It was on this day 40 years ago—April 7, 1980—when Tracy Austin climbed to No. 1 in the WTA rankings. It was significant at the time but even more so in retrospect, as the future International Tennis Hall Of Fame inductee became the only player to crash the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova party at the top between May 10, 1976 and August 16, 1987.
Austin had started dreaming of being the best in the world as a child after another No. 1 visited her tennis club.
“Billie Jean King came to our club when I was in the fourth grade and my mom said to me, ‘That young lady is No. 1 in the world,’” Austin recalled. “I just thought the idea of being No. 1 in the world was wonderful, that it was something you could quantify, and I knew I wanted to do it someday.”
Her rise towards the top was fast. She won the first WTA event she ever played at Portland in 1977. At just 14 years and 28 days old, she was the youngest player ever to win a WTA title, a record that still stands. She broke into the Top 10 as a 15-year-old in 1978 and then, less than a year after turning pro, won her first Grand Slam title as a 16-year-old, at the 1979 US Open—taking out Navratilova in the semifinals and Evert in the final, both in straight sets.
At 16 years and eight months, she’s still the youngest champion in US Open history, male or female.
“Beating Martina and reaching my first major final was incredible, but going into the final I had no idea Chrissie had won it the last four years in a row, or that I’d be the youngest champion,” Austin said. “My mom and my coach didn’t build it up to be a million times bigger than any other match I was going to be playing in my career, it was just about executing and winning that one match. Not history, not breaking records, not thinking about how it would change my life. It was another match to me.
“It was just about beating Chrissie that day. Nothing bigger.”
After falling to Austin, 6-4, 6-3, it was clear Evert herself noticed her opponent’s laser focus.
“Mentally, she was very tough,” Evert told reporters. “I thought winning the title would intimidate her, but it didn’t bother her a bit. She went out there like it was just another tennis match.”
The surge continued. Austin won two more titles in the fall of 1979, in Filderstadt, Germany and Tokyo, Japan, and then five more titles in the first three months of 1980, all of them on American soil, at Cincinnati, Seattle, Boston, the WTA Championships in Madison Square Garden and Carlsbad.
The pressures that commonly follow a first Grand Slam title didn’t seem to affect her at all.
“It helped that for years I’d been used to going out on court with the expectations to win,” Austin said. “In the juniors I was used to being at the top of the heap and being the target, so I wasn’t worried about defeat. A lot of times people are worried about defending something, but you can’t be afraid of losing or what people will say if you lose. You can’t compete at your best with those emotions.
“You have to want to win. You just have to play hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
Austin’s victory at Madison Square Garden in late March was particularly memorable.
“It was the coolest. You would walk the halls and see all the stars who had performed there. It was iconic—you could feel the history of that arena. And every year the championships were so well-attended in New York, it was like everyone marked that on their calendar and wanted to be there.
“I was just a teenager, still in school, trying to fit in some endorsements—it was a whirlwind. It’s hard to recall everything because things were so fast-paced, but I knew that I was having fun.”
It all came full circle at the Family Circle Cup in Hilton Head, S.C. in the first week of April. She didn’t know it at the time, but Austin secured No. 1 after one of her early-round wins.
“At Hilton Head they had a back porch area where we used to do our press conferences, and after I won my match and sat down, my mom came up to me and whispered to me I was going to be No. 1 now,” Austin said.
“It was just a wonderful moment to share with my mom, because she was really the one who supported me throughout my career. She was always by my side, she drove me to practice—she was my biggest supporter. And she knew it was my dream to become No. 1 in the world. It was also special to do it in Hilton Head, which was one of the first tournaments I ever played. It was like I came full circle. I loved the fact that it was my mom who shared it with me.”
As a cherry on top, Austin went on a title run, before officially rising to No. 1 the Monday after, April 7, 1980. She would spend a total of 21 career weeks at the top spot, all in 1980: two from April 7 to 20 and 19 more from July 7 to November 17. And at 17 years and three months, she’s still the WTA's third-youngest player ever to reach No. 1, after Martina Hingis (16 years and six months) and Monica Seles (17 years and three months).
There was much more to come, including a second Grand Slam title at the 1981 US Open and a Grand Slam mixed doubles title at 1980 Wimbledon alongside her brother, John. But for now, it’s time to celebrate this special day—the 40th anniversary of a breakthrough to remember.