At 23, John Newcombe is handsome, attractive, popular, quick, confident and—as winner at Wimbledon in July—champion of the amateur tennis world. He fears no one except his fellow Australian, Roy Emerson—and that fear is more one of respect for an elder than an actual competitive concern. Newcombe's powerful services and strokes can eventually wear down and crush the most diligent of opponents and he should, without great difficulty, win the U.S. singles championship that is under way at Forest Hills this week.
Newcombe is a strong young man in top shape, fit and taut—yet he has achieved this stature comfortably and amiably, without denying himself the more pleasant blandishments of good fellowship. The "keg he put on" after his victory at New South Wales two years ago remains a party of some substantial legend. Nor were his ample baby blues altogether denied to the beautiful ladies who distribute themselves about tennis tournaments—prior to his marriage in February 1966 to the charming blonde German player, Angelique Pfannenberg.
But married and champion, Newcombe understands his responsibilities and accepts them. He delayed his own victory celebration after Wimbledon to lend his newly meaningful presence to a party being given by the Yugoslavian ambassador to honor Nikki Pilic, the Yugoslav who had lasted to the semifinals before losing to Newcombe. It was a polite, kind gesture, and one not easily forgotten by Pilic and his proud countrymen. Newcombe has such a warm, engaging personality and such bright championship prospects that in any other sport but tennis his future would be unlimited. But tennis is not a game for these times, and Newcombe already anticipates retirement in about four years. Contradictions like this abound in tennis. Newcombe's style is power and attack—the same charged-up essentials that dominate and give bone to practically every other sport. But in tennis the power game is repetitive, lifeless—the serve-and-volley offense has all the eloquence and plot a recital of the alphabet would provide.
Newcombe's game bores most spectators, but the high level of competence he has brought it to amazes most of his countrymen, who are rather surprised that he is champion. They invariably describe him, sparingly, if politely, as "craftsman" or "tradesman." Says Sydney Tennis Columnist Alan Clarkson, "What we need is a colorful player. Newcombe just isn't the answer."
September 3, 1967
Newcombe understands. "They're all tired of seeing us play each other," he says, quite in sympathy. "You should have heard them last year when Tony Roche and I played the Indians in the doubles of the Challenge Round. They'd go crazy when the Indians won a point. They'd clap a bit if we won one."
In the rest of the world, Newcombe is dismissed as "another Aussie"—just as Emerson, another Australian craftsman, was before him. Newcombe thinks his style is similar to Emerson's, although he believes he depends on the serve more than Emerson does. But Newcombe does not agree that his game is mere serve and volley. "The game we play—I play, the Australians play—is to pressure an opponent," he says. "Serve and volley works best—so we use it. But it is just a means to an end. We could change.
"I think one of the reasons for our success is that we always have had such good leaders to look up to, to follow. I'm certainly influenced by Emerson, but the basic game we all play can be traced back to Sedgman and McGregor. Rosewall was the only major exception. Maybe if Hoad hadn't come at the same time as Rosewall we would all have been ground-strokers after that."
Fred Stolle, a pro now but the man who beat Newcombe in the dreary serve-and-volley finals at Forest Hills last year, was visiting his old cohorts and "checking out to see how they pay the amateurs this year—under the table or over it." Newcombe called over to him: "Hey, Fred, if I wanted to play the pros, what would I have to improve? My backhand and my second serve, would you say?"
"I guess so," Stolle answered, "but that comes with play. It's more the thinking you have to improve—which shots to try for winners off of."
"That's the truth," Newcombe said. "That's true with me. It comes from confidence—knowing your shots. Instead of going for silly shots and missing, you know to hit the right ones. You do that twice a set at 30-40, say, and in two shots you can turn the whole set around."
"That comes with time," Stolle said. "People are always amazed when we come up with another champion. Where did he come from? Well, look at John. Only 23, sure, but this was his seventh year at Wimbledon. You look back. All our winners—even the ones who win it young, like John—seven years. I got in the finals after four...."
"But you didn't win," Newcombe said.
"That's my point," Stolle said.
If anyone were to have broken that pattern, it should have been Newcombe. At 19—when he had seen Davis Cup competition only once—he was picked over Stolle and Neale Fraser to play singles in the Challenge Round. He had excellent chances in both his matches—against Chuck McKinley and Dennis Ralston—but lost both. His mother, Lillian, remembers that John came home without depression. "Well, I lost, but I did my best," he told her evenly. "And I needed the experience."
Today, however, Newcombe feels that the unusually early Davis Cup adventure somehow inhibited his career. "I can't really say how," he says, "but I've got the feeling that it set me back, if only psychologically." And, in fact, it was not until Newcombe made the finals at Forest Hills last year that the logjam in his career was finally broken again. Shortly thereafter he finally beat Emerson for the first time, an experience more therapeutic, perhaps, than Forest Hills. And then, in a series of events, Newcombe's world competition faded before him. Stolle and Ralston turned pro. Manolo Santana had a serious ankle operation. Arthur Ashe went into the Army. Tony Roche came up overtennised and stale. Emerson, 30 now, came up old. Can he come back? Emmo turns his thumb to the ground. "The only way left to go," he says. And then, cryptically, shaking his head toward Newcombe, just: "John."
There are a few who could upset Newcombe at Forest Hills—Charlie Pasarell on one of his unpredictable good days; Emerson on a young day; lefties Pilic or Roger Taylor of England on a day they outslug Newcombe. But Newcombe really should be a more overwhelming favorite than his record suggests. On grass, anyway, he could dominate the game for the next few years.
The potential for such excellence has been evident practically since he was 9 and first learning to play tennis in the street in front of the home his parents still live in, in Longueville, a Sydney suburb. Exceptional athletic ability was in the family—a cousin, Warren Bardsley, was one of Australia's great cricketeers—but John's father, George Newcombe, a retired dentist, did not play tennis, and his mother and two sisters have been no more than casual social players.
When John was only 11, Newcombe's parents were already concerned that he was devoting too much time to tennis, and by the time he was 16 all hope for a respectable accountant's career—which he had envisioned—went careening into obscurity when Newcombe became the third youngest player ever named to an Australian overseas team. No wonder his countrymen find him such an old letdown at 23.
After he left school and began to travel, Newcombe was signed on by Slazengers, the sporting-goods firm he still represents when he is home. He is also casually attached to the Russell-Lloyd travel agency, for which he is "supposed to look at hotels and things like that." But, essentially, John Newcombe is a tennis player.
"I really get teed off sometimes at the way people think," he says. "You can't go into tennis from a gamble point of view. You have to think: I am good; I will be champion. For me it worked out all right. For a lot it doesn't. But, either way, you give up 10 of the best years of your life. You deserve something for that, don't you? I wanted to be an accountant. My friends who went ahead in that are 23 now—and they're full accountants and they're set. If I stay in tennis four more years, I'll have to start all over at 27. I wouldn't stay in tennis if I weren't going to leave with money in the bank."
Normally, Newcombe is more subtle in his speech and manner. He called one reporter "Walt" with amiable respect throughout a press conference, though this was not his name. The befuddled newsman inquired why later. "You and Walt Disney both have good imaginations," Newcombe replied. The day after he won at Wimbledon he was barred from the grounds because he forgot his player's pass. "Hello," he said diffidently to the stern guard, "I'm John Newcombe." He did not cry havoc when the guard—doing his job, he kept saying—denied entry to Newcombe's car. Of course, all the time John was growing up, it was thought the kid didn't have that vaunted killer instinct.
But he does have determination and confidence, qualities he applies with the matter-of-fact practicality of an accountant. Angelique, an attractive blonde with velvet eyes like mountain lakes, never really had a chance, for on the first night they went out together Newcombe decided he would marry her. He did, however, neglect to let her in on this. Instead he went home and woke up his roomie, teammate Owen Davidson. Davidson was unmoved by the revelation—not that he is unromantic, but because the night before, Newcombe had come in late and had stumbled all over Davidson and the bad knee he was nursing. Davidson allowed as how he didn't care who Newcombe was marrying—just stop waking me up and stay the hell away from my knee. "You'll see," Newcombe said confidently, and went to sleep. He was right, of course. He has not often been wrong about himself.
He was once—when he assumed at 19 that those Davis Cup Challenge Round defeats would not hurt. But he is champion now, and the suspicion here is that he is not going to be the nondescript, everyday type that he has already been written off as. The confidence that is now turning tentative shots into winners seems capable of transmuting the accountant's entire game into one with a champion's flash and style. The big game, so repetitive and jejune, could become thunderous and ebullient. Even now, Newcombe plays the net with his own special daring—on top of it, challenging, like a third baseman moving in close, defying a potential bunter to hit away. And his on-court peculiarities—shirttail out, tousled towhead, a large inurbane grunt that he dispenses with each serve—can become crowd-pleasing characteristics. The considerable charm of the private Newcombe is unlikely to remain hidden within the public one. He may well prove to be a special Aussie, and not just another one.