It was 5° below zero in Philadelphia the last time Australia's Tony Roche flew in with a bag and four rackets to play in a U.S. tennis tournament. Bundled up in a borrowed polo coat three sizes too big for him, the young Australian looked at that point like what, in simple fact, he is—a 17-year-old kid a long way from home. But stripped down to sunburn, muscles and tennis shorts, Anthony Dalton Roche has another, more distinctive look—that of the hottest tennis prospect to come out of Australia since 1952, when two other 17-year-olds—Lew Hoad and Ken Rose-wall—slashed their way through adult competition.
With Rod Laver lost to the pros and their Davis Cup invincibility threatened for the first time in years, the Aussies have named Roche and two 18-year-olds, John Newcombe and Owen Davidson, along with 20-year-old Ken Fletcher, to their new four-man Official Overseas Team. Last month the team left on a wandering trip that will carry Tony through three continents, 18 countries and enough tennis to make any 17-year-old grow up a little faster on the court. When he reaches the U.S. late in August, he may even be ready to make a debut in the style of the young Rose-wall, who beat top-seeded Vic Seixas in their first meeting.
Of course, the Aussies are not quite counting on Tony for that kind of fireworks yet. They don't think he'll be their best player for another two years, when he'll be a ripe old 19. But no one who has seen Roche fails to compare him favorably with the other great Aussies at his age. Roche already has a complete tennis game and, moreover, he has what one observer terms "that faraway Hoad look." It effectively mirrors his detached dedication to a game that already is much more than a game to him.
Like any kid in any block, Tony Roche has an interest in things like girls and rock 'n' roll, but the interest is casual. Basically his mind is as single-hued as a white-on-white necktie, and the hue is all tennis. Already it has made him both a world traveler and a high school dropout, but it is only the former fact that impresses him. "Quitting school doesn't matter," he says. "If I don't make it in tennis, I just go back to the farm."
The farm is near Tarcutta, New South Wales—population 682—where Tony spent the first 16 years of his life, before, chaperoned by an older sister, he moved to Sydney to work for Dunlop. His father works nearly 24 hours a day at two jobs, farming and running a butcher shop. Tony works part time—four days a week—and plays tennis six.
Roche had just won the Miami Orange Bowl tournament from the world's top junior players when he came up to Philadelphia last winter. The Indoor Invitational there was his first U.S. showing against the best men's competition. It was a tough way to start—Roche had never even batted a ball around indoors before—but he practiced a day and then thrashed Mike Green 6-2, 6-3 before losing to Whitney Reed in the semifinals. Almost before he was through routing Green, the amateur promoters were after him to appear in their tournaments. Tony and his partner, Geoff Pollard, finally agreed to go on to a tournament in Maryland the following week, but suddenly and without explanation, Roche instead flew to Florida for respite in the sun.
Actually, a pulled stomach muscle kept him from performing anywhere, but before that happened Roche's whims caused a lot of plans to be changed and a lot of people to be upset. Said Pollard apologetically to a Philadelphian: "Please, don't think all Australians are always like this."
At base, Tony Roche is a nice, appealing young man with both a good wit and an agile mind when he lowers the faraway Hoad look. But he is far from convinced that his friend Pollard's arguments against a tennis life are valid. "Sure," says Pollard, "it may sound good to a boy at 14 to quit school and work with a sporting goods company and just play tennis, but how does that sound when you're 34? There must be 10 boys who quit school every year for tennis. But what odds! Why, there can't be even one of those a year who will really last."
For some time now, Tony Roche has been determined to make the best of those odds. Tony began playing tennis first when he was only 11—on the farm with his father and by himself, trying to hit numbers that he had written in green chalk on a barn wall. When he was 13 some city coaches, scouting the hinterlands, found him and brought him to Sydney for Country Week. In the first round of that annual event, Roche played on the center court in White City Stadium—which is something like opening at the Palace. He promptly closed, 0-6, but in another year he had improved enough to win the tournament.
Now a broad-shouldered 5 feet 10 and 167 pounds, Tony is physically somewhere between Hoad and Laver and, like the latter, he is left-handed. His serve conjures up visions of Neale Fraser's for anyone who has seen them both. "Although," says Whitney Reed, "it does have a tendency to fall a little short."
Although Tony did not win his first grown-up U.S. tournament, he did win the crowd. There was, for instance, the extraordinary backhand that few who watched in Philadelphia will ever forget. With Reed at match point, Roche made one seemingly impossible return with this stroke that left Reed stranded in mid-court like a man in a bus station without any clothes on. The American dropped his racket and just stood for at least 30 seconds, dumfounded and fascinated. It was not just the exuberance of the moment that caused some of the spectators watching Roche to say it was the best tennis shot of all time. It may well have been. In any case, it made the fact that Roche lost the match on the next point almost incidental.