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By Raymond Lee | Monday, September 4, 2023


Fifty years ago, Aussie legend John Newcombe realized a dream winning the 1973 US Open. Here's how the Hall of Famer did it.

Photo credit: Getty

John Newcombe has always been a fascinating figure among Hall of Fame champions.

Often when Newcombe played fellow serve-and-volleyer Stan Smith rallies would be few and far between with each player holding serve easily. It was big serve and putaway volley or a volley so perfect it set up a winner on the next point. It made, at least to my mind, very boring tennis even though it was very efficient.

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Yet even as I write this about how his game could be boring due to the efficiency of his serve and volley game, Newcombe played in some of the most exciting matches in the Open Era! His matches against Jimmy Connors, Stan Smith, Ken Rosewall, Jan Kodes and Bjorn Borg in big tournaments were immensely exciting due to the importance of the match and of course due to the great rallies because of the quality of the opponents.

Newcombe played the serve and volley game almost to perfection when he was healthy and in shape. He had a great first serve along with the best second serve in the game. Jack Kramer thought he had the finest second serve he had ever seen! He was not considered the shotmaker that players like Laver, Connors, Nastase or Borg were at the time although he hit many great shots. But then again, I don’t think many great shotmakers in tennis had the serve and volley game of John Newcombe.

It’s hard to hit winners when you have a huge serve coming at you with great spin followed by a great volley. This was the case with Newcombe’s opponents.

Newcombe delivered possibly the best service game in tennis in the early 1970s. To quote from Arthur Ashe’s fantastic book “Arthur Ashe, Portrait in Motion”:

But if you ask me who has the best serve in the world, I would say Newcombe, and John really hasn’t got a fast serve. He hits a heavy serve, which mixes spin with velocity. Neale Fraser had a great heavy serve when I first came up; Pasarell and Tony Roche are a couple of others who hit tough heavy balls. If you are returning a heavy serve, you need more than time to get it back; you need strength too. A good heavy serve like Newcombe can turn the racket in your hand.

Newcombe also probably had the best forehand volley in the game with a superb backhand volley backed by a great overhead. Arthur Ashe said Newcombe had the best first volley in the game meaning that during the serve and volley that his first volley would be perfectly placed and often with great power setting Newcombe up for the putaway shot if the first volley wasn’t already winning the point.

Newcombe played the bread-and-butter shots of tennis superbly and perhaps better than anyone in the game at that time. When he was healthy and in shape he did all the bread-and-butter shots about as well as any player in history.

The description of Newcombe’s game does sound awesome when he was at his best. He was not always at his best for various reasons that included injuries.

When “Newk” as he was called, was on his game, he was a dangerous opponent for any player on any surface. It also seemed that he could and would rise to the occasion in the most important matches. This often would make for incredible dramatic tennis.

Incidentally that mustache of his added to his image as a very tough opponent.

When Open Tennis first started Newcombe, as every player was, fighting for at best No. 2 behind the seemingly invincible Rod Laver. But it didn’t take Newcombe that long to break through to the top ranks. In 1970 Newk reached the final of Wimbledon against Ken Rosewall. It was an interesting contrast of styles with Rosewall the small quick return artist versus Newcombe the powerful looking serve and volleyer.

To say Newcombe was just a powerful serve and volleyer does not do justice to him as I discussed earlier. Newcombe had an excellent return, especially on his forehand side and he had an exceptional baseline game. He also has a nice touch with an excellent lob. In that final most seemed to be pulling for Rosewall but Newcombe, as was his custom in many big matches, won the fifth set 6-1. So many of the big matches that Newcombe played seemed to be five sets and dramatic.

Newcombe was ranked No. 1 by many in 1970 and 1971 by the ranking systems of the time. Although by today’s standards it’s possible that Rod Laver would have been No. 1 if we used a type of ATP point system in those days.

At the beginning of 1973 Newcombe won the Australian Open over Onny Parun in four sets. A nice win but the Australian, although in name a major was probably not one of the four top tournaments of the year. Clearly the WCT Finals supplanted the Australian in terms of prestige at that time. That was the last tournament Newcombe would win for many months.

To quote Newcombe from his book Newk-Life on and off the Court:

"As usual when I was unhappy with my form, I sat in a quiet corner and analyzed my results. I realized that it was a recurrence of the old problem that I’d thought I solved in Quebec the previous year: my enthusiasm for the rigors of pro tennis and living out of a suitcase had gone. I missed Angie, Clint (then age four) and Tanya (two) so very much, and our third child Ginnette, or Gigi, was just about to be born. And I wanted to be at home with them in Texas.”

Later in the book-Angie came back, “Are you absolutely sure you want to give the game away?” I said I was. Although she was heavily pregnant at the time, she promised that she’d back me in my decision as long as I had one more hard think about the situation. So I racked my brain overnight and, after getting very little sleep, concluded, as I had before, that I wouldn’t be a quitter. When I finally said farewell to tennis, I vowed, it would be on my own terms.

“I told Angie, “Okay, I’m going to keep playing, and I’m aiming high.” My goal, I told her, was to go all out in the next nine months, win the approaching US Open singles, help Australia win the Davis Cup from the Yanks in December, win the World Championship Tennis final the following year, and then be crowned the world’s number 1 tennis player.”

Note that Newcombe did not mention winning the Australian Open as one of his goals. Clearly the World Championship Tennis Final in 1974 was of greater prestige than the Australian Open at that moment in time.

This hard think that Newcombe had was about four weeks before the 1973 US Open which had a great field of legends and new up and comers that would be legends. It had players like Stan Smith, Nastase, Ashe, Laver, Rosewall, Kodes, Okker, Borg, Connors, Vijay Amritraj and Orantes among others. It was clearly the biggest tournament of the year considering that Wimbledon had a boycott that year.

It did not start off well for Newk in the first round, he was almost beaten by Lara before winning 6-3 in the fifth. However, he kept winning before finding his form against Andrew Pattison in the fourth round.

The quarterfinals had a tremendous matchup that frankly was the equivalent of a final in the majors. He faced an opponent that would be very familiar to people watching the US Open, James Scott Connors or as most call him, Jimmy Connors. The winner would go on to face Ken Rosewall in the semifinals.

Connors at that point was playing at a level very close or at the same level as his 1974 form in which he won all three majors he entered, the Australian, Wimbledon and the US Open. Connors, in the Wimbledon and US Open finals in 1974 defeated Ken Rosewall by a cumulative score of 36 games to 7! Rosewall’s serve, volley and groundstrokes could not handle the return and power of Connors off the ground. Jimmy had just beaten the superb player Tom Okker in straight sets in the round of 16 so Connors was in great form at the 1973 US Open.

This was not Rosewall that Connors was facing in the quarterfinals, it was John Newcombe who had the huge serve to at least somewhat neutralize Connors’ great return game. It was a matchup of one of the greatest serve and volleyers of all time versus perhaps the greatest returner of all time although people didn’t not generally realize that about Jimmy Connors at the time. I would think a recent equivalent would be Sampras versus Agassi.

Newcombe won the first set on one service break 6-4 and won the next two sets in a tiebreaker 7-6 7-6. That doesn’t tell the whole story. In those days they didn’t have the lingering death tiebreakers of today where you have to win by two points. In those days it was the first to five points. Newcombe won both tiebreakers by 5 points to 4! So if Connors won those two points, he would have been ahead by two sets to one! It was a match of extremely high quality. Of course, to beat Jimmy Connors you have to play a match of high quality. If memory serves, Connors didn’t break Newcombe’s serve even once in that match which is astounding considering it was Jimmy Connors, despite the fact it was played on the awful US Open grass at the time that favored holding serve because of the awful bounces and the speed of the court.

In hindsight now if Connors had won that match against Newcombe you would tend to think that Rosewall would have very little chance against Connors considering what happened in later years. If Connors had beaten Rosewall then a Connors versus Kodes final would be very tough for Kodes to win. Kodes had a great return also. However, Connors rarely served and volleyed and had a more powerful groundstroke game. Connors in his career never lost a match to Kodes. Jimmy won all six matches they played. Now of course who knows what would have happened? After all, Kodes almost beat Connors in the 1974 Wimbledon before losing 6-3 in the fifth. But I do think Connors would have been the probable winner of the 1973 US Open if he had beaten John Newcombe. I’m sure this means absolutely nothing to Jimmy Connors.

Newcombe defeated the eternally great Ken Rosewall in straight sets in the semifinals by a score of 6-4 7-6 6-3.

The final was magnificent. Most people I believe heavily favored Newcombe on a grass court, certainly Jack Kramer did as he mentioned in the telecast. After all, Newcombe won Wimbledon several times and may have won more Wimbledons if there were no boycotts in the previous years. Many felt Newcombe, when healthy and in top shape was the best grass court player in the world. Ironically because of Newcombe’s relatively poor record that year Kodes was actually the higher seed at number six to Newcombe’s number ten due to Jan winning Wimbledon that year. However, because of the boycott this was not a very impressive Wimbledon win as most of the top players like Newcombe, Smith, Ashe, Laver, Rosewall and Okker did not play.

Newcombe began the final in straightforward fashion and won the first set 6-4. Kodes went into the zone for the next two sets. Here’s what Newcombe thought from his book Newk-Then, in the second set, Kodes came alight and played the set of his life. I didn’t know what hit me as he slammed my serves back at me twice as hard and leaped, sprawled, dived and tore up the court to reach impossible balls. The New York Times reported that I could only stand by helplessly as Jan took me apart. Still playing like a man possessed, he blitzed me 6-1 in that second set and repeated the dose in the third 6-4.

Later Newk wrote in the book-He faltered in the fourth. I thought one of my weaknesses so far in the match had been that my second serve wasn’t hard enough, so I increased the power and started out muscling Jan. I served 14 aces in that set to his five He was unsettled when I began taking the attack to him.

Kodes as mentioned by Newcombe in his book was playing an unbelievable match in leading Newcombe two sets to one before Newcombe raised his level and won the last two sets 6-2 6-3 and captured his first US Open title. Note that Newcombe did win the US Championship in 1967 which was the equivalent of the US Open but at that time it was an amateur only event. After winning the 1973 US Open Newcombe became one of the few players who won the United States Nationals, which was what the US Open was called prior to Open Tennis and the US Open. I believe some of the others were some rather well-known names, Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall!

This was a huge match in determining who was number 1 for the year in 1973! If Kodes won and he already won Wimbledon earlier that year Kodes would have an excellent claim to be number 1 in the world for the year by the standards of that time. Admittedly Wimbledon was boycotted by most of the top players like Newcombe, Laver and Rosewall but it still was Wimbledon.

So in the last three rounds of the 1973 US Open, John Newcombe defeated Jimmy Connors, Ken Rosewall and Jan Kodes, losing only 2 sets. That’s pretty impressive! By the way Wimbledon was boycotted also in 1972 aside from 1973 as I mentioned before. Newcombe won Wimbledon in consecutive years in 1970 and 1971 and I believe he stood a good chance to win Wimbledon in both 1972 and 1973.

At this point in time in 1973 Newcombe was clearly the best player in the world with apologies to Ilie Nastase who was later named number one for the full year of 1973. Newcombe went on to lead the Australian team to the Davis Cup. With Newcombe clearly as the number one player for Australian, the Australian Davis Cup team in 1973 defeated the defending Davis Cup Champions, the United States 5-0.

The key match in the Davis Cup Final was the first match of the final between Newcombe and Stan Smith, who was ranked number one a good portion of the year after Smith won the 1973 WCT Finals over Arthur Ashe. The two were serve and volley behemoths with huge serves and excellent volleys.

Newcombe and Smith alternated winning the first four sets with Newk winning the first and third and Smith the second and fourth. Newcombe was broken in the third game and trailed 1-3 in the fifth with a break point against him for 1-4. Newcombe as you may guess saved that break point, broke back and led 5-4 with match point against Smith, who was serving into the ad court with a second serve coming. At this point Newcombe moved way over toward the doubles alley essentially telling Smith that he was going to drive his forehand, which was considered perhaps the best in tennis at that point. If Stan Smith hit a good serve down the center line it seemed like it would be a sure ace but it had to be perfect or Smith would be on the defensive. This was part of the psychology Newcombe brought into this crucial point. Smith gambled and went for the second serve ace down the middle and missed! It was double fault on match point against Smith. Newcombe won a fabulous match with a combination of great skill and guile! This was quite typical of Newcombe at his best.

Later Newcombe and Laver teamed to play perhaps the finest doubles match I’ve ever seen in crushing Smith and Van Dillen (who had never lost a Davis Cup match to that point) 6-1 6-2 6-4.

To quote Van Dillen “It made no difference at all, I think if I had had eight arms we might not have won." And later: "You get out there and find it's tough that your best shots are coming back at you better than they left.”

Some people have called the 1973 Australian Davis Cup team the greatest Davis Cup team ever. It’s possible but I highly doubt it. One of the big reasons is while the names are huge with Laver, Newcombe, Rosewall and Anderson, they were frankly very old. Bud Collins called it Captain Fraser’s Antique Show referring to the old age of the players. Laver, Rosewall and Anderson were past their best although still superb. Laver admittedly trained hard and played an incredible match in which he hit winners all over the place against Smith, especially in the first 2 sets to defeat Smith in 4 sets.

You could only say Newcombe was in his prime on that Davis Cup team. Still, it’s pretty impressive that Newcombe was arguably the number one player on arguably the greatest Davis Cup team of them all.

I would venture to say that Newcombe reached his goal of aiming high as he put it. Newcombe continued his momentum for the first half of 1974 in winning many tournaments on the WCT Tour including the major at the time the WCT Finals. He was considered by many to be number one in the world around the halfway point of 1974, so he accomplished the goals he set for himself in 1973. Newcombe did not reach number one that year because Jimmy Connors had one of his best years in winning three majors. Connors lost only four matches the entire year with either a 99-4 record or a 93-4 record.

Of course, Newcombe was superb in many years aside from 1973 and 1974. Here’s Newcombe’s win in five sets over Ken Rosewall in the 1970 Wimbledon final in what seems to be his usual 5 sets.

Do I think Newcombe has been underrated historically?

Yes and No.

At his best he would be a huge threat to win any title on any surface, but he wasn’t always at his best. In truly big matches he would seem to find ways to win when you thought he had no chance. I do think that Newcombe had a fabulous record and should be in the running when they discuss the best fast court players of all time.

Here’s Newcombe against a young Bjorn Borg in the 1974 Championship Finals. Winning the 1974 WCT Finals was one of the goals that Newcombe set for himself in 1973 for the next year. It shows how solid Newcombe could be at the baseline even against a great baseliner like Bjorn Borg. In winning this tournament Newcombe achieved one of his goals of winning the 1974 WCT Championship Finals! Newcombe won another major tournament even though it was not one of the classical majors.

I would be remiss not to mention that Newcombe was a fantastic doubles player. Many have mentioned that his partnership with Tony Roche made them the greatest doubles team of all time! Newcombe won 17 Men’s Doubles Majors and 2 Mixed Doubles Majors.

Overall, I would say 1973 ended on a fabulous note for Newcombe. It certainly was dramatic with the 1973 US Open as the main singles prize and the winning of the Davis Cup with Laver, Rosewall, Anderson crushing the US Team of Smith, Gorman and Van Dillen.

So Happy 50th Anniversary to John Newcombe winning the 1973 US Open.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and Check out Raymond Lee's Articles: One for One: Who is the GOAT for One Match? and Holy Grail: Why Winning the Calendar Grand Slam is Toughest Task in Sport.


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