As egalitarian as the Aussies are, they take great pride in their champion. They show no jealousy toward him, and are more anxious to build him up than to watch him fall from his perch. At the very peak of his career, when he was winning his second Grand Slam, Laver would get coaching tips from lesser players like Stolle. When Newcombe assumed the leader's mantle but then slumped and took some bad losses, Stolle came right up to him and, well, reprimanded him. "You got to shape up, Newk," he told him. Another time, when Newcombe wanted to give up the tour because he was going so badly, Allan Stone and Ray Ruffels kept him up drinking beer till three in the morning, calling him "a quitter" to his face. At last they beat him down, and he stayed on tour. The next day, Dave-O volunteered to practice with him.
Newcombe has the most fantastic court presence. He emits vibrations that he is on top, and particularly for big events and under pressure he is capable of raising his game. John is not a pretty player, but he is much smarter than he is given credit for. One of his greatest assets is his ability to win five-set matches. Yet he cannot go top speed for five sets. He looks stronger than Laver or Emerson, but he doesn't possess their stamina. So Newk must pick his spots and save something for the fifth set—which means that his accomplishment is all the more impressive. He doesn't just outlast opponents: he outthinks them.
Getting back to the World Cup matches in Hartford, tonight Newk beat me 6-4 in the third set. In the Davis Cup at Cleveland he beat Stan 6-4 in the fifth. He got the break off me in a way he often does. Newk has a great forehand, and many people who are strong on that side will often run around their backhand, but Newk will play it straight. He'll hit backhands he could work to run around. Then, suddenly, you are serving and he gets the edge—30-40 on your second serve, as he did tonight. So now, for the very first time in the set, he slides over into the alley and glares back at you. He is announcing to you: I am going to hit my forehand. And you must serve to it, or risk a double fault by trying to hit his far backhand corner on a dime. In the Davis Cup, at match point, in a similar sort of situation, Stan Smith double-faulted. Tonight I got my serve in, but Newk hit the forehand and won the point. Break.
In ways like this, Newcombe distracts you and makes you think ahead, wondering what he is going to come up with next. It's a great psychological trick, for you may do more damage to yourself worrying about when he is going to run around his backhand than when in fact he does it. Matches with Newcombe may never look subtle, but there is much more there than is apparent.
And now I've got to play Rocket tomorrow.
SATURDAY, MARCH 9—HARTFORD
I feel as if I have a good chance against Laver. But then, going into a match against him I always feel as if I have a good chance and, for that matter, I usually play a good match, too. The only thing is, every time he wins. Laver has won 18 straight from me. That goes back to our first meeting at Forest Hills when I was 17 years old, on through the final a few weeks ago in Philadelphia. It's really an incredible thing for any world-class athlete to be 18-0 against another in any sport—especially when we have been playing each other so many years.
People ask me why I don't change my game when I play Laver. Sure, and what am I going to do? Ice the puck? Run out the clock? Put in a designated volleyer? The trouble is, the strengths of his game dovetail perfectly into my weaknesses. For instance, his best return of first service is a slice backhand crosscourt, which goes to my forehand volley, my weakest shot. Then my second serve is a twist which just hops right up onto his racket, a set-up for his forehand. So he returns very well against me, and I don't happen to return well at all against most lefthanders.
A great lob can neutralize Laver—and I don't have an outstanding lob. This will sound silly, too, but I get into a match and forget completely about the lob. I'll talk to myself about using a lob for hours before a match, and then I'll get out there and draw a blank on the shot. And it's all very relative. I beat Riessen regularly, but Marty returns well against lefthanders and he can throw up a good lob, and so he does quite well against Rocket.
Some people try to console me by saying that I might do better against Rocket if I didn't have so many active interests and involvements outside of tennis. But that is a specious argument. I would go out of my mind if I only played tennis, the way Rocket does. There is simply a limit to how much straight tennis I could endure. I could never even consider becoming a teaching pro when I'm through playing.