Image for Newcombe on winning

*Pic: Newcombe at his peak

Background: John Newcombe, now 70, was 31 when he stood still for an interview by a person he didn’t know. I am amazed now, as I was in 1975, at how generous he was with his time and his insights. I don’t remember exactly Cliff Richey’s joke about the one-armed tennis player, but it was ribald. 

THE FAR-FLUNG Australian sportsman, possibly suffering from an identity crisis, is traditionally inclined to be a little raucous off the field, and sometimes on it. Newcombe, the tennis player, sees it differently. When players from other countries get done, he says, they tend to go off by themselves and brood. The Australian, on the other hand, goes out and gets cheerfully smashed; works the stuff off with a couple of hard sets; and away he goes again.

And of course if you don’t get beaten, you still lose a lot of sweat, and a prime way to repair that deficiency is by an injection of riboflavin, of which the most easily accessible source is beer.

There’s a lot of time to kill on planes and in foreign parts between matches. In these situations, Newcombe oscillates between curling up with such 900-page tomes as Shogun, by James Clavell, which keep you going without tiring the brain cells, and the high jink.

In this latter respect, one of his favourite victims is his pal Tony Roche, the guy with the chisel chin and the faith-healed left arm. Roche, apart from being the best doubles player Newcombe ever saw, and with whom he won the All England doubles championship five times, is a sensitive sort of fellow, and he cannot stand the sight of the result when somebody, or something, has been sick.

Thus Newcombe, staying with Roche one time in a private home, procured one of those ghastly plastic things that look just like that, and stuck it on the floor at the foot of old Chiselchin’s bed. He then persuaded Roche, clearly a suitable subject for the ministrations of a faith healer, that there was a dog in the room. “He was convinced,” says Newcombe, “he was actually whistling for the dog to come out.”

Similarly, Newcombe, who seems to be something of a frequenter of those little shops that sell all sorts of amusing objects, worked Roche into a state of extreme agitation in the matter of the whoopee cushion. This is a device which I understand the late David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of Great Britain, was not above shoving under a cushion, and then inviting his male private secretary to join the guests.

On a plane flight, Newcombe inserted one such noise-making device under the cushion of Roche’s seat. Roche later had to leave his seat for a time, and suspecting that Newcombe might have another whoopee cushion in his possession, surreptitiously left his seat cushion in a certain position, so he would know if it was interfered with in his absence. Not having a second device, Newcombe therefore did interfere with the seat cushion, so that when Roche returned, it was some time before he could be persuaded gingerly to sit down.

And so forth. I told him the Australian cricketers seemed to get into the same sort of high-spirited vein after hours, but Newcombe was shocked at the suggestion that the tennis players could be mentioned, in this area, in the same breath as the cricketers. “Hell no,” he said, “I’ve heard about those guys. The tennis players aren’t anything like that.”

A merry prankster

So Newcombe is a bit of a merry prankster. What else is he? How did he, a player without apparently spectacular attributes as an athlete, and as his wife says, a flat-chest withal, get to win Wimbledon three times?

I clapped him back in October when he was playing, doubles only, in an obscure tournament at the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club, in Melbourne. Comalco and the Pony sports shoe people had underwritten the event, which went by the perhaps inflated title of South Pacific Championships, but it was mostly raining, as it usually is in Melbourne in October, and the public, and some of the players, evinced little interest.

The rain made the en-tout-cas courts as slow as the week, so much so that a diligent but unremarkable double-hander named Solomon, whose pat-a-cake baseline style was in no way inferior to that of my grandmother, was able to reach the final of the singles.

By the time that event was reached, however, Newcombe had long since disappeared from the courts. He’d been laid up after a leg operation, and was at the very start of his comeback, which lasted not much more than half an hour. He was teamed with a stumpy Texan named Cliff Richey, who at the players’ revue later in the week sent those upper class ladies of the Royal South Yarra etc into shrieks of astonished laughter with his delineation of the one-armed tennis player.

Both Richey and Newcombe are first court players, but Newcombe persuaded Richey to take the second court, on the ground that Richey was probably in better shape than he was. This may have been a mistake. They found themselves opposed to a couple of young Americans named Whitlinger and Cahill, who I’d never heard of, and who, if they were surprised to find themselves on the same court as the Wimbledon champion, showed no sign of it, and wrapped the match up in short order by the simple expedient of bombarding all returns at Richey. Newcombe himself dispatched with calm efficiency anything that came his way, meanwhile viewing the efforts of the hapless Richey with a degree of detached amusement.

Apart from this mild stretch-out on the court, and putting the players through their paces for the forthcoming revue, Newcombe got through a round of public engagements. He appeared at Pentridge prison to repay an inmate a couple of packets of tobacco (the convict had lost them backing Newcombe against Connors) and later was the star turn at the Royal Automobile Club’s annual dinner, where he was to speak for half an hour but, having had thrust on him a double gin or so, went on for an hour, giving the Davis Cup captain, Neale Fraser, some prodigious serves.

I picked him up the next morning out on Kooyong Road at the premises of Mr Stan Nicholes, the swarthy, bright-eyed gent who is trainer to the Davis Cup teams. His, office, littered with barbells, weights on pulleys and redolent of embrocation, has large framed pictures of some of his triumphs, for instance: “Stan Nicholes supporting Olympic weightlifter Vern Barberis in a hand balance with barbell. The weight totals 1/4 ton.”

While rain pelted down outside, Nicholes had Newcombe flexing and straightening his dicky leg in a clamp attached to a 30 lb weight on a pulley. After a deal of this, he took him into a rubbing room, had him strip, threw a towel round him, and started bashing away at his muscles. I took the chance to probe his life style a little, and gleaned this:

He matriculated at Shore (Church of England Grammar) in Sydney, and might have been an accountant if he hadn’t become a tennis player. He only ever had one job in which he worked for a boss. This was straight after he left school, when he was put on Slazenger’s payroll, doing promo work, at about a thousand pounds a year. He only did this for a few months, and has since played tennis for himself, although he is still on Slazenger’s payroll, at a little more money. He wouldn’t like to work for a boss again.

A determinedly bronzed Aussie?

He has one suit, light-coloured, brand not known, which may lead to a suspicion that Newcombe projects a determinedly bronzed Aussie, if not ocker, image. This is not quite fair. Newcombe struck me, admittedly on a very brief acquaintance, as being generally a fairly uncomplicated guy with his head in excellent balance, who takes things, even the inane questions of reporters, as they come.

The heavies of the fringe tennis world are no less weighty than the ear-bashers of other sports, and leading players tend to feel bugged by such, and to keep to themselves. But it seems to make no odds to Newcombe who it is in his ear, and I asked him how he managed that.  “I just sort of go with the flow,” he said.

But there’s a little more to Newcombe than the roistering and the beer and the steak and being amiable to bores. While he would probably hit you if you accused him of being an intellectual, he is, in his way, the thinking man’s tennis player.

I get a bit of a feel for this while he’s driving, in an orange Fairlane from Budget Rent-a-Car, from Stan’s place to the South Yarra club, and over lunch which, at $4 a throw, consists of lamb, baked potatoes, and for Newcombe, despite the shadow of a spare tyre, a piece of fish in batter, and one beer. For instance, if he wants to read tennis, he wants to read it in the London Times, by Rex Bellamy. The local writers are a little too much on the surface for his taste.

And he has an idea that tennis players think about the game while they’re on the court, but not enough while they’re off it. “They don’t think about their tactics before they go on – well, hell, a lot of times I don’t either, but when it’s really important I do.”

His method of winding up for a big match, a Wimbledon final, say, after he has figured out the strategy, is to have a steak about 10.30 and then no more food. A half-hour before the match he starts to let the juice build up. He runs through in his mind what is going to happen when he comes out to the court: the photographers, the bow to the royal personage, the hit-up. He will be a bit tight at the start, so he figures to be steady, getting the ball into play. That way, he knows what’s coming: there’s nothing unexpected to throw him off balance.

As for the tactics, a tennis match – at least it seems so to me – is a little like a murder trial; boring mostly, and the thing is decided on one or two questions, or points in the case of tennis. So Newcombe figures out a strategy in advance, but he’s also a believer in the Laverian save-a-shot tactics as the match progresses.

Laver he bills as the best player he ever saw, and a great thinker on the court, which is why he rates Laver better than Connors who mostly just goes out “and hits the hell out of the ball”. Newcombe watched Laver a lot in the 60s, and saw him save a shot on Dennis Ralston at Wimbledon in 1969. He describes it in these words:

“Ralston was playing great. He won the fourth set and that made it two sets all. And it looked like he could top Laver off. They started the fifth set. Laver would rip a backhand up the line; Ralston would be there. Laver’d rip it across court; he’d go down the line; across court; Ralston was right on top of the net, picking them.

Your best shot ...

“And that’s - you know, when you hit your best shot, and the guy’s just standing there waiting, it can get you a little bit; you start getting, you know … psyched out. Ralston was super-confident because

he was picking these things, and you could see it on his face. He KNEW he had Laver. And Laver was just deadpan, the same.

“I was sitting right on the side of the court; I was interested to see just how Laver was going to get out of this position. It gets to about two-all in the fifth. And 30-all or deuce, I’m not sure, on Ralston’s serve.” (At this point, Newcombe described the play with a lot of hand and body movement.)

“Ralston serves, he comes in, volley, Laver backhand, Ralston’s got his nose on top of the net, ready to pick this, Laver comes into the backhand, like this, like he’s really going to drive it, and then, at the last instant, instead of going down the line where he doesn’t have the room, he hits, for the first time, a perfect cross court lob. It goes over Ralston’s head, and Laver gets to the net and wins the point, and a look of uncertainty goes over Ralston’s face …”

That was June, 1969, so Newcombe really ought to have been ready when Laver suckered him in a $10 000, winner-take-all match in Rochester, New York, in January, 1971. As Newcombe describes it, you get an impression that a great tennis player’s brain works like a computer, but then he gets up against a greater player and finds there’s one card he didn’t feed into the machine. Thus:

“We get into four-all in the fifth set, 30-all on my serve. I’d been coming in, and a lot of the time I’d roll them back to his backhand line, like this; and off that particular shot he was lobbing to my backhand line, like this. It was a hard shot for me unless I could get round and smash. He won some of it, but although I was winning more, he kept on with the lob.

“So I came in to hit the volley down into that same exact spot. He came in, like this, with the racquet held exactly the same as he’d been doing, to put up the lob. I was in the net to cover a passing shot or the lob, and I saw the racquet do the lob, and I started to move, like this.

“Now my body weight is moving this way. At the last second he changed the shot to a dink: he did a little soft shot at my backhand volley, here. Now, if my weight wasn’t going this way I would have jumped in on it and volleyed it across court, probably for a winner. But now I can’t get any body weight in it; I can only hit it with my arm. (Newcombe’s body weight was thus pointed in the direction of the back of the court. He needed it to be pointing about 60 degrees round to his left to hit a certain winner off the dink.)

“What can I do? I can’t hit a stop volley because I don’t have enough control over my body, and he’d reach anything I hit. I can go back down the line to his backhand again, but he’s got that topspin and he can whip it across court, here. But he can also hold it and come back down the line so I’d have to cover the cross court backhand, in which case I’d have to run like hell over here, and that’d expose my line. Dangerous shot to play.

“If I go across to his forehand wide, over here, he had in those days a great forehand down the line, and he could hit a topspin lob, and he could whip it back across court. So that’s really tough. So I can’t drop it short, so I figure my only play is to come back very deep down the middle of the court; give him no angle to play, and for me to move back to the centre of the court. Which I try to do. I hit the shot, but I knew I had to get it deep to give me time to get back to the centre, and I hit it out by about three inches. And I said: ‘You bastard! You really got me in on that one.’ Laver went on to take the point and the match 6-4, 6-2, 4-6, 5-7, 6-4.”

In the clubhouse, overlooking the twenty or so courts, the noise level mounted in direct proportion to the ingestion of booze. The queue at the buffet grew longer. Frank Galbally, silver of hair and tongue, terror of the prosecution in Melbourne’s criminal courts, waited patiently for his slice of lamb. A child was dispatched from the queue to get Newcombe’s autograph.

Bill Bowery, tall, bespectacled, former player turned commentator, stopped by Newcombe’s table. “Say, you were going pretty good last night.”

“Yeah, I talked for an hour. It was that double gin they gave me before I got up. When I got home I said to myself. Hell! I wonder if I made an asshole of myself?”

“No, you were great. You were so loose. You meandered round the point, but you managed to keep a thread through it.”

More than a few beers ...

“I’ll need to have more than a few beers to get up on stage tonight …” Bowery drifted off chuckling.

So far, what we have here, it seemed to me, is a man of good physique and journeyman talents, who, by taking thought, has added a cubit to his stature. But there has to be a little more, and I queried him about the theory of losing, as laid down in the book The Hustler, by the American professor of English, Walter Tevis.

As the prof laid it out, we all have what he called “The Squirrel” on our back, waiting. And the squirrel wants us to lose, so we will go to the squirrel for pity, and self-pity is one of the great indoor sports. But, he says, its very important to have the little fellow there, and not to cut its water off altogether, because when you hear its persuasive voice giving you all those good reasons for losing, like “It’s too hot to play”, or “My foot is sore”, or “The linesmen are crook”, or “Play safe”, etc, you know the crisis is at hand, and you have to really screw yourself up and fight ...

“Yeah”, he said, “there are warning signals like that you can get. But this is a feeling that you get inside yourself that the other guy’s got you. And that’s hard to get out of. You just can’t shake it like that. I’ve shaken it before, but, you know, I’ve never been able to shake it, just turn it off like that. It’s taken about 15 minutes to pull myself together again.”

I said: “In that match against Stan Smith you played at Wimbledon, he had you whacked, or he seemed to.”

“Yeah, he did. It hit me I was in trouble during the third set. And I just said to myself, I’ve got ten, fifteen minutes to pull myself round again. I’m pretty sure I’m going to lose this set. If I don’t bring myself round, I’m going to lose the match. I tried to go within myself, deep breathe, relax, relax, take it easy, and then when I felt I had the build-up there – adrenalin was sitting there ready to come out – then whoosh – I tried to bring it out again, and once it came out I knew I had to hold it for about an hour to win the fourth and fifth sets.”

Which goes some way towards explaining why Newcombe is murder in a five-set match, in which his winning average is something like 80 or 90 per cent.

But in the end, as it seems to me, neither Smith nor Newcombe had a precise understanding of what happened next, although Newcombe had a better idea than Smith. In the fourth set, Newcombe steamrollered the American who hardly got a point on Newcombe’s serve. And after it was over, Smith said: “Jeez, I had the match won, and I started thinking about the Wimbledon ball, and making a speech …”

Newcombe says that in those days Smith was sort of super-confident, and couldn’t understand what happened, but it strikes me that in the tension of the match, the squirrel was adopting a pretty subtle ploy to get the Smith to lose concentration.

“But you see,” complained Newcombe, “he wasn’t giving me credit. OK, he won the third set 6-2. Great! But I’m not going to lie down; I’m going to come back. You know, I’d won Wimbledon twice before; I’m not gonna sit down and wait for Stan Smith and say: ‘Too good, Stan; you’ve won the second and third sets; now you can have the fourth.’ I’m gonna come back stronger than at any time in the match because, jeez, he’s got the knife at my throat.”

Newcombe has a theory that a tennis player reaches his peak at 29 or 30, and can then hold the peak for another seven years, if he wants to, which he doesn’t. “I’ve had enough,” he said, “I’ll give it a good year next year, and after that I’ll pick what I want to play in. I probably would have started doing that next year, but I had this knee thing in June and, jeez, didn’t play Wimbledon, Forest Hills, and that isn’t how I want to stop.”

So 1976 will be Newcombe’s last major hurrah. It will be interesting to see if he can get up again. He resisted another beer and went off to do a commentary for Channel 0 on the tennis. It was still raining and, to his great disgust, they were running a colour film of the Vegas match, in which Connors beat him in four sets. In that match, Newcombe said, his physical condition let him down; he hadn’t been playing enough tournaments.

That night there was a party for the members of the Royal South Yarra Lawn Tennis Club. For $28 a double, they got a lot of bubbly which varied from very fair to very indifferent, a roast that was literally raw, and the John Newcombe Revue (an official dropped to me that Newcombe is in demand at tournaments as much for his ability to coerce players into getting up on stage as for his talent as a tennis players.)

Tennis players have knocked about the world a good bit, and mixed with the toffs at Forest Hills and Wimbledon, and they have a sharp understanding of the fact that it is only the middle classes who are uptight about sex; that the lower and upper classes incline to the view that it’s here to stay.

So the jokes, received in high good humour by the members and their ladies were of the order of the hillbilly who bought a dozen French letters. Told the price was $3.40, plus tax, he replied: “Forget the tax; I’m gonna tie ‘em on.”

And there was Richey’s singular depiction of the one-armed tennis player.

The National Times 15 December 1975.  Reprinted in Amazing Scenes: Adventures of a Reptile of the Press (Fairfax 1987).