“Please step in and hit the [expletive] out of the ball.”
This was the simple coaching advice that John Newcombe gave to his doubles partner, Rod Laver, as they walked out to try to clinch the 1973 Davis Cup for Australia over the United States. Laver was 35 years old, had been on one tennis circuit or another since the late 1950s, owned a collective 17 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles, and was considered by many to be the greatest player in tennis history. You might have thought he would have little use for his partner’s rather crude piece of instruction. But as Newk would say later, “Rocket did his best to please me.”
This was the match of the year, perhaps the decade, for Newcombe, Laver, and their Aussie teammates, Ken Rosewall and Mal Anderson. With an average age in the mid-30s—Newk, at 29, was the only player anywhere near his prime—this “Dad’s Army,” as they were sometimes called, knew it would likely be their last Davis Cup hurrah. And it had been a long time coming. As contract professionals, the Aussie greats had long been banned from the old-guard, amateur-run team competition. Newcombe hadn’t been allowed to play for his country since 1967, Laver since ’62, and Rosewall since 1956, when he was a baby-faced 22-year-old. As Newk said, when the amateur establishment finally crumbled and allowed them to return in '73, “the boys were raring to go and ready to make up for lost time.” Newk was so ready that he had skipped most of the pro tour in ’73 to concentrate on winning Grand Slams and bringing the Davis Cup back to what the Aussies considered its rightful home.
As Rex Bellamy, the tennis correspondent for the Times of London who attended the final that year, put it, “Australia went into action with a feeling that here was a chance—for some of them, perhaps a last chance—to show the world what tennis was like in the days when men were men and Australia ruled the world.”
For Newcombe, it was a matter of etching the Aussie tennis dynasty, which stretched back two decades, in stone one final time—literally.
“It was the last time that Rod and Kenny and I would get our names onto the Davis Cup,” he said.
For athletes from Australia, this was no small thing. In the 1950s and ‘60s, under their hard-nosed svengali Harry Hopman, tennis had been the national sport Down Under. Aussie boys dreamed of playing for its Davis Cup team the way American boys dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees. And the Aussies were even more dominant than the Yanks—from 1950 to 1967, the country won 15 Cups in 18 seasons.
Now it was 1973, and the dynasty was in decline. The boys of summers past were on the wrong side of 30, long-haired, mutton-chopped veterans of one-night barn-storming tours around the globe. Despite Hopman’s protestations, his best players—Rosewall, Hoad, Laver, Newcombe, Roche—kept leaving him for the wilderness of the pro game, and no new generation had arrived to take their place. When Open tennis began in 1968, Hopman, the emperor of amateurism, knew his time was up. He would never control Australian tennis the way he once had, so he left for the professional wilderness of America. In 1969, Hopman stepped down as Davis Cup captain and became the head of a new tennis academy in Port Washington, NY. He wasn’t the only one to leave the seemingly dated team competition behind. Writing about the Cup in ’73, Australian tennis journalist Alan Trengove said, “For some, the quest for loot clearly took precedence over patriotism.”
That left the ’73 Aussie team in the hands of one of Hopman’s early protégés, Neale Fraser. His players may have been long in the tooth, but they hadn’t lost any of their bite. Looking back, Fraser called his squad, “The greatest Davis Cup team that any country has ever put on a court.”
It was so great that Fraser had the unenviable task of putting either Ken Rosewall or Rod Laver on the bench.
“I had to tell a fellow who was a far better player than me,” Fraser said of Rosewall, “that he’s not going to play Davis Cup.” Muscles, after waiting 17 years, would make one appearance in doubles that season, in the semis at Kooyong in Melbourne, against the Czech team.
But even successful Davis Cup campaigns usually have to survive an exotic adventure or two, and it was true for the Aussies as well. When they arrived in Madras to play the Indian team, the Australians were informed that they were the target of a death threat issued by the Pakistani terrorist group Black December—not to be confused with the Black September group that had threatened to kill Harold Solomon and Brian Gottfried, the Jewish members of the U.S. team, when it won the Cup in Bucharest the previous year.
The original plan was for the Aussie players who were married with children, which included Newcombe, to go home and let the single men risk it all for the home country. But when a local Indian police commissioner guaranteed the team’s safety and assigned them armed bodyguards, everyone stayed and played. Still, it was something of a surprise when Newk and the boys found out what they were going to play on: Courts made of cow dung.
The Aussies survived those as well, and in November they flew to Cleveland, Ohio, for the final. It would be against a team that had run rampant in their absence: The U.S squad, led that year by Stan Smith and Tom Gorman, were the five-time defending Cup champions.
“By the time we got to Cleveland,” Newcombe said, “we were fired up, to say the least.”
At first glance, the environment seemed almost as weirdly unwelcoming as it had been in Madras. It was cold, wet, snowy, and windy in Cleveland that final weekend in November—the lake was in effect. Perhaps fortunately, or perhaps not, the Cup final would be contested indoors for the first time. That protected the players from the weather, but it also put them inside the Public Auditorium, which Bellamy remembered as a “somber hall perched on the southern shore of Lake Erie...with bizarre touches like billboards for Wonder Bread, and an oxygen kit and spittoons installed along the carpet court.” While the tennis boom was on in America, it apparently had yet to reach the northern edge of Ohio. The crowds for this duel of the dynasties were disappointing.
That didn’t stop the Aussie and American singles players from putting on a classic, eight-hour, 10-set opening day. In the first match, Newcombe and Smith reprised their five-set Wimbledon final from two years earlier. The result was the same—a win for Newk, 6-4 in the fifth—but the tennis might have been even better. Smith led 3-1 in the final set, with a break point for 4-1, but he netted a forehand. In Bellamy’s words, “Newcombe fought back with the fury of a wounded but indomitable lion who knew he had to kill or be killed.” The match ended with a memorable anti-climax at 5-4: A net-cord winner for Newcombe at deuce, and a double fault by Smith on match point. “Such a superb match, such a brutal ordeal for body and mind, deserved a better finish,” Bellamy wrote.
In the second match, Laver made sure there would be no fluke ending against Gorman. The 35-year-old Rocket lost the first set 10-8, and went down two sets to one, but won it going away.
“For three sets,” Bellamy wrote, “this too was a fine match, bubbling with uncertainty in its richly contrasted patterns.”
Over the final two sets, though, Gorman wilted; “something inside of him died in the heat of combat,” according to Bellamy. At the same time, Laver, that seasoned veteran of tennis crises, rose to the occasion.
“Suddenly,” Bellamy said of the Rocket, “he was putting it all together and playing beautifully, like a poet who had been struggling to find a good line and had thought of a great one.”
With the Aussies up 2-0, Fraser decided to go for the kill rather than rest his singles players. He thought that Laver and Newcombe were on a roll, they were fit enough to make the turnaround, and he liked the fact that they would confuse their opponents, Smith and Eric van Dillen, with their alternating righty and lefty serves. Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. The Americans hadn’t lost a Davis Cup doubles match in five years.
“But,” Newcombe said, “as Rod and I told ourselves, they’d never had to play us.”
As the Aussies walked on court, Newcombe asked Laver an innocent question: “Rocket, why not rip your backhand today? It makes me nervous serving to you, because your backhand return is so strong. So when the Yanks serve to you today, please step in and hit the [expletive] out of the ball.”
Laver obliged. On the second point of the match, Newcombe looked at him and said, “‘Now’s the time. Belt this one back as hard as you can.’ Rod, who had the best poker face in tennis, said nothing. But the instant the ball left Stan’s racquet, he leaped forward four paces and performed the best backhand return I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t see a ball, just a blur.”
The ball-blur was past the net man, Van Dillen, in a heartbeat. “His face sank,” Newcombe remembered, “as if to say, ‘I’m way out of my league here.’”
Van Dillen was, and so were the Americans. Laver and Newcombe won 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to clinch Australia’s first Davis Cup in six years. It would, as Newk predicted, be the last for the nation’s old guard. They celebrated in customary Aussie fashion.
“Boy, did we party,” Newcombe said. “We had a huge dinner, the beer and wine flowed, and we sang and celebrated all night long.”
Even Laver, never the party animal, joined in. Newcombe said his lasting memory of his teammate from that weekend was seeing him “smiling beatifically” in the hotel bathroom that night: “He had the biggest, widest grin on that freckled face of his.” Newcombe was about to say something, but he decided to leave the Rocket to his reverie.
Yet Newk and Laver still had enough in them to come back the next day and win both reverse singles to complete the 5-0 sweep. “We rubbed the American players’ noses in it a little bit,” Fraser said, "which we were happy to do.” Men were men, the Aussies ruled, and all was right in the tennis world again.
But where was the man who had made them men, and launched the Aussie dynasty all those years before? Harry Hopman was on Long Island, with a new protégé, a 14-year-old named John McEnroe. But this wasn’t the same, hard Hopman who, in the words of Laver, had trained the Aussies “to run through a desert,” and who, according to Newcombe, would “go ape-sh*t” when he was two minutes late for curfew. This kindler, gentler Hopman was known to watch a raving teenage Johnny Mac and say, “It would be a shame to break him, with all that talent.”
The old amateur era of total control was over, and Hop knew it—the players had the power now. The men he had molded in Australia were coming to the ends of their careers. The young man he had molded, in a very different way, in Port Washington, was just getting started.