No sooner had Kelleher disposed of that problem than he was handed a column from a Sydney newspaper. "Irrespective of the [Davis Cup] result," said the columnist, "the Americans came as stinkers and go as stinkers, the most unpopular set of sportsmen that ever insulted their way from Mexico to Delhi." Faced with an explosive situation and a group of newsmen waiting to report his reply, Kelleher noted merely that, as far as he could recall, the team had never been to Delhi. Dennis Ralston cut the column out of the paper and pasted it to his locker wall. "This doesn't make us mad," he said. "Really. But it does make us want to win all the more."
Toward that end, Ralston and McKinley, the two players on the team who were obviously going to represent the U.S., worked long hours every day. At night they listened to Gonzalez and Kelleher talk about strategy and confidence. McKinley didn't need the confidence lecture. "I think I'm playing better now than I did when I won at Wimbledon," he said matter-of-factly two days before the Challenge Round began. His back, which he had injured six weeks before, felt fine, he insisted.
Ralston, too, seemed rid of his problem. "Everyone knows I've always had trouble controlling my temper, largely because I've always let my mind wander when I'm on the court. Now when I play tennis all I think about is tennis." Ralston reached a personal crossroads in England last September when Kelleher chose Frank Froehling to play singles in his place. Ralston stewed and fretted and considered returning home. Finally he came to grips with himself, went up to Kelleher and told him he would be happy to warm up Froehling before his match. Ralston has been a better player ever since.
If Kelleher had his problems in Australia, so did his counterpart, Harry Hopman, coach of the Australian Davis Cup team. Hopman had, essentially, no team. There was Roy Emerson, if not as good as last year, still very good and undefeated in four years of Davis Cup competition. But to pair with "Emmo," as Hopman calls him, there were only a retired star, a teen-ager and a mediocrity. Hopman had talked Neale Fraser, now 30, out of 10 months' retirement, and Fraser had worked hard. But as the Challenge Round drew near it was clear that he was not ready for singles. That left Fred Stolle, a fair-to-middling player, and the youthful John Newcombe. Hopman finally chose Newcombe.
"I needled him more than usual in practice to see how he came up under pressure," said the crafty Hopman. "We finally picked him not only because he has confidence but because his condition was so much better than Fraser's. I think we'll win 4-1. Emmo will win both singles and the doubles, and it will be the last time Newcombe plays if he doesn't win one match." Hopman said this with a smile, and Australian newsmen pointed out that Hopman only smiles when he is in trouble.
The first two matches were played on the day after Christmas before an overflow crowd of 7,200. It was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky overhead and the temperature in the 70s. After a blue-uniformed band played God Save the Queen and The Star-Spangled Banner a small army of judges, linesmen and ball boys marched stiffly to their positions. Behind them came Dennis Ralston, 21, and John Newcombe, 19, referred to after introductions as the United States and Australia.
Understandably, both players were nervous at the start, but Ralston recovered quickly and won the first two sets. But in the third set Newcombe began hitting the ball with his full power, and, pulling off three dazzling shots against Ralston's serve, broke through and won the set. When he also won the fourth set, Ralston plopped himself down in a chair beside Bob Kelleher and groaned: "If I don't win this match I won't dare go home to Bakersfield." Kelleher grinned, patted him on the back and sent him out for the most important set of his life.
Ralston was leading in the final set 4-3 when Newcombe double-faulted at ad out to make the score 5-3. Three quick points, and Ralston was on the brink of victory. Incredibly, Newcombe rallied, fought off the three match points and won the game and the next one. Now it was 5-5. Here Ralston might well have folded, but he held his serve and brought the next game to deuce. Newcome double-faulted. Match point again. Newcombe served, and Ralston whistled a backhand down the line for a winner. It was a shaky victory for the U.S., but a victory nonetheless.
A few hours later Australia had tied the score 1-1. Roy Emerson, playing very well, beat McKinley in four sets. This was the first competitive singles McKinley had played in more than a month, because of his back injury, and he looked rusty. Yet Emerson was so good, he might have won anyway. McKinley had one chance. With sets tied at one apiece, McKinley took a 5-3 lead in the third. But Emerson rallied and was in control thereafter.
The next day the temperature soared to the 90s as McKinley and Ralston took the court against Emerson and the reactivated Fraser. It was apparent almost from the start that Fraser's timing was off, and the Americans attacked him relentlessly. Only Emerson's brilliant play kept the Australians in the match. McKinley and Ralston won in four sets to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead. "I think I might have been asking too much from Neale," said a disappointed Hopman. "He was not ready." And then: "Obviously my 4-1 prediction is out, but I still think we'll retain the cup." Answered Bob Kelleher: "I agree with Hoppie's 4-1 prediction, but I can't recall which side he said would win."