Australian John Newcombe, left, flashes the victory sign after he and Rod Laver, right, defeated Stan Smith and Erik Van Dillen of the United States.

For Australian tennis players, two attributes have always held supreme power: loyalty and fitness. On this day in 1973, both revealed themselves eloquently.

It was Friday, November 30, the start of the Davis Cup final, Australia versus the United States at the Public Auditorium in Cleveland. The U.S. team had won the Cup for five straight years, commencing its run with a victory over the Aussies in 1968.

But there was a mitigating factor. When tennis became an Open sport in ’68, political in-fighting exploded. Previously, there had been a simple split between amateurs and professionals. Open tennis triggered the creation of additional classifications, including a mirky distinction between registered players and contract pros. Each earned money, but while the former maintained an official loyalty of sorts to their national associations, the latter were far more independent, including signing contracts with promoters. Alas, as was the case prior to Open tennis, contract pros were barred from competing Davis Cup.

The impact on Australia tennis was disastrous. Just about every one of its contemporary greats—Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle—was unable to compete in an event Australians had long regarded as the sport’s Holy Grail. After having won the Davis Cup 15 times between 1950 and ’67, Australia lost that ’68 final and over the next four years never even got that far.

Then came a shift in tennis politics. Contract pros were at last allowed to play Davis Cup. This was a boon for Australia. For the final, it trotted out a team of legends—Newcombe, Laver, Rosewall. Newcombe had just won the US Open. The 35-year-old Laver and 38-year-old Rosewall each remained razor-sharp.

This was the first time the Davis Cup final was played indoors, the opening day’s matches featuring Newcombe versus Stan Smith, Laver against Tom Gorman. As Laver wrote in his 2019 book, The Golden Era, “While snow, rain and strong winds battered the building, 4000 fans packed in the first day, 30 November, to see their men send the old Aussies back to their aged care home.”

Newcombe returns a serve from Smith in the opening singles rubber.

Newcombe returns a serve from Smith in the opening singles rubber.

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Newcombe and Smith were then the game’s premier net-rushers—the sport’s best servers, backed up by crisp volleys. Newcombe prided himself on being the master of this brand of gunslinger tennis: the long five-setter that required a distinct mix of attack, patience and clutch play at crunch-time. That had been the key to his US Open final win over Jan Kodes (who’d defeated Smith in the semis). Just two years earlier, in the 1971 Wimbledon final, Newcombe had rallied from two sets to one down to beat Smith, 6-4 in the fifth.

This one too went the distance. Surprisingly on the fast surface, Newcombe easily won the first set, 6-1 and then went on to take a two sets to one lead. Smith fought hard to win the fourth 6-4. In the fifth, Newcombe barely had his fingers on the ledge, serving at 1-3, 30-40. Newcombe scraped back to hold—the first game of a run that would earn him five of the last six games. Facing match point at 4-5, Smith attempted a second serve ace—and narrowly double-faulted. Newcombe had won 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. In the New York Times story about the match, Newcombe called this three-hour epic, “the toughest five-set match I have played in the last five years.”

Laver was quite aware of Gorman. Their most recent meeting had come at Wimbledon in 1971, Gorman upsetting Laver in the quarterfinals with a brilliant display of adventurous returns, lively kick serves and sharp volleys. In Cleveland, Laver surrendered a 4-2 first set lead, Gorman eventually winning it 10-8. When Gorman took the third 8-6 to go up two sets to one, a repeat seemed a strong possibility. But through the late stages of the fourth and into the fifth, Laver caught fire, at one stage winning 13 straight points. After three hours and 22 minutes, Laver won 8-10, 8-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-1. Having last competed in Davis Cup in 1962, Laver was elated, writing that, “it felt bloody great to be playing for Australia again.”

Australia was now in familiar territory: One doubles victory away from capturing the Davis Cup. The next day, the rare pairing of Newcombe and Laver joined forces to take on America’s highly skilled team of Smith and Erik van Dillen. Wrote Laver, “If the Yanks thought we would be exhausted after our matches of the day before they were wrong. John was playing at or very close to his peak in 1973; and while I was getting on in years and my reflexes were not as sharp as in my prime, I was always fit, and I was feeling pumped and ready to wrap up the tie on the final day.” It went swiftly, the Aussies winning 6-1, 6-2, 6-4—Australia’s 23rd Davis Cup triumph.