The reasons for the collapse of the Aussie juggernaut are many and varied, not the least of which may be the law of averages. After all, Australia is a very sparsely populated land, with 13.5 million inhabitants, which is about as many as live in Greater New York. Except possibly for cricket, there has been a general decline in Australian athletic proficiency: the country did not win a single gold medal at Montreal.
In the past, Australians have always thought of themselves as rugged specimens in a precocious land. The U.S. is a graybeard by comparison. Australia was not settled until 1788 when the first British convicts were "transported" there. A Fellowship of First Fleeters, descendants of these hearty jailbirds, still meets regularly, as proud as our own DAR. And no wonder—the voyages from England were infinitely longer and nearly as cruel as Kunta Kinte's. It was this century (in 1901) before Australia was even accepted into the Commonwealth as a full-fledged nation, but by 1907 (combined with New Zealand as Australasia) it had won the Davis Cup, and it generally was preeminent in the tennis world through World War I, by which time two stalwarts, Norman Brookes and Gerald Patterson, were at last over the hill and the noble Tony Wilding lay beneath Flanders Field.
There followed a fallow period that lasted until the '30s when Jack Crawford surfaced. An asthmatic, Crawford would have been the first Grand Slam winner in 1933 but for the spirits (brandy or bourbon—accounts vary) he took for his disability, and the extreme heat that left him unsteady toward the end of the finals at Forest Hills (up 2-1 in sets, Crawford staggered to a 0-6, 1-6 finish against England's Fred Perry).
Thereafter, the Aussies tended to come in pairs, conveniently stamped out that way for the Davis Cup: Adrian Quist and ambidextrous John Bromwich; Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor; the wonder teens, Rosewall and Hoad; then Mai Anderson and Ashley Cooper; Neale Fraser and Rod Laver; Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle; and at last, John Newcombe and Roche. The line ran out there, abruptly, as tennis went open (over Hopman's strident objections), and contract pros were barred from the Davis Cup.
The Aussie system was nearly feudal, and perfect for those times when tennis was either run out of a hat (pro) or under the table (amateur). The best young players would be brought into the cities by the sporting goods companies, which would pay them a subsistence stipend—�1,000 or so—and give them time to practice. The best of the best would then be tapped for the national team. Here was the beauty of it. The kids would travel all over the world, February to October, with no nearby home to escape to when things got tough. The survivors were forged by the system. Conditioning, esprit, technique were assimilated almost by osmosis. "A boy often didn't know he had been taught something," Hopman says, "but all of a sudden, on the court, at a time when it counted, under pressure, he realized he could do it."
Newcombe, the last great Aussie, and among the brightest of the lot, recalls, "Your key years for learning are 18 to 22. It made me—traveling and living with the best. The small things you could pick up. Any bloody fool could see that Rocket hit with topspin, but I could see the little things. And I watched. This was bred into me. Even when I turned pro, I would study Laver every chance. I would sit with him and pick his brains when someone else was playing. Nowadays, you never see the kids watching the older players. No one even asks questions anymore."
The young Aussies were spared any ambiguity about who was boss. Authority was a three-letter word: Hop. The players he didn't care for left the game or left the country. The ones he selected affirmed his judgment, winning 15 Davis Cups in 18 years, even as they chafed at his discipline and snickered at his simple, invariable midmatch advice: "Relax and hit for the lines."
"The point was to go for it—not just get it back, but make the bloke stretch for it," says Fred Stolle, who crossed swords often with Hopman, but now hands out the same coaching advice (he has been captain of all eight Aussie World Cup teams). "Even in drills, Hop made us hit everything down the line or cross-court." Today, most tennis, as that at Hartford, is played on medium-slow stylized artificial courts where computerized stroke production counts most. In the Aussie era, the courts were of slip-and-slide clay or slick grass, where match play, conditioning and force of personality counted more.
"Hop was nothing much technically, no coaching genius," Newcombe says. "His importance was the system he created, the team. None of us liked it much, but we all did it his way because we could see the method in his madness. It was a brilliant system for Davis Cup, with the lesser players sacrificing themselves completely to the stars. When I first joined the team Emmo was king. He was the only one allowed to drink beer. He was even the only one allowed to tell dirty jokes. By the time of the match, he was up to here. His ego was sky high."
Stolle's first year on the team he did nothing on the court but serve to Neale Fraser's backhand, four hours every day. Doubtless such sacrifice could never be obtained today. It is difficult enough for Davis Cup coaches in most countries to get their top players even to deign to play a round or two, much less to contribute themselves to some selfless patriotic scheme. The only time the Aussies have won the Davis Cup since amateur tennis was overruled by filthy lucre was in 1973, when Newcombe and Captain Fraser enlisted Rosewall and Laver.