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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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There are still a slew of them traveling about the globe, peopling World Team Tennis rosters and downing legendary portions of beer. The caravan has changed now—the names are Dibley, Dent, Kronk, Case, Masters and Alexander—wayfarers as indistinguishable, one from the other, as Japanese tourists or Pan Am stewardesses. They are just The Aussies and are inevitably referred to only in that slighting summary. Of course, the vintage elves, Laver and Rosewall, still surface occasionally, capable of yet one more burst, even a fusillade from the past. But they are fading, and Roche—though still in our midst, stout and so good-natured—was cut short of greatness by injuries.

So there is only one real Aussie left from the dynasty that began in 1950 with Sedgman and McGregor and won 16 Davis Cups, 14 Wimbledons, 15 Forest Hills. Newk. The only real Aussie left is Newk.

The sad thing, now that the reign is over, is that the American public never did take the time to sort out the real Aussies. They were—are—quite different chaps; the champion Laver, dour and most insecure; his friend Emmo, boyish, the life of every party; the sweet, retiring little Rosewall; Hoad, bull-strong, fun and no airs; and Newcombe, the last of the line but the brightest, the boss, the most dominant personality. Also the most complex: on the court, so game, so competitive, playing nearly possessed; off it, utterly at ease, almost lacking in ambition except to obtain those dull, small comforts of middle-class security—to be with his family, to provide for his old age, to have a few beers now and then, and a lot of beers now and then, too.

Despite his record and his charm Newcombe has been relatively neglected. Well, he came to a world jaded with Aussie champions. "If Smith or Ashe had done what I've done," he says, "they could write their own ticket. They'd be up there with Namath." And while he has periodically been No. 1, he has always appeared as a sort of in-between, as he will again next week, when he returns to Forest Hills as the defending champion and finds Jimmy Connors the cynosure. Finally, and perhaps unkindest of all, Newcombe is often dismissed as a limited serve-and-volley brute when, in fact, he can toss up a scrambler's lob the equal of anybody's, and the best two parts of his game, neither of them holding a racket, are his head and his heart.

Newk has the perfect temperament for life and games of skill. "Grab a tastie," he called from the court in front of his Texas condominium—this 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. "I see myself as a person of the world," Newk says, quite matter-of-factly. He doesn't mean "person of the world" 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 aren'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. "A 30-year-old boy," 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. "What's the matter with you, mate?" he yelled at a deadbeat bystander. "Your arms too short or your pockets too long?" 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 union—the powerful Association of Tennis Professionals, which had been unalterably opposed to WTT—by signing with the EZ Riders, the door was opened for other men to follow, and WTT was on.

"I'm a conservative person," Newcombe says, "but I really didn't think I could go along when something was obviously wrong." 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 suits—or tennis shorts for dress-up. "We never know what time of day it is, or what day, for that matter," 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: "If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell."

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