 - "What
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
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
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 under the legend "A Star
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
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.
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