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She Won, But Is She No. 1?
Frank Deford
December 28, 1981
Tracy Austin was indeed driven as she won the Toyota Championships to stake her claim to the top spot in women's tennis
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December 28, 1981

She Won, But Is She No. 1?

Tracy Austin was indeed driven as she won the Toyota Championships to stake her claim to the top spot in women's tennis

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As the old rhyme goes, "Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat,/Please to put a penny in the old man's hat./If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do...." It was that sort of year in the battle for supremacy in women's tennis: A ha'penny was the best anybody could do. Consequently, when the Toyota Championships were held last week on a holiday court of green fringed with poinsettia-red banners, three of the sport's elite were still in the hunt. For the first time, it was quite possible that No. 1 for the year would be decided by a tournament winding up Christmas week.

The victor, it developed, was Tracy Austin, who beat Martina Navratilova in a three-set final, much as she had come back against the same opponent to win the U.S. Open. Austin had cruised to victory in the semis over the third claimant to No. 1, Chris Evert Lloyd, but earlier in the week, in the best match of the tournament, Austin had lost to Evert Lloyd. Austin lived to win another day because the Toyota is one of those tournaments for which only eight players qualify, and there has to be a way to keep everybody around for the weekend gate.

It was an appropriate note on which to end a year of confusion. The winner wasn't even sure where she had won, which was the new Brendan Byrne Meadowlands Arena, a beautiful $85 million edifice that has risen alongside a racetrack and a stadium in the New Jersey marshes across the Hudson River from Manhattan, the three athletic monuments looming up like the Pyramids. But in her bread-and-butter victory speech Austin said, "New York seems to be my city, I guess." As the catcalls rained down, one especially loud local voice bellowed, "This is Joisey, you dummy."

In any event, a few days earlier, as the tournament opened before sparse crowds, an argument could have been made for all three pretenders to No. 1, but just as easily against: Scissors cut paper, paper wraps rock, rock breaks scissors. Coming into the Meadowlands, these were the curricula vitae:

Evert Lloyd—Best winning percentage (.929) and tournament victory record (eight for 13). Won Wimbledon. Tough draws all year and never failed to reach semis in any event. But choosier schedule (28 fewer matches than Navratilova) and nothing special since the Fortnight.

Navratilova—Most wins (86 of 99 matches), record prize money (more than $800,000). Quarters French, semis Wimbledon, finals U.S. Open, won Australia, a nice progression up as the year wore on. In March won Avon Championships, culmination of the winter indoor tour. Also to be considered in a tight race: lead player on world's best doubles team. But didn't win either Wimbledon or U.S. Open and failed to win 50% of tournaments. Also, two bad losses, to Claudia Kohde (ranked 67th at the time), and Betsy Nagelsen (33). In women's tennis, a bad loss means losing to a lesser light. Navratilova lost love and love on clay to Evert Lloyd this year, but even that double bagel isn't considered a bad loss; it's just a day's beating from one of your own kind.

Austin—Head-to-head edge over both Evert Lloyd (1-0) and Navratilova (3-2). Won U.S. Open. Also won Canadian Open against class field, beating Navratilova in semis and Evert Lloyd in finals. But out first third of year with sciatica, so missed French. Only quarters at Wimbledon and Australia, losing to Pam Shriver both places. Two bad losses, to Sandy Collins (29) and Sue Barker (15).

Evert Lloyd was clearly the leader. In Australia earlier this month she beat Navratilova in a prelim tournament and then lost to her 7-5 in the third set in the finals of the Open. In New Jersey she wasn't so much a loser as the victim of a bungled draw and a greedy double-elimination format that prevailed up to the semifinals.

Tennis promoters love round robins and double eliminations for the same reason NBA owners love playoffs: Drawing cards can't be rubbed out early. But such arrangements are a bastard form of the sport and invariably create distortions or fraud. Besides, the very heart of tennis competition is knockout: Losers leave. The indomitable Evert Lloyd has played many roles in her career, and even though Austin won the tournament, perhaps the fate of the martyred Mrs. Lloyd will finally cause this hideous format to be deep-sixed.

Here is how they burned her at the stake. First, although she was seeded second, Chris was obliged to face the fifth seed in her opening match. It has been worse, of course. As the top seed at both the Canadian and U.S. Opens this year, Evert Lloyd had to play fifth-seeded Hana Mandlikova in the quarters of both tournaments. That's a travesty. The first seed should draw No. 8 in the quarters, second seed No. 7, and so on. That's why you seed. To seed someone first or second and then give her the draw the third or fourth seed deserves is, to rework Lincoln some, like calling a tail a leg and thereby claiming that a dog has five legs.

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