Just how it
happened that Jimmy Connors and John Newcombe managed to finish the 1974
professional tennis season as the two best players in the world and win 24
championships between them without once meeting each other in a complete match,
no one seems to really know. And at the moment, no one really cares. Their
paths finally crossed on New Year's Day before the biggest Australian tennis
audience in 20 years.
The occasion was
the final round of the $91,000 Marlboro Australian Open, and the first leg of
the Grand Slam. Their get-together was to many people the ex post facto 1974
tennis championship of the world, and to a few others simply the best match of
the decade: Connors, the awesome young champion and winner of 99 of 103 matches
in 1974, against Newcombe, the crafty, charismatic, over-30 champion one year
removed. In four sets of superlative tennis Newcombe regained the unofficial
title and gave Connors a solid lesson in playing pressure-packed tennis, as
well as showing him something about strategy and some good old mix-'em-up and
spit-'em-out scrambling and serving. Newcombe saved his best stuff for the end,
and kept an ace up the serving sleeve of his untucked tennis shirt. Seventeen
aces, to be exact.
Connors, the 1974
Australian, Wimbledon and Forest Hills champion, had stormed into Melbourne's
grass-court Kooyong Stadium a week early, lodestar of a tiny troupe that
included his mom and his cat. They were joined there by Spencer Segura—the son
of Pancho, Connors' coach—who was on his way back to Los Angeles after nine
weeks on the Asian circuit. Notably absent was Connors' former fianc�e and last
year's women's singles finalist, Chris Evert.
Most of the other
touring stars had skipped the tournament in favor of a Christmas vacation, but
on hand was a flock of 37 strong and healthy freckle-faced young men of good
Australian stock, a few of whom made a point of announcing that they were
itching for Connors. Even before his first practice round, Connors made it
known he wasn't intimidated. "I don't care how many there are," he
said. "Bring them on one after another. I'll beat them all."
course had the biggest itch, although he had been less vocal. "A match with
Connors is something I've wanted for a long time," was all he said. To
which Connors replied, " Newcombe should do more talking with his racket and
less with his mouth. He says I've been ducking him, but I don't need to duck
anybody. Every time I reach a final he's missing."
The talk during
the week had been when Connors got to the final, and if Newcombe would get
there, and for good reason. While Connors' game had remained steadfastly
smothering to his opponents, Newcombe's play had been inconsistent and at times
uninspired. Connors had never looked more redoubtable than in his preliminary
matches. His two-fisted line drives from the backhand side were so powerful he
shattered four newly strung rackets in one match alone. His forehand volleys
sounded like solid fairway three-wood shots. He says he has a "firm"
stroke, but to say Connors has a firm forehand would be like saying Muhammad
Ali has a firm left jab.
Connors blew into
the final like the cyclone that devastated the northern Australian city of
Darwin the day before his opening match. The Aussies came at him one after
another and he beat them all, just as he said he would, with a German and a
fellow American thrown in for variety. The only set he lost in his five
preliminary matches was to the American, Grover (Raz) Reid. Connors' last
obstacle in gaining the final was Dick Crealy, an Australian whom he beat
handily 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
Newcombe was fighting for his life. His play had been disappointing in two
previous tournaments Down Under in December, and he had retreated to his spread
in Sydney over Christmas to recover. He went on a diet devoid of "tasty
brown stuff"—no mean sacrifice for Newcombe—and shed 10 pounds. But it
appeared that he may have lost more than a few inches off his slight beer
belly. After an easy match against the silver-haired Australian Trevor Fancutt,
Newcombe sweated through three five-set matches in his next four rounds.
His first scare
came from a cool and fearless 19-year-old named Rolf Gehring, a baby-faced but
rock-hard German. Newcombe had never even heard of Gehring until the day before
they played, and he arrived for the second day of their rain-delayed match 45
minutes late. After splitting four sets by scores of 6-7, 6-4, 3-6 and 6-2,
Newcombe won the final 6-4 when Gehring's inexperience caused him to
double-fault his service game away.
"I had to get
up at nine in the morning for that match," Newcombe grumbled. "I
haven't played that early in 10 years, and I was still punchy."