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Frank Deford
August 26, 1974
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
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August 26, 1974

Last Of The Awesome Aussies

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

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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 women's clothing was part of his prize for winning the World Championship of Tennis, inasmuch as Angie hadn'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 dentist'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 couldn't care less. "I've got enough money and there's no ego thing left," 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 know him."

"I wouldn't mind if John stopped tennis tomorrow," 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. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I sometimes wondered why I even bothered to put up with him at first—all those other Aussies checking me out for him, and he was all 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, 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 Newk'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: "Stan tries to overpower you mentally. A certain amount of that is the way he plays—the steamroller, smothering you at the net. But I can deal with that. What is more tiring is his air—that smug confidence. You must concentrate all the time or you'll give up. Nobody wears me out like Smith does, 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 that nonsense. I really want to play Nastase in a big match, because I'm sure I can beat him. I'd look at my shoes the whole time and make sure there was only one actor out there."

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

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