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Steve Flink: Conversation with John Newcombe

12/24/2007 1:34:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Every conversation I have ever had with John Newcombe--- whom I have known since 1974--- has been highly enlightening. While Rod Laver is indisputably the greatest Australian ever to play the game, and Ken Rosewall is honored as the most enduring champion ever to emerge from that nation, Newcombe has been a singularly influential force across the board in Australian tennis. He has been at the forefront of tennis in the land "Down Under" since the early 1960's, winning 25 Grand Slam championships altogether, collecting seven in singles, seventeen more in men's doubles, and another in mixed doubles. Only his countryman Roy Emerson (with 28) has won more majors altogether. Newcombe was a member of five victorious Australian Davis Cup squads as a player, and an outstanding Cup captain from 1994 until 2001. He has been deeply involved with Australian junior tennis since 1980, and has been one of the most astute tennis analysts on American and Australian networks for three decades.

Newcombe has done it all, performing in every capacity with inimitable style, passion, and distinction. Whenever he talks about the game, I always want to hear precisely what he has to say. Recently, I called him to get his insights on the upcoming Australian Open and about his vast array of experiences on and off the court. The logical starting point for this interview was the new surface in Melbourne this year. Gone are the Rebound Ace hard courts, replaced by Plexicushion.

"I am very familiar with Plexicushion," he says. "I have a Plexicushion court at my house in Sydney. So it will be interesting. I am hearing the balls are fluffing up a little bit after about five games so that means the surface must be a little rough. But, having said that, I understand that the bounce is going to be medium fast, which should be conducive to an all court game. I thought Rebound Ace produced some marvelous tennis, though I was never a big fan of playing on it myself. Rebound Ace was a pretty hard surface for players to attack the net because if you didn't really hit your volley hard, it sat up. I think you will probably get a bit more credit for your volleys off the Plexicushion."

How will the new conditions in Melbourne play out for Roger Federer? Will his chances be enhanced on Plexicushion? "He was pretty dominant the last couple of years on Rebound Ace," says Newcombe of the world No. 1, who has won three of the past four Australian Opens. "This surface now will give Roger an option to attack more. You would have to be silly to bet against him but we know that Nadal and Djokovic can really push him and we know that if Nalbandian plays his best he can give Federer a lot of trouble. And I think if Lleyton Hewitt goes out and plays a good aggressive game he can ask Federer a lot of serious questions. There were big question marks starting to get to Federer last year. It is extremely tough for him to maintain that unbelievably high level, even tougher than it is for Tiger Woods. Tiger is playing a golf course that is sitting there; Roger is playing humans that are trying to change tactics to overcome him every time he steps on the court. It will become increasingly hard for him to go the whole year at a level so high, but when the serious questions get asked of him he produces his best, and his best is the best."

Newcombe is curious to find out whether or not Nadal can come out of the blocks forcefully in Melbourne this time around after a disappointing second half of 2007. As was the case in 2006, Nadal was never the same player after falling to Federer in the finals of Wimbledon. "It will be interesting to see how Nadal goes at the Australian Open," says the 63-year-old Australian. "If the balls do fluff up a bit, the heavier ball will quite suit his style. He plays a very physical type of game and that is very tough on his body. Surprisingly it seems to be taking a toll for Nadal at a surprisingly early age. The other thing is that guys are finding out how to play him, finding areas of the court where he is a little more vulnerable. Instead of trying to keep away from his forehand they are probably going to his forehand a bit more out wide and then exposing his backhand."

That it not to say that Newcombe believes there is no solution for Nadal. He asserts, "Nadal has got to increase the range of his ability to play points and I think we saw that a bit these last 12 months with him trying to come to the net a little more and trying to play more of an all court game. But I am just really not sure what happened to him, because he played such a great match against Federer in the final of Wimbledon. I gave him a few more marks than Roger in that match and I thought Nadal might have played a slightly better match than Roger except for the last four or five games when Roger got an amazing number of first serves in when he was in trouble early in the fifth set. I thought after that match Nadal was just going to go from strength to strength and he would move up a serious notch, but instead he has become more vulnerable."

As Newcombe assesses the field for the first major of 2007, he believes Djokovic may pose a larger threat to Federer than Nadal. "I base that on the U.S. Open," he explains. "Djokovic was there in the U.S. Open final against Roger. He seems to be a young man that learns from his experiences, and coming off that loss to Federer at the U.S. Open there was a lot for him to learn. I don't know if he watched the tape of that match, but he should have. In the closing stages of that first set [when he had five set points at 6-5], he quickened his pace, started walking quicker, and started hyper ventilating instead of continuing to take it one point at a time. He really let Roger off the hook in that set but when you do that, you need to do an analysis of where you screwed up. I would say Djokovic should feel quite comfortable on the Plexicusion."

And what of Nalbandian, who came on so unexpectedly strong last autumn to topple both Federer and Nadal back-to-back in the course of winning the big indoor events in Madrid and Paris. Says Newcombe, "It is my understanding that Nalbandian had let himself get out of shape for about 18 months until the middle of last year but then he went out and got into great shape with the help of a new coach and it showed in his game. If he continued that hard work over the Christmas break I would look for him to do very well in Melbourne."

Many ardent observers of the game will be following the progress of Andy Murray very closely, wondering if he can use this Australian Open as the springboard for an exhilarating 2008 campaign. Newcombe is impressed with Murray, but believes the jury is still out. "Murray has yet to take that extra step up the ladder at this stage in the Grand Slam events," he says. "He is at a certain level but hasn't shown he can rise above that level. He has the potential to do it but hasn't proven it yet at a Grand Slam event."

As Newcombe analyzes the plight of Andy Roddick, he speaks with clarity and candor. "It will be really tough for Andy to do it. His two-handed backhand is technically deficient. At that level, I would give his backhand a 5 or 6 out of 10, and that is pretty vulnerable. His first serve you give a 9 or 9-and-a-half and his second serve is an 8-and-a-half or a 9. His forehand--- when he runs around his backhand--- you give a 9 out of 10, but when he is out wide on that side you give it a 7 or a 7.5. When he has to volley from a tough position you give it a 5 or 5-and-a-half. The other players attack his weaker areas. If Andy could develop his backhand and bring it up to a 7 or a 7-and-a-half out of 10, he has got a chance to win another Slam, but unless he can do that it isn't going to happen. For me, he hits the ball too close to his body on his two-handed backhand."

Returning once more to the subject of the 2005 Australian Open finalist Hewitt, Newcombe contends, "Don't discount Lleyton because he has spent the last eight weeks doing all of the physical training necessary to get himself in great shape. He is working with my old mate Tony Roche now and he could be very hard to stop. If he starts trying to counter punch and just run balls down all the time, I don't think he can reach the quarterfinals. But if he goes out and is aggressive and takes the match to his opponent, he can go a long way into the tournament. If Lleyton stays healthy, with the attitude he has got right now there is no reason he shouldn't be in the top five in the world at the end of 2008."

Meanwhile, Newcombe is delighted with the progress the Australian Open has made in becoming a much more significant Grand Slam event than it has ever been before. This year is the 20th Anniversary for the event as a hard court tournament at a modernized facility. "The Australian Open has set some benchmarks for the other Slams," says Newcombe. "The sliding roofs are one thing and none of the other Slams have that yet. The atmosphere at the Australian Open and the support of the crowds make the Australian Open a tournament the players really enjoy. There has been talk about moving it to March but this time of the year is absolutely perfect for it. The players have plenty of sunshine and warm weather and it is a heck of a way to start the year. In the last 20 years it has moved up so that it is every bit as good as the other Slams."

Now that he has dissected the leading candidates in the men's field and put the Australian Open in perspective, the time has come for Newcombe to discuss some high points in his own life. It was on New Year's Day in 1975 on the grass courts of Kooyong that Newcombe secured his last major singles title, toppling Jimmy Connors 7-5, 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) in a stunning final round display. Connors had won three of the four major titles in 1974 and had lost only four matches that entire season, celebrating the greatest year of his illustrious career. He had seemed on the edge of invincibility as he headed into Melbourne, but then the wily and resourceful Newcombe cut him down methodically on the grass.

As Newcombe recalls, "Of all the Slams that I won, that was by far the most physical endurance that I had to encounter. Normally for a Slam I would be preparing for a couple of months whereas I had ten days to prepare for that tournament. I hadn't played for a month. I wasn't playing. I was stopping. But then I found out ten days before the tournament that Jimmy was coming, and that was when I decided to enter the event. I only entered for one reason: I wanted [to beat] Jimmy."

The reason Newcombe was so determined to take on Connors was because he had finished No. 2 in the world behind the American in 1974, and yet they had never met head-to-head the whole season. Newcombe, who had ousted Connors on his way to capturing the 1973 U.S. Open championship in their only previous meeting, had been the dominant player on the prestigious WCT circuit in the winter and spring of 1974 before Connors took over at the majors.

"I thought," Newcombe recollects, "that I had not done myself justice in 1974 at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open [he lost to Rosewall in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the semifinals of the Open].So I wanted to play Jimmy, but I had a hard time getting to the final of that 75' Australian. On the last three days, I beat Geoff Masters 10-8 in the fifth set on Monday and then played a doubles match after that. On Tuesday, I beat Tony Roche 11-9 in the fifth from 5-2 down and four match points, and then I had to default the doubles because I was so exhausted. I had no memory of the last 45 minutes of my match with Tony. I had to play Jimmy on the Wednesday. If I had lost the fourth set tie-break to Jimmy in the final, maybe I would have been a spent force for the fifth. I was into a lot of uncharted territory."

Was that victory over Connors--- after all Newcombe had endured, after such an arduous set of circumstances--- his most rewarding ever at a Grand Slam event? Newcombe answers, " I think my real coming of age was when I beat Muscles [Rosewall] in the 1970 Wimbledon final because that meant I was up there with Ken and Laver. With the Connors match at the 1975 Australian Open, that whole match was a story in itself. When I thought back on it a few days later I was proud of myself for what I had been able to put myself through physically to attain my goal that I had mentally. I had gone into areas of my body I had never been into before so it was a fascinating experience. I had read in books about people enduring things physically and going beyond the capacity that they think they have, and getting into an area where you just keep going, where you are past exhaustion and you are into some inner reserve inside your body. That was a great feeling for me to achieve that right at the end of my career."

And yet, as rewarding as it was for Newcombe to realize his goal of stopping Connors to claim that Australian crown 33 years ago, as gratifying as it was to reach the top of his profession and play so prodigiously on his own, he points to the 1999 Australian Davis Cup triumph as a milestone moment that will live irrevocably in his mind. In his sixth year as captain, boosted considerably by having his close friend Roche by his side as coach, Newcombe led the Australian contingent to the ultimate team triumph.

As he remembers, "It has been almost 30 years that I have been helping with junior programs in Australia. And doing the Davis Cup with Tony for seven years was really rewarding. We took a group of young men and molded them and showed them the path, and after five years we were the best team in the world and we had won the Davis Cup. None of the players believed when we started that we could be the best in the world. It was an unbelievable experience. It was a totally different feeling when we achieved that because it wasn't about us; it was about a group of young men we were guiding. We let them know that the bar was at the top of the mountain and not two thirds of the way up, and told them we were going to get there. There were a lot of times along the way where we got knocked down on the ground and each time we would say to this group of young men, 'This is a test of your character. If you can get up and stand taller than you were before, we will be with you every inch of the way.' Tony, myself and the team developed this unbelievable belief in our ability to get anything done."

That Australian crop included Patrick Rafter, Mark Philippoussis, Lleyton Hewitt, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. Newcombe has powerful memories of Philippoussis getting injured at Wimbledon during that triumphant Cup run in 1999, and Hewitt stepping in to make his debut against the Americans in the quarterfinals on U.S. turf. "Tony and myself and Pat [Rafter] spent a week getting Lleyton ready mentally for that occasion and then he came out and whipped Todd Martin, who was No. 9 in the world then. On the last day, Lleyton beat Jim Courier. Then in the semifinals Lleyton whips Kafelnikov, who was No. 2 in the world, in straight sets. And then, when Pat was out, Wayne Arthurs played the match of his life against Kafelnikov and smashes him in four sets. Those things only happen when you are surrounded by a team that has this unbelievable belief in itself. You see it in baseball and football teams that they might not have the best players but they ignite one another and everybody plays above themselves. We had that."

Newcombe could easily look back and pat himself on the back for a life filled with triumphs, but he remains immersed in what he is doing, and determined to keep making a difference. When I asked him if he believes he is comparable in some ways to Jack Kramer as a multi-faceted man who has altered the face of the game on a multitude of levels, Newcombe responds, "I guess that is true to say that. I sort of started the ATP with Charlie Pasarell and Arthur Ashe. I am a great admirer of Jack Kramer and I think I am a little bit like him. I don't run around beating my chest. I keep a low profile but I am not frightened to stand up and say something if I don't think something is right."

That is how he has always conducted himself. That is why he is held in such high regard. That is the essential John Newcombe.

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