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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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On Okker: "You must play him deliberately. Otherwise, all of a sudden you get caught up and the points are going and the games are going, and it's too late."

On Ashe: "A lot like Okker. Very different styles but the same pace. Arthur won't even towel down. And if he hits one of his hot streaks—say like Kodes did against me at Forest Hills last year—you've just got to demoralize him by raising your game a touch. He'll still keep winning for the time, but it'll disturb him that his best didn't finish you off. And with Arthur, play to his forehand volley. That's more of a psychological block now than just a weak shot. He talks about it all the time, doesn't he?"

On Laver: "He'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, Lutz—all 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 him—much more than it is to me—and we took that thing away from him."

Laver is the one man to beat Newcombe in a Wimbledon final—four 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. "But Newk can't hit a backhand down the line," Hoad says. "He had to slice it cross-court, and Rocket was there."

What measures greatness? The one shot he couldn'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. "I feel like I only owe it to myself to do what I am fully capable of," Newcombe says. And as an afterthought: "Maybe that's why I play five-set matches so well—because I have no fear of losing."

Nevertheless, since he won his last Wimbledon over Smith in '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 victories—Forest Hills '73, WCT '74—have 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 fit—and 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 Newcombe's. You win everything you ever imagined, Mark McCormack signs you up—and 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?

"He must set up challenges for himself now," Angie Newcombe said one evening in Texas. "Otherwise he enjoys life too much. He loves doing so many other things." 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.

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