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Original Issue


Now 30, John Newcombe is at the top of his game, but he is sure there is more to life—like a tastie or two and like being just folks

There are still aslew of them traveling about the globe, peopling World Team Tennis rosters anddowning legendary portions of beer. The caravan has changed now—the names areDibley, Dent, Kronk, Case, Masters and Alexander—wayfarers asindistinguishable, one from the other, as Japanese tourists or Pan Amstewardesses. They are just The Aussies and are inevitably referred to only inthat slighting summary. Of course, the vintage elves, Laver and Rosewall, stillsurface occasionally, capable of yet one more burst, even a fusillade from thepast. But they are fading, and Roche—though still in our midst, stout and sogood-natured—was cut short of greatness by injuries.

So there is onlyone real Aussie left from the dynasty that began in 1950 with Sedgman andMcGregor and won 16 Davis Cups, 14 Wimbledons, 15 Forest Hills. Newk. The onlyreal Aussie left is Newk.

The sad thing, nowthat the reign is over, is that the American public never did take the time tosort out the real Aussies. They were—are—quite different chaps; the championLaver, dour and most insecure; his friend Emmo, boyish, the life of everyparty; the sweet, retiring little Rosewall; Hoad, bull-strong, fun and no airs;and Newcombe, the last of the line but the brightest, the boss, the mostdominant personality. Also the most complex: on the court, so game, socompetitive, playing nearly possessed; off it, utterly at ease, almost lackingin ambition except to obtain those dull, small comforts of middle-classsecurity—to be with his family, to provide for his old age, to have a few beersnow and then, and a lot of beers now and then, too.

Despite his recordand his charm Newcombe has been relatively neglected. Well, he came to a worldjaded with Aussie champions. "If Smith or Ashe had done what I'vedone," he says, "they could write their own ticket. They'd be up therewith Namath." And while he has periodically been No. 1, he has alwaysappeared as a sort of in-between, as he will again next week, when he returnsto Forest Hills as the defending champion and finds Jimmy Connors the cynosure.Finally, and perhaps unkindest of all, Newcombe is often dismissed as a limitedserve-and-volley brute when, in fact, he can toss up a scrambler's lob theequal of anybody's, and the best two parts of his game, neither of them holdinga racket, are his head and his heart.

Newk has theperfect temperament for life and games of skill. "Grab a tastie," hecalled from the court in front of his Texas condominium—this to a visiting PRman from Atlanta. But it is a universal welcome with him; the little tabs thatare wrenched off cans and plastic six-pack wrappings lie about the Newcombeenvirons, as surely artifacts as arrowheads and pottery shards are of earliercultures. Newk was finishing practice, wearing a rather dreadful red bathingsuit; it was nearly time for him to lend his service to the barbecue. Therewere ribs, steaks, corn, bananas, rolls and salad as side dishes to thebeer.

In the States, theNewcombes live with their three small children on their own tennis ranch, theT-Bar-M, near San Antonio; they also have an estate outside Sydney and switchcontinents effortlessly. "I see myself as a person of the world," Newksays, quite matter-of-factly. He doesn't mean "person of the world" inthe pseudosophisticated manner of talk-show guests when they are out to buy achalet in Switzerland to avoid paying taxes; he just means that he can livehappily in a lot of places, especially if those places aren't hotels.

If it is correctto say, though, that there has been some Americanization of Newcombe, it isonly fair to all that he tends to effect a Newkization of those about him."A 30-year-old boy," his young teammate on the Houston EZ Riders, DickStockton, murmured late of an evening in some wonder as Newk grasped a beer mugwith his teeth and downed its contents, no hands. The people clustered round asnext he bent over a glass, chugalugged it backward and then bellowed foranother round. "What's the matter with you, mate?" he yelled at adeadbeat bystander. "Your arms too short or your pockets too long?" Heclosed the place hours later.

But thebeer-swilling Newk has been overplayed at the expense of the fuller side of theman. It was Newcombe, for instance, whose fire and drive were responsible forthe successful Australian Davis Cup challenge last year. And while Billie JeanKing accepts credit for Team Tennis as if it were an egg she warmed to chirpinglife all by herself, Newcombe played the pivotal role. When he bucked his ownunion—the powerful Association of Tennis Professionals, which had beenunalterably opposed to WTT—by signing with the EZ Riders, the door was openedfor other men to follow, and WTT was on.

"I'm aconservative person," Newcombe says, "but I really didn't think I couldgo along when something was obviously wrong." Eventually, the ATP reversedits stand on WTT and then, in a masterstroke of ticket-balancing, Newcombe wasprevailed upon to join the ATP slate as vice-president to President ArthurAshe.

But Newcombe seemsto genuinely prefer the pastoral role of Cincinnatus, tucked away from theendless tennis wars and tournaments at his ranch retreat, where everyone lollsabout in bathing suits—or tennis shorts for dress-up. "We never know whattime of day it is, or what day, for that matter," says his wife Angie. Thesky there is high blue, the air still, the sun pitiless, and by the pool,neighbors and visitors chat idly with the ghost of General Philip HenrySheridan, who once had the presence to remark: "If I owned Texas and Hell,I would rent out Texas and live in Hell."

Newcombe isnurtured by the simple life at his spa. He practices hard and supervises hiscamps, churning about on a bicycle, eschewing a big white whale of a Cadillac,a tournament victory bagatelle that squats heavily by the side of the house.The Newcombes are just folks, almost to a fault; Newk thought it was real nicethat $1,000 worth of women's clothing was part of his prize for winning theWorld Championship of Tennis, inasmuch as Angie hadn't bought any new duds thelast year or two.

She is an alluringwoman, slim, with soft hair and wide doe eyes that give the impression she ismore malleable than she really is; in fact, by her own admission, she hasbecome a much tougher cookie than her husband. When she was a child, AngiePfannenberg escaped from East Germany with her mother. Without incident, Newk,a dentist's son, grew up in Sydney and staked out Angie to be his bride whileshe was still in high school in Hamburg.

When firstmarried, if Angie woke up before he did, she would lie dutifully still, evenfor hours, lest she disturb his sleep and somehow harm his career. But husbandand wife are of a mind now about the lucrative world of modern tennis; theycouldn't care less. "I've got enough money and there's no ego thingleft," says Newcombe. "I've done it all. I've only one life to live,and I don't want to turn around and have my son be 14 and not knowhim."

"I wouldn'tmind if John stopped tennis tomorrow," Angie says. She was a playerherself, the No. 2-ranked German junior, but it is fair to say that Newcombemarried her for things other than her ground strokes. Her creature charms havenever been in dispute; on the other hand, Newk has only lately grown intohandsomeness. His mustache seems to have given a rugged, sexy definition to aface that was otherwise nice but unremarkable. Angie, however, will not creditherself with foreseeing this late-blooming glamour. "To tell you thetruth," she says, "I sometimes wondered why I even bothered to put upwith him at first—all those other Aussies checking me out for him, and he wasall pimples and short hair then." She also labels him as"flat-chested," which is an unusual thing for a man to be called,especially a rough-tough athlete, but Angie is firm in this appraisal and, forthat matter, not inaccurate.

On the court thereis a primitive element to Newcombe. His socks droop, the right side of hisshirt pulls out from the exertions of service, he grunts unceremoniously and hebounces about on his heels between points as if measuring off the turf for hisown. Yet in important matches he usually starts quietly, andante, and he onlyestablishes himself as the challenge wears on, building his victory not just byoutplaying his opponent but by taking things from him, breaking him down.

Should ForestHills get its dream final, it would be between Newcombe and the dragon child,Connors. Like Newcombe, Connors is a consummate fighter; also like him, a muchsmarter player than credited. But unlike Newcombe, who has beaten Connors inboth their previous meetings, Connors plays to the hilt from the first point.Given the stakes, the dream final would be not so much a game of tennis as atest of will.

To take nothingaway from Connors, who plays downright cold-blooded, Newcombe is prime underpressure. On tour he and Ashe win the most tiebreakers, and Newk's record infive-set matches in unexcelled. Last September he beat Jan Kodes in five to winForest Hills after being behind two sets to one; he then beat Smith in the keyDavis Cup match after being down a break in the fifth.

Newcombe alwaysplans for a fifth set, squirreling away stratagems. But then he tends to seematches primarily as battles of wits. For instance, he says this about playingSmith: "Stan tries to overpower you mentally. A certain amount of that isthe way he plays—the steamroller, smothering you at the net. But I can dealwith that. What is more tiring is his air—that smug confidence. You mustconcentrate all the time or you'll give up. Nobody wears me out like Smithdoes, but it's not from the tennis, it's mental fatigue."

On Nastase:"He's told me that he plays his best when he's carrying on with all thatnonsense. I really want to play Nastase in a big match, because I'm sure I canbeat him. I'd look at my shoes the whole time and make sure there was only oneactor out there."

On Connors:"He tries to imitate Nastase, and it just doesn't work. You know, Nastasesays funny things, and Connors can't say funny things. But you can never stopthinking against Connors. You've especially got to serve intelligently becausewhat Connors does better than anything else, he sniffs an opening and dives forit."

On Okker: "Youmust play him deliberately. Otherwise, all of a sudden you get caught up andthe points are going and the games are going, and it's too late."

On Ashe: "Alot like Okker. Very different styles but the same pace. Arthur won't eventowel down. And if he hits one of his hot streaks—say like Kodes did against meat Forest Hills last year—you've just got to demoralize him by raising yourgame a touch. He'll still keep winning for the time, but it'll disturb him thathis best didn't finish you off. And with Arthur, play to his forehand volley.That's more of a psychological block now than just a weak shot. He talks aboutit all the time, doesn't he?"

On Laver:"He's lost confidence in his serves. Once he lost confidence in his firstserve, that put so much pressure on his second, he lost confidence there, too.The Americans understood that before we did, because Rocket was one of us andwe respected him so. Riessen, Smith, Lutz—all those guys were attacking him offhis serve before we understood. Rocket looks in pain now when he has to serve.And you can see the jealousy in his eyes out there, because he was No. 1, andthat was very important to him—much more than it is to me—and we took thatthing away from him."

Laver is the oneman to beat Newcombe in a Wimbledon final—four excruciating sets in 1969. Itwas a cornerstone in the careers of both men, and especially instructivebecause no tricks were played with the outcome. It told the tale true, althoughit hangs by a thread. Lew Hoad maintains that the brilliant match turned on onepoint in the third set when Newcombe had Laver down 4-1 and surely could haveput him away for good if he had scored with a backhand down the line. "ButNewk can't hit a backhand down the line," Hoad says. "He had to sliceit cross-court, and Rocket was there."

What measuresgreatness? The one shot he couldn't hit when he had to this one time meansNewcombe has but three Wimbledons; Laver, alone of all the moderns, has fourand two grand slams. And so, for history: Laver has been great, Newcombe justshort of it. Fair enough. "I feel like I only owe it to myself to do what Iam fully capable of," Newcombe says. And as an afterthought: "Maybethat's why I play five-set matches so well—because I have no fear oflosing."

Nevertheless,since he won his last Wimbledon over Smith in '71 his career has described acurious path. Each time that he has indulged himself with one of the lengthyfamily interludes that he loves, he has returned to serious competition only tobe savaged by journeymen. In contrast, his recent major victories—Forest Hills'73, WCT '74—have been arduously chiseled out of prolonged periods of play onthe tour he hates. Newk took out after the WCT crown as if on a crusade andended up playing his best ever. But then, after a couple of months at his Texassanctuary, he went eagerly to Wimbledon, where he played a succession ofunsatisfying early matches before falling to Rosewall in a desultoryquarterfinal.

Now, going intoForest Hills, Newk has played only four tournament matches in the last fourmonths. He says he is fit, but then going into Wimbledon he was sure he wasfit—and he discovered he was not, that his right shoulder pained him servingand that he felt curiously out of shape. How much of it is really in the mind?We have, for example, seen the same syndrome in golf; both Nicklaus and Playerexperienced strange troughs in their careers at a period comparable toNewcombe's. You win everything you ever imagined, Mark McCormack signs youup—and then, is that all there is to that? How does someone who goes to work ina red bathing suit and has a Cadillac gathering dust gear himself up to winanother Wimbledon, another Forest Hills, another anything?

"He must setup challenges for himself now," Angie Newcombe said one evening in Texas."Otherwise he enjoys life too much. He loves doing so many otherthings." She awoke the next morning before he did and rose from their bedstraightaway without the least fear of disturbing his career or theirlives.



DEEP IN THE HEART of Texas, Newk conducts a clinic at his ranch near San Antonio, horses around with wife Angie and daughter Tanya.