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It was certainly the oldest—and richest—Davis Cup team ever, and most people would say it was the best. Ken Rosewall, 39, Mai Anderson, 38, Rod Laver, 35, and John Newcombe, at 29 the baby of the team, were picked to play for Australia against Czechoslovakia in the interzone semifinals, held at Melbourne's Kooyong Stadium last week. The winners would go on to Cleveland to meet the Americans in the finals on Nov. 30. If the Australians won, it would be their first chance to retrieve the precious trophy that had been lost to the U.S. in 1968.
Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, who has been trying to win back ownership of Australia's natural resources from the international companies that now own them, sent a telegram to cup Captain Neale Fraser asking him to help. "Please inform our prodigal stars it's time for the Davis Cup to return to its rightful place," said the prime minister. "We won't be satisfied with anything but 100% Australian equity."
The matches were expected to be a very one-sided affair. Even Jan Kodes, the star of the Czech team, did not sound confident when he arrived in Melbourne. "We are going to fight, that's for sure," he insisted, "but we are not expecting to win." It was no wonder he felt that way. The Australian team was an embarrassment of riches. The selectors spent a lot of time trying to decide which two of the formidable trio of Laver, Rosewall and Newcombe would play singles for Australia, and they had Anderson to consider when choosing the doubles team. The newspapers had good fun talking about the wealthy athletes, and even Fraser joked, "It's a heck of a thing when you have to drop a millionaire." Drop one they did, and maybe the richest of them all. Laver and Newcombe won the coveted singles spots, and Rosewall, his hair as thick and dark as it was when he played in his first Davis Cup match 20 years ago, managed only a place on the doubles team.
Newcombe had been an easy choice for a singles position, but it was Laver's victory in the Australian Indoors tournament held in Sydney the previous week that had given him the nod over Rosewall. Laver had not played for three months earlier this year because of a back injury and he had arrived in Australia, his first trip home in three years, with only a hope that he would actually get to play in the Davis Cup again. "There's still something special about the Davis Cup," he said, "and I think all the boys are excited about recapturing it."
The Czechoslovak captain, Antonin Bolardt, was not optimistic, but neither was he completely discouraged. "The Australian team has famous players, and they are very experienced, but our players are young and maybe they can surprise them. I think there will be some surprises." And when it got down to the nitty-gritty, the Australians would walk onto the court armed only with tennis rackets to attack the Czechs. Bank statements and championship trophies would be useless weapons.
The first match pitched Laver against Kodes, and it seemed to be the lone question mark—the only match that might keep Australia from a total rout. Kodes had the respect of the Australians because of his Wimbledon victory and his fine showing against Newcombe in the finals at Forest Hills, and Laver was considered the team's weak link. Laver turned out to be not the weak link, but the linchpin that kept the "unbeatable" Australian team from falling apart. In his first Davis Cup match in 11 years the bandy-legged Laver beat Kodes, who is eight years his junior, 6-3, 7-5, 7-5. At the end of the match, with no sign of his back trouble, Laver said, "I could have gone 10 sets."
Laver's victory made the early predictions of a 5-0 win for Australia look good, and Newcombe came onto the Kooyong court ready to wipe up young Jiri Hrebec, a virtually unknown player whose most important victory was a win over his teammate Kodes last month at the Prague Grand Prix. The Australian team had watched the 23-year-old Czech practicing earlier in the week and was unimpressed. But Hrebec must have left all of his mistakes on the practice court. Newcombe, who earlier had observed that Hrebec did not "have much of a serve," regretted the remark before the first set was over. In the eighth game Hrebec blasted in four straight aces and threw Newcombe so off strike that he never recovered. The Czech won 6-4, 8-10, 6-4, 7-5, and the matches were suddenly tied.
Before the ball for the last point had even hit the ground Hrebec had jumped two feet in the air, arms stretched to the sky and racket thrown away in glorious excitement. "It was the best I have ever served," he said of his 14 aces, and it was the best match he ever played. Although Newcombe was certainly off his game, Hrebec made him look much worse than he really was. "You don't know how hard that kid hits the ball," said Newcombe. "He surprised us all." Hrebec was himself surprised. "I only gave myself a 30% chance of winning," said the youngster from Prague who has been playing tennis since he was nine. He almost gave up tennis for soccer at an early age, but his father, a first-class soccer player who had to quit because of knee injuries, talked him into concentrating on tennis, a noncontact sport.
All week long Australians had been struggling with the name Jiri Hrebec, and it was only after his victory over Newcombe that they made an effort to pronounce it properly. You say it "Year-gee Sheb-betz," and tennis fans probably will have numerous occasions to use it in years to come—from Wimbledon to Forest Hills.
On Saturday, Laver was back, partnering Kenny Rosewall in the doubles against Kodes and Vladimir Zednik, the big man of the Czech team at 6'4" and 220 pounds. Zednik's serve kept the Czechs in the game, but again it was Laver who saved the day. He played strong, consistent tennis, never losing his serve and bolstering Rosewall, who looked unsure in his play. The Australians won 6-4, 14-12, 7-9,8-6 to make it 2-1 in the series.