Newk has the perfect temperament for life and games of skill. äóìGrab a tastie,äó he called from the court in front of his Texas condominiumäóîthis to a visiting PR man from Atlanta. But it is a universal welcome with him; the little tabs that are wrenched off cans and plastic six-pack wrappings lie about the Newcombe environs, as surely artifacts as arrowheads and pottery shards are of earlier cultures. Newk was finishing practice, wearing a rather dreadful red bathing suit; it was nearly time for him to lend his service to the barbecue. There were ribs, steaks, corn, bananas, rolls and salad as side dishes to the beer.
In the States, the Newcombes live with their three small children on their own tennis ranch, the T-Bar-M, near San Antonio; they also have an estate outside Sydney and switch continents effortlessly. äóìI see myself as a person of the world,äó Newk says, quite matter-of-factly. He doesnäó»t mean äóìperson of the worldäó in the pseudosophisticated manner of talk-show guests when they are out to buy a chalet in Switzerland to avoid paying taxes; he just means that he can live happily in a lot of places, especially if those places arenäó»t hotels.
If it is correct to say, though, that there has been some Americanization of Newcombe, it is only fair to all that he tends to effect a Newkization of those about him. äóìA 30-year-old boy,äó his young teammate on the Houston EZ Riders, Dick Stockton, murmured late of an evening in some wonder as Newk grasped a beer mug with his teeth and downed its contents, no hands. The people clustered round as next he bent over a glass, chugalugged it backward and then bellowed for another round. äóìWhatäó»s the matter with you, mate?äó he yelled at a deadbeat bystander. äóìYour arms too short or your pockets too long?äó He closed the place hours later.
But the beer-swilling Newk has been overplayed at the expense of the fuller side of the man. It was Newcombe, for instance, whose fire and drive were responsible for the successful Australian Davis Cup challenge last year. And while Billie Jean King accepts credit for Team Tennis as if it were an egg she warmed to chirping life all by herself, Newcombe played the pivotal role. When he bucked his own unionäóîthe powerful Association of Tennis Professionals, which had been unalterably opposed to WTTäóîby signing with the EZ Riders, the door was opened for other men to follow, and WTT was on.
äóìIäó»m a conservative person,äó Newcombe says, äóìbut I really didnäó»t think I could go along when something was obviously wrong.äó Eventually, the ATP reversed its stand on WTT and then, in a masterstroke of ticket-balancing, Newcombe was prevailed upon to join the ATP slate as vice-president to President Arthur Ashe.
But Newcombe seems to genuinely prefer the pastoral role of Cincinnatus, tucked away from the endless tennis wars and tournaments at his ranch retreat, where everyone lolls about in bathing suitsäóîor tennis shorts for dress-up. äóìWe never know what time of day it is, or what day, for that matter,äó says his wife Angie. The sky 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 Henry Sheridan, who once had the presence to remark: äóìIf I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell.äó
Newcombe is nurtured by the simple life at his spa. He practices hard and supervises his camps, 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 nice that $1,000 worth of womenäó»s clothing was part of his prize for winning the World Championship of Tennis, inasmuch as Angie hadnäó»t bought any new duds the last year or two.
She is an alluring woman, slim, with soft hair and wide doe eyes that give the impression she is more malleable than she really is; in fact, by her own admission, she has become a much tougher cookie than her husband. When she was a child, Angie Pfannenberg escaped from East Germany with her mother. Without incident, Newk, a dentistäó»s son, grew up in Sydney and staked out Angie to be his bride while she was still in high school in Hamburg.
When first married, if Angie woke up before he did, she would lie dutifully still, even for hours, lest she disturb his sleep and somehow harm his career. But husband and wife are of a mind now about the lucrative world of modern tennis; they couldnäó»t care less. äóìIäó»ve got enough money and thereäó»s no ego thing left,äó says Newcombe. äóìIäó»ve done it all. Iäó»ve only one life to live, and I donäó»t want to turn around and have my son be 14 and not know him.äó
äóìI wouldnäó»t mind if John stopped tennis tomorrow,äó Angie says. She was a player herself, the No. 2-ranked German junior, but it is fair to say that Newcombe married her for things other than her ground strokes. Her creature charms have never been in dispute; on the other hand, Newk has only lately grown into handsomeness. His mustache seems to have given a rugged, sexy definition to a face that was otherwise nice but unremarkable. Angie, however, will not credit herself with foreseeing this late-blooming glamour. äóìTo tell you the truth,äó she says, äóìI sometimes wondered why I even bothered to put up with him at firstäóîall those other Aussies checking me out for him, and he was all pimples and short hair then.äó She also labels him as äóìflat-chested,äó which is an unusual thing for a man to be called, especially a rough-tough athlete, but Angie is firm in this appraisal and, for that matter, not inaccurate.
On the court there is a primitive element to Newcombe. His socks droop, the right side of his shirt pulls out from the exertions of service, he grunts unceremoniously and he bounces about on his heels between points as if measuring off the turf for his own. Yet in important matches he usually starts quietly, andante, and he only establishes himself as the challenge wears on, building his victory not just by outplaying his opponent but by taking things from him, breaking him down.
Should Forest Hills 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 much smarter player than credited. But unlike Newcombe, who has beaten Connors in both 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 a test of will.
To take nothing away from Connors, who plays downright cold-blooded, Newcombe is prime under pressure. On tour he and Ashe win the most tiebreakers, and Newkäó»s record in five-set matches in unexcelled. Last September he beat Jan Kodes in five to win Forest Hills after being behind two sets to one; he then beat Smith in the key Davis Cup match after being down a break in the fifth.
Newcombe always plans for a fifth set, squirreling away stratagems. But then he tends to see matches primarily as battles of wits. For instance, he says this about playing Smith: äóìStan tries to overpower you mentally. A certain amount of that is the way he playsäóîthe steamroller, smothering you at the net. But I can deal with that. What is more tiring is his airäóîthat smug confidence. You must concentrate all the time or youäó»ll give up. Nobody wears me out like Smith does, but itäó»s not from the tennis, itäó»s mental fatigue.äó
On Nastase: äóìHeäó»s told me that he plays his best when heäó»s carrying on with all that nonsense. I really want to play Nastase in a big match, because Iäó»m sure I can beat him. Iäó»d look at my shoes the whole time and make sure there was only one actor out there.äó
On Connors: äóìHe tries to imitate Nastase, and it just doesnäó»t work. You know, Nastase says funny things, and Connors canäó»t say funny things. But you can never stop thinking against Connors. Youäó»ve especially got to serve intelligently because what Connors does better than anything else, he sniffs an opening and dives for it.äó
On Okker: äóìYou must play him deliberately. Otherwise, all of a sudden you get caught up and the points are going and the games are going, and itäó»s too late.äó
On Ashe: äóìA lot like Okker. Very different styles but the same pace. Arthur wonäó»t even towel down. And if he hits one of his hot streaksäóîsay like Kodes did against me at Forest Hills last yearäóîyouäó»ve just got to demoralize him by raising your game a touch. Heäó»ll still keep winning for the time, but itäó»ll disturb him that his best didnäó»t finish you off. And with Arthur, play to his forehand volley. Thatäó»s more of a psychological block now than just a weak shot. He talks about it all the time, doesnäó»t he?äó
On Laver: äóìHeäó»s lost confidence in his serves. Once he lost confidence in his first serve, 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 and we respected him so. Riessen, Smith, Lutzäóîall those guys were attacking him off his 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, and that was very important to himäóîmuch more than it is to meäóîand we took that thing away from him.äó
Laver is the one man to beat Newcombe in a Wimbledon finaläóîfour excruciating sets in 1969. It was a cornerstone in the careers of both men, and especially instructive because no tricks were played with the outcome. It told the tale true, although it hangs by a thread. Lew Hoad maintains that the brilliant match turned on one point in the third set when Newcombe had Laver down 4-1 and surely could have put him away for good if he had scored with a backhand down the line. äóìBut Newk canäó»t hit a backhand down the line,äó Hoad says. äóìHe had to slice it cross-court, and Rocket was there.äó
What measures greatness? The one shot he couldnäó»t hit when he had to this one time means Newcombe has but three Wimbledons; Laver, alone of all the moderns, has four and two grand slams. And so, for history: Laver has been great, Newcombe just short of it. Fair enough. äóìI feel like I only owe it to myself to do what I am fully capable of,äó Newcombe says. And as an afterthought: äóìMaybe thatäó»s why I play five-set matches so welläóîbecause I have no fear of losing.äó
Nevertheless, since he won his last Wimbledon over Smith in äó»71 his career has described a curious path. Each time that he has indulged himself with one of the lengthy family interludes that he loves, he has returned to serious competition only to be savaged by journeymen. In contrast, his recent major victoriesäóîForest Hills äó»73, WCT äó»74äóîhave been arduously chiseled out of prolonged periods of play on the tour he hates. Newk took out after the WCT crown as if on a crusade and ended up playing his best ever. But then, after a couple of months at his Texas sanctuary, he went eagerly to Wimbledon, where he played a succession of unsatisfying early matches before falling to Rosewall in a desultory quarterfinal.
Now, going into Forest Hills, Newk has played only four tournament matches in the last four months. He says he is fit, but then going into Wimbledon he was sure he was fitäóîand he discovered he was not, that his right shoulder pained him serving and 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 Player experienced strange troughs in their careers at a period comparable to Newcombeäó»s. You win everything you ever imagined, Mark McCormack signs you upäóîand then, is that all there is to that? How does someone who goes to work in a red bathing suit and has a Cadillac gathering dust gear himself up to win another Wimbledon, another Forest Hills, another anything?
äóìHe must set up challenges for himself now,äó Angie Newcombe said one evening in Texas. äóìOtherwise he enjoys life too much. He loves doing so many other things.äó She awoke the next morning before he did and rose from their bed straightaway without the least fear of disturbing his career or their lives