Meeting Tracy Austin

On August 16, 2003, I had the time of my life! ALTA held a clinic with tennis legend Tracy Austin at the Atlanta Athletic Club. The first class event was sponsored by Outback Steakhouse and Star-94, and I got selected (via a drawing) to participate! Here is what transpired:

I was allowed to bring a guest and we were able to park right next to the registration "tent". After signing in, I received a name tag, a schedule, and a "goodie bag" which was actually a small collapsible cooler that would hold about two six packs. Inside, however, was a Coca-Cola squeeze water bottle, a "Sports Unlimited" towel, a coupon for a free drink at Caribou Coffee (who also provided the continental breakfast), some sponsor refrigerator magnets, an ALTA Foundation bag tag, and a Star-94 plastic cup. We were then directed to a pavilion area for a continental breakfast.

At 10 AM, Steve McCoy (who was the best known radio personality in Atlanta, with Vicki Locke, at the time), and who also used to play ALTA, kicked off the day by introducing the ALTA Foundation and Outback Steakhouse executives, and then Tracy Austin herself. Tracy took the microphone and spoke for a few moments before we were told that we'd be divided into groups (preset based on our ALTA skill level) so that the clinic could commence. Each group had eight people and the first thing we did once we found the pro for our first "rotation" was get our picture taken with Tracy, who incidentally looked great.

There were three sub-clinics (Focus on Groundstrokes, Serves & Point Play, and All About Volleys) of approximately 35 minutes each. There were four courts for each rotation, given by twelve local pros (including the Georgia Tech Men's & Women's assistant coaches), which meant that I was one of only 96 ALTA players invited to participate!

My first clinic, INDOORS with air conditioning, was "All About Volleys" with Jim Carella, who used to work with Tracy's brother John at the Quinta resort in California. After a brief warm-up, he instructed us on proper volleying position and technique, and then he led us in some drills. He added some competition to the exercise to make it fun. My takeaway from this clinic was "I is for idiot while V is for victory". In other words, if your arm and racquet are straight up in front of you ("I" position) when you hit your volley, you'll probably put it right into the net (idiot!). Whereas, if your arm and racquet are to the side, forming a "V" with your head and upper body (essentially), you'll likely volley much better ... victory!

My second and third clinics were OUTDOORS on clay courts, and it was muggy! However, I had NO complaints, especially because there were big barrels of ice cold POWERade and DASANI water (Coca-Cola was a Platinum level ALTA sponsor too) everywhere. My group's second clinic was "Focus on Groundstrokes" which started with some informal instruction for all four groups of this rotation by Tracy Austin. She gave us some pointers and then hit some balls fed to her by Mariaan De Swardt (who used to be on the pro tour and was then an assistant coach at Georgia Tech). Subsequently, we divided back up into our groups of eight and worked on "groundies" with a local pro. We hit down-the-line and crosscourt strokes from both the forehand and backhand sides. Then, we had a little competition where "winners" started on one side and "challengers" could take their place if they won two points in a row. An ALTA B-5 woman and I quickly won two straight points as the challengers and then never lost two in a row, staying the winners until it was Tracy Austin's turn to work with our group.

We divided up into two columns on either side of her (in the middle) at one of the baselines. The local pro fed us balls from across the net while Tracy critiqued our strokes. I had the HONOR of having Tracy Austin tell me that I was hopping up a little while hitting the ball: "Mark, keep your feet on the ground". What a rush, to be watched and receive suggestions on my tennis technique by a two time U.S. Open singles champion ... the highlight of my day!

My third clinic, "Serves & Point Play", was needless to say somewhat anti-climatic. We hit serves, and we returned serves. We did have a little competition, playing out points "crosscourt". I hit several aces and easily returned and won the points I played against the other "best" player in our group (besides me;-) I found out after the clinic that he was on his way to Tucson for the USTA 3.0 national championships that year. No real takeaway from this one except the reminder to hold the racquet loosely with your thumb and two middle fingers if you want a good wrist snap.

After our clinics, we gathered back at the pavilion to watch Tracy and a randomly selected ALTA member play against a couple of the pros (including Ms. De Swardt, who evidently had one of the hardest serves on the women's tour ... she aced Tracy once). They played four games, everyone except Tracy served, and had some really fun points to watch. The few times they challenged Tracy on her backhand side, they regretted it. Also, she threw up some outstanding lobs. Then, a local 13-year old (ranked?) female played with Tracy against two other local pros for four games. The kid was a little too nervous, unfortunately, to show us much of her game.

After our clinics but before the exhibition described above, Tracy signed autographs on tennis balls, mostly, until I approached her with some photo collages I made from pictures I took of her at the 1981 U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam singles title she won. She was excited to see them and, when I offered her some extra copies that I had brought for her, she said "thank you, no one ever brings me anything". She then gave me a signed ALTA/Penn tennis ball.

Tracy then conducted a Q&A session with us and when I raised my hand she said "Mark?". I had long since sweated off my name tag so I guess she remembered me from the pictures. I asked her whether you need to change grips if you use a two-handed background (which I do). She said "Yes, you should" (though currently I don't). While she answered questions, the staff passed out plates of Outback Steakhouse's awesome blossoms (fancy onion rings) with sauce. She fielded a lot of interesting questions and I wish I could remember all of them, but I can't. I do remember her saying that some German (?) male pro on the ATP circuit ranked between 120-150 beat Venus 6-1 and Serena 6-2 on a practice court at the Australian Open earlier that year. And, she said "he was smoking cigarettes during the change-overs! Men are just bigger and stronger ... but women are smarter!". Tracy said she's not a proponent of the extreme western grips that some players use because they don't produce the kind of penetrating shots you need. She said she favored the more classical strokes of Lindsay Davenport and said that Maria Sharapova had recently impressed her (against Kim Clijsters) with her more classical form.

After wrapping up the Q&A, we adjourned indoors to an Outback Steakhouse catered lunch: steak, chicken, grilled salmon, Caesar & oriental salads, rolls, and Coca-Cola products. Delicious. All and all, a fantastic day. One last thing, while departing, we saw Tracy again in the parking lot putting her things into the trunk of her rental car. I called "thanks again for a great session, Tracy" to which she replied (something to the effect of): "Glad you enjoyed it Mark. Did you have a good lunch?" and I replied that I did. Still remembered my name, I guess that's her professional commentator skill!