NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas—Here is John Newcombe, the lion in winter. The 26-time Grand Slam champion will turn 80 next year. He continues to boast the iconic moustache he grew just over half a century ago—the moustache that became a logo, and grew into what contemporary parlance calls a brand.

Variations of the moustache adorn Newcombe’s tennis ranch, a 31-court facility located a 30-minute drive northeast of San Antonio. The John Newcombe Tennis Ranch is both an academy for juniors and a lively getaway spot for adults.

On a late winter morning, Newcombe is at the ranch, about to commence a once-a-year event: Tennis Fantasies for Men and Women. Like just about every Australian tennis player, Newcombe has tremendous command of doubles. Nineteen of his majors came in men’s and mixed.

But of the seven singles Slam titles Newcombe earned—two Australian Open, three Wimbledon, two US Open—none was more redemptive than the one he won 50 years ago in New York.


Opportunities and Transitions

To think that only six years earlier, Newcombe was 23 years old and had pondered ending his amateur career as a player to become as teaching pro. But by the end of 1967, Newcombe had signed a professional contract. The next spring, tennis became Open. Big money had arrived. As the summer of 1973 got underway, Newcombe occupied the red-hot center of those dynamic tennis boom years. He’d been ranked No. 1 in the world several times and was building something new in tennis: an impressive portfolio of corporate partnerships.

Newcombe had traveled the world since he’d turned 17. A dozen globe-trotting years later, in July 1973, as he relaxed with his wife Angie and kids at the ranch, Newcombe decided he was going to retire.

“I was not enjoying the travel, and I felt guilty about being away from my family,” said Newcombe. “I never wanted tennis to dominate my life.”

He’d turned 29 in May. In those years, age 30 was often considered a plausible retirement age—not just in tennis, but in all sports.

Angie, a former amateur player, told him to give it more thought. Four days later, Newcombe had changed his mind. With the US Open only four weeks away, Newcombe conducted a self-assessment.

“My tennis was at about a seven, my fitness was about a seven,” he said. “I was nowhere near where I needed to be to win a Grand Slam singles tournament.”

In the heat of the Texas summer, Newcombe took a daily three-mile run. He also frequently ran one wind sprint after another, a 100-yard dash from his home on the ranch to a large rock that remains there. Keep in mind that were also 80 children attending a summer camp at the ranch. Often, many would join Newcombe on his fitness routine.

“I wasn’t yet playing a lot of tennis,” he said.


“My tennis was at about a seven, my fitness was about a seven,” Newcombe said. “I was nowhere near where I needed to be to win a Grand Slam singles tournament.”

“My tennis was at about a seven, my fitness was about a seven,” Newcombe said. “I was nowhere near where I needed to be to win a Grand Slam singles tournament.”

Seeded Tenth

At the US Open, Newcombe was seeded tenth. Defending champion Ilie Nastase and the 1971 winner, Stan Smith, were co-seeded No. 1.

In the first round, Newcombe opened versus Marcelo Lara. Though Lara was a fine player who’d played Davis Cup for Mexico, in most cases, he’d pose little trouble for Newcombe. On this day, though, Newcombe labored, eventually winning 6-7, 6-3, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3. Particularly troubling was that Newcombe had lost two tiebreakers. Ever since that scoring innovation had been implemented in 1970, Newcombe considered himself exceptionally skilled at navigating those delicate situations. Even the metal Rawlings racquet he used was named “The Tie Breaker.”

Next came two more arduous efforts, the first over a fine American serve-volleyer, Jim Delaney, the second past the highly crafty Ion Tiriac. Though at least in each of these straight-set victories, Newcombe won the first set in a tiebreaker, his form remained scratchy.

“It just wasn’t happening,” said Newcombe. “There was no particular shot. It was just the whole thing. The overall timing – it just wasn’t there.”


Destiny Envisioned

In the fourth round Newcombe faced Andrew Pattison, a highly skilled all-court player who’d ousted Nastase. After losing the first set, this one too in a tiebreaker, Newcombe stormed through the next three, 6-1, 7-5, 6-4.

“It all came together,” said Newcombe. “I came off the court and said to Angie, ‘That’s it. I’m going to win the tournament.’”

Such was the Newcombe mentality: Does success make the man or does the man make success? As a teenager in the early 1960s, long before such terms as visualization entered the lexicon, Newcombe had devoted time to a series of exercises to help train his mind. Newcombe’s ability to envision victory—and apply the requisite mix of discipline and tactics—was the vital ingredient that had taken him to the top.

Now having reached the quarterfinals, Newcombe would subsequently play three of the greatest counterpunchers and service returners in tennis history: Jimmy Connors, Ken Rosewall, Jan Kodes. Newcombe relished these kinds of match-ups. Certainly, he was aided by the fact that he then had the best serve in the game, a delivery he could hit with every possible spin and speed.

A year later, Connors would arrive at Forest Hills as the Wimbledon champion and be ranked No. 1in the world. But in 1973, he remained a bit far from his top form. After winning the first set, 6-4, Newcombe took the next two—to his pleasure, both in tiebreakers.

Next came the ageless Rosewall, who at 38 remained incredibly formidable.

“The only way to play ‘Muscles’ was to keep coming at him,” said Newcombe. Three years earlier, at the same stage of the tournament, Rosewall had beaten Newcombe. On this day, though, Newcombe turned the tables, beating Rosewall 6-4, 7-6, 6-3.


Rough Rival

Kodes arrived in the final with much to prove. Earlier that summer, he’d won Wimbledon. But that triumph had come amid the ATP boycott, some 80 top players—including Newcombe—having skipped the tournament. In New York, though, Kodes had proven a significant factor, most notably when he’d fought off a match point to beat Smith in the semis.

On a more personal basis, two years prior at Forest Hills, Kodes had knocked off the first-seeded Newcombe in the first round.

“He was a really good player,” said Newcombe as he recalled their ’71 match. “Everybody said how he hates grass, but let me tell you: He returned great. I knew in the final that I was in for a real battle. But I also knew that I had hit top form.”

Though never ruffled about losing the first set, Newcombe in this case won the opener, 6-4. But then everything changed. As Richard Evans wrote in his 1973 World Tennis story about the men’s tournament, “For the next hour Kodes played like a man possessed. From the moment he settled down into that closed, menacing stance to receive serve, every muscle and every sinew in his body seemed coiled and ready to spring.” Kodes took the next two sets, 6-1, 6-4.


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At his ranch, walking past the rock he’d sprinted to and from so often, Newcombe turned to one of the mixed event’s attendees and stared out at a nearby row of courts. Once embarked on his world-class career, Newcombe became a deep student of how to play best-of-five set matches. These were frequent in those days, not just at the majors. Newcombe’s expertise of those kind of tennis epics ran deep, his knowledge akin to an English professor’s ability to parse through Shakespeare.

“You must not hit the panic button,” said Newcombe. “Although he was playing unbelievable tennis. So you’ve got to assume he’s going to keep playing like that. So I figured I had to increase my game by five percent. So if my serves were landing six inches inside the line, I had to start landing them three inches inside the line. Again, just five percent, not ten percent, because that would have been an overreach. If you panic, your thought process diminishes.”

The interconnected nature of a tennis match meant that as Newcombe stepped up his game, Kodes lost a little of his edge. Newcombe took the fourth set, 6-2.


It all came together. I came off the court and said to Angie, ‘That’s it. I’m going to win the tournament.’ John Newcombe

Two of his Wimbledon finals had gone five sets, one versus the enduring Rosewall, the other against the big-serving Smith. Now, versus Kodes in tennis’ ultimate cauldron, Newcombe’s years of practice, fitness and experience kicked into a higher gear.

“I just needed to keep the pressure on him,” said Newcombe. “By the time I got to the fifth, I was playing better than the first set.”

And as tennis history has shown, particularly on grass, a great serve just about always has the edge over even the finest returners.

Two fine backhands helped Newcombe break Kodes at 1-2 in the decider. From there, he held serve again and again. Serving at 5-3, Newcombe swiftly reached 40-love. Not yet finished, Kodes hit a forehand return winner. At 40-15, Newcombe hit an ace down the T, jumped the net, shook Kodes’ hand and savored a victory in all the ways you’d expect from a man who relishes competition with every sinew of his heart and soul. Never forget that a lion in winter is still a lion.