1. Home
  2. sports
  3. news
  4. The youngest-ever US Open winner talks tennis' iconic moments, growing up in the spotlight, and the sport's bright future

The youngest-ever US Open winner talks tennis' iconic moments, growing up in the spotlight, and the sport's bright future

Meredith Cash   

The youngest-ever US Open winner talks tennis' iconic moments, growing up in the spotlight, and the sport's bright future
  • Tracy Austin is the youngest person, man or woman, to win the US Open singles tournament.
  • The tennis legend spoke to Insider about her sport's most iconic moments.

When most kids her age were concerned about math homework, homecoming dates, and getting their driver's licenses, Tracy Austin was busy reaching the pinnacle of the tennis world.

She competed in Grand Slams while still wearing braces, beat countless titans of tennis while still in her teens, and took the the sports world by storm before graduating high school.

Most famously, she accomplished one of tennis greatest feats by winning the US Open at just 16 years old. To this day, she is the youngest man or woman to ever win the singles tournament at the final Grand Slam of the year.

Needless to say, Austin knows a thing or two about the tennis landscape and the sport's most iconic moments. So she teamed up with the International Tennis Hall of Fame — where she became the youngest-ever inductee at 29 years old — to help fans decide the most iconic moments in tennis lore.

From April 15 to 30, anyone could learn about the sport's rich history and vote for tennis' Most Epic Rivalry, Best Cinderella Story, Best Comeback Within a Match, Most Iconic Celebration, and Best Moment of National Pride. The vote comes ahead of Lleyton Hewitt's induction into the Hall of Fame on July 16.

Austin spoke to Insider about her thoughts on the star-studded list of contenders for each category, the most iconic moments of her own tennis career, growing up in the spotlight as a tennis prodigy, the future of the sport, and more.

This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

What was your response when you heard that the International Tennis Hall of Fame was consulting fans on those moments?

It's fantastic because we know people like to give their opinions, but we certainly know tennis fans like to give their opinions. So to have 40 different iconic moments to vote on, to have the opportunity to go back and reminisce on these special moments of players that they love and moments that they remember, it's really important. And I think that's at the core mission of the Hall of Fame is to celebrate big moments.

Will you go on the record with your takes for each of those categories?

I think it's very tough to pick just one of the eight; there's eight different storylines in each category. So I could give you two or three from certain categories, but just to pick one is very tough.

For the fans out there, it's important for them to go on [and look]. Some of the younger fans won't even remember, they won't have been a part of watching these moments unfold. So it's a good opportunity for them to learn about these moments and some of the former champions before their time.

Do you think recency bias will play a factor in the results?

I think it would have to. If you have someone that's say 30 years old, they're not gonna remember certain moments like the Battle of the Sexes, which I think is the iconic moment for me that I remember so much. I remember exactly where I was. I remember how it represented so much more than a tennis match.

Somebody may remember the Cinderella story of Emma Raducanu, but they might not remember Guga Kuerten or Mats Wilander if that happened before their time. But those stories are just as exciting and just as enlightening. And if they're true tennis fans, some of these stories may spark their interest in tennis and make them maybe go back and rewatch a match or read into a storyline. They may hear Mats Wilander on television, talking about tennis, and they recognize how bright he is.

What's that story of where you were when you watched the Battle of the Sexes?

I was about 10 years old. It was 1973. I was at the Jack Kramer tennis club where I grew up playing, and I still play there. The TV was on and it was packed because everybody in tennis wanted to watch this match and see how it was gonna unfold.

You had Billie Jean King, about 29 years old, playing against Bobby Riggs at 55 years old. He was a self-proclaimed male chauvinist. Now, I don't know whether he really was, or that was great marketing by Bobby, but he certainly said a lot of things that intrigued and piqued the interest that made people want to watch this match.

Three out of five sets, Houston Astrodome, 30,000 people in person watching, but apparently 90 million people watching around the globe. And it was because, as I said, this was more than just a tennis match. This was about equality. And Billie Jean King wanted equal prize money to the men. At that time, it was about 1/8th the amount of money that the men were receiving, or even 1/12th in some certain tournaments.

So Billie had a lot of pressure on her shoulders. She came through and won. As a little girl, you remember moments like that in your young life.

You talk about being a young girl then. But only a few years later, you played Billie Jean King and you beat her. What did that mean to you given how impactful the Battle of the Sexes was for you as a kid?

It was difficult to get over the hump. When I first started playing against Billie, this was somebody that I grew up doing book reports on. She was my Fed Cup captain, which eventually became the Billie Jean King Cup when it was renamed a couple of years ago. So it was difficult to just play the ball and not play the legend, the icon that was on the other side of the net.

We played a couple of times at Wimbledon on Centre Court. Billie was an incredible athlete, a serve-and-volleyer. I won once, she won once, we're friends now. But yeah, it was pretty special to be able to play someone that you looked up to.

Was she someone who offered you advice early in your career?

Very interesting question. When I was in fourth grade, she actually came to our club, the Jack Kramer tennis club, to shoot a Wilson commercial. And I followed her the entire day. I wanted to see her on the court. I wanted to see her shooting the videos.

I wanted to see exactly what she was doing, because my mom had told me that there's a young lady who's very famous and No. 1 in the world who was gonna be coming to our club that day. Well, I'd never heard about the fact that somebody could be No. 1 in the world in something and actually quantify that. So it was amazing to me that out of the entire world, all the women on the planet, she was the best at something.

I got an autograph from Billie Jean; she said "Go for it." Billie Jean King, just the way that she interacts with people, she's very outgoing. And the fact that she had been so disciplined to go after her trade, that intrigued me.

If you could narrow down the iconic moments of your own career, what would make the list?

I would have to put winning the US Open for the first time, because I was 16 years old, beat Martina Navratilova in the semis — a serve-and-volleyer, a lefty, so aggressive. I had to flip the script and adjust to playing a baseliner, Chris Evert, in the finals who was so accurate, so poised, and didn't give you any free points.

I was so young, but I think I didn't recognize what a big deal it was gonna be. I really didn't differentiate Grand Slams at that time from the rest of the tournaments — it was just a tournament that I wanted to win. There was a match before me, there was a player on the opposite side of the net, and I needed to beat that person in order to win the tournament.

Now, when you do win and there's so much fanfare, you recognize this is life changing. You're winning a major now. And there's a big difference between winning a major and not winning a major and everything that comes along with it. So that's number one.

Number two would probably be winning Wimbledon mixed doubles with my brother, John, because it was so unexpected. We had lost the year before, and I said, "You know what? I'm done with mixed doubles. They hit too hard. I don't wanna get involved with that." And then we saved a match point in the finals. To win with a sibling with most of our family there was absolutely special.

The last one would be winning the US Open in 1981 after coming back from injury. I was out for five months and the final kind of replicated what I had been through. I lost the first set 6-1 and won 7-6, 7-6. It was the first major to be decided by a tiebreak. If I had to play a tiebreak now for a major title, I don't think I would be able to walk. But somehow I was able to stay in the moment and compete.

You achieved unprecedented success at a very young age. What was it like to come of age under such bright lights?

It was interesting because my life was an open book. When I was playing tournaments, I got interviewed. They wanted to know what I felt. They wanted to know if I was dating anybody, what was happening in school, all of those things that you're just trying to navigate and try to get ahold of as a teenager. That was sometimes difficult.

I stayed in public school. So I won the US Open at 16 on a Saturday, and two days later, I was back at public high school. I felt the need to have something normal in my life because in my professional life, it wasn't normal shooting commercials, people pulling you to do interviews. I felt that that was really helpful for me to stay grounded, to stay levelheaded.

It's interesting because I felt like a 16 year old in one life and almost a 24-year-old [in another]. The way I was able to be so poised, not intimidated by playing a Martina [Navratilova] or Chris [Evert] with so much on the line and thousands in the stadium and millions watching, it was almost like two lives.

Were your peers in school phased by it?

I think because I had been to school with those kids all along, that was very helpful. So I had my set of friends. I will say it sometimes became a little more difficult, a little more awkward because I was on the cover of Sports Illustrated or whatever it was. But for me, again, just going to school, getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to take a test, focusing on something other than my tennis was very important.

Did anyone offer you advice on navigating professional sports as a kid? Were there players who had been in your shoes who reached out?

There really wasn't. Chris Evert had been before me; she's eight years older than I am. And she had made a breakthrough at a very young age, but then there was a break for a while. I was kind of the first one to come along. And every year at that time on the tour, there were major changes as far as The Original Nine and the tour, and it was getting to new heights.

So there really wasn't that opportunity for me. It was just jumping in with both feet. My sister had been on the tour, but not playing at the same level. So I think seeing her traveling around the world helped me a bit. But other than that, it's so interesting because I really just did it. It was like next week, I'm going to Chicago. I'm gonna try to win that tournament. I gotta do media, I gotta do this. I was pretty level headed and had a good foundation. My mom was always with me, making sure that it wasn't too much. So I seemed to be able to navigate it pretty well.

Are you able to identify young players who have that "it factor" since you've been in that position?

I think I do, but I miss a lot of times. You think "That one's got it. They're really fast. They've got a great head on their shoulders" and then it doesn't happen. And then there's others that slip through and you say, "Wow, how did I miss that?"

There's so many things that have to come together. To create a champion, they have to have weapons, they have to have speed, they have to be able to think tactically, and readjust on the fly in a match. It could be a family breakup or a parent that deters them. It could be an injury that deters them.

There's so many different factors and they all have to come together in a positive way. It's very difficult to navigate to the top without any problems. So I like to think that I can in some ways, but you never know outside influences and what's gonna happen.

Are there any on the tour now who you've had your eye for a long time?

Well, I think everybody's had their eye on Coco Gauff. And we've just been able to see her talent get better every single year, every single month. It seems like now at that age you improve so rapidly. Coco has improved, shored up her forehand in the last four to six months, in a big way. And now I think she's gonna win a major.

The serve has gotten better, more reliable, not as many double faults. And the forehand used to be attackable, but now she's such an incredible athlete. She seems to have a great head on her shoulders. So poised out there. She's had so many eyes on her for years now.

But there's many. Emma Raducanu slipped through for me, because we hadn't heard of her before Wimbledon of last year, 2021. She got to the fourth round. She played incredibly well, but I still would not have picked her to win the entire US Open as a qualifier. That was unprecedented.

Emma Raducanu is one of the Cinderella moments that people can vote on for the tennis hall of fame iconic moments. These are the kind of moments, with eight in each category, that people can give their voice to. And I think it's nice for tennis fans to be able to engage in friendly debate and inspire future generations.

And for some young people to be able to learn about these important moments and reminisce on the great moments that really span seven decades for men's and women's tennis across the entire globe, it's a great opportunity for everybody to get involved.

What advice would you give to these young stars looking to achieve some iconic moments of their own?

To enjoy every moment. They don't need to be thinking whether they're gonna make an iconic moment. They don't need to be thinking where they're gonna be at the end of their career. What's fun about a lot of these moments is that they're so organic.

The celebrations that we talk about — the national pride, coming back within a match, epic rivalries — these are moments that were not staged. They were not planned. And I think when we watch a sporting event, whether it's basketball or tennis, whatever it is, we get invested in the players, in the stars, and in the moment. Whether we want this person to win, or we want them to come back, and then when it all unfolds, somebody has a dramatic victory. We wanna see how they're gonna celebrate these organic moments of celebration.

When you were inducted into the Hall of Fame, did the magnitude of the event take you back to all of those special moments throughout your career?

When you go to the enshrinement weekend, which is the greatest honor that you could receive in tennis, it's the cherry on top. You're voted in by the fans and by sports writers. It's a moment where they're saying your career has been a huge success.

You're so honored. You're humbled. You have a lot of your family there. You have some of your team that's there. It's a chance to reflect and be appreciative of everything that you've accomplished. You get interviewed an awful lot that weekend. So you are reminiscing about the most important moments in your career.

I'll have to go watch some tapes after hearing you reflect on some of these moments in your own career and other players' that you remember watching.

I love that. We want the young people to get involved and not only vote on the iconic moments from the Hall of Fame, but we're hoping they'll intrigue everybody to dig into the history of our sport. That's really the core mission of the International Tennis Hall of Fame, to talk about these iconic moments.


Popular Right Now