Vijay Armitaj

From John Newcombe’s autobiography, Newk: Life on and off the court

In 1973, with all players, contact professionals or not, allowed to play Davis Cup again, I was raring to make up for lost time. I decided to forego the pro circuit that year and concentrate only on the Grand Slams and winning the Cup back for Australia, after America had hogged it for the past five years.

The early rounds of our Davis Cup campaign under captain Neale Fraser took us to Japan and India. With Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall temporarily unavailable, Mal Anderson, Geoff Masters and I were the singles players, while Geoff and I handled the doubles. Our Cup tie at Chepauk in Madras, southern India, was held in unbelievable temperature regularly over the 40-degree-Celsius mark. After three games you’d be drenched with sweat.
Something else we had to get acclimatised to was the playing surface: the court was made of dried cow dung, which played a bit like fast, hard clay. Once I got used to the idea I was okay.

At lunchtime 10 days before the tie began, we players were hanging around in our fifth-floor hotel rooms when Neale Fraser called us down to a room in the administrative section of the hotel. Standing there with him was a guy who was the spitting image of the actor Sidney Poitier. After Neale introduced him to us as a colonel in the Indian security forces, this imposing fellow gave us some scary news. According to a message intercepted by Interpol, Pakistani terrorists were about to take reprisals against India in protest at the latter’s holding 90,000 Pakistan prisoners of war from the two countries’ recent contretemps. One possible target was the Davis Cup event. Oh great, I thought. As one of the world’s best-known players, I reckoned I’d be ripe for kidnapping or assassination.

Colonel Poitier told us we could leave India and finish the Cup tie in a neutral country, or continue playing in Madras.

“If you choose to stay”, he said, “I can guarantee you maximum security. We’ll have guards with you all the time and if a bullet is fired at you, it will pass through me first, and if a knife comes, it will have to pass through me,” he declared, stabbing with his finger at his barrel chest.

We were not about to be stood over by terrorists. We’d finish the Cup in Madras. Suddenly our hotel became a fortress as the security men moved all other guests off our floor and stationed armed guards at every entrance and exit. There were soldiers with machine guns in the lobby, and a machine-gunner at the front entrance of the hotel and on the driveway outside. When we traveled to the stadium, we went in a convoy escorted by army vehicles in front and behind. At our matches, 300 of the people in the 10,000 capacity-crowd perched in makeshift bamboo grandstands were military staff.
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Indian tennis player Vijay Armitraj

From Tennis strangest matches by Peter Seddon:

When the Australians were drawn to play India away in the Davis Cup Eastern Zone final of 1973, none of them expected an easy ride.
Skulduggerous practice as par for the course everywhere in that competition and India, moreover was always regarded as a bit risky, even by Aussies with larger-hardened stomachs and an in-built confidence to ply their trade anytime, anywhere and against anyone. But what they actually got exceeded their worst nightmares.

They didn’t really expect beautifully manicured grass and, even though the Indians were quite capable of delivering it, the hosts didn’t like to disappoint their guests. Lawn tennis, after all, had long since been played on many different surfaces – clay, sand, gravel, concrete, shale, ash, tarmac, rubber, wood, tiles, carpet, parquet blocks – it was just a case of what ingredients they’d opt for.
Their recipe was imaginative enough. Starting with a foundation of sand and brick, then overlaying fine gavel, they topped it off with a layer of surface clay appetizingly mixed with liberal helpings of ripe cow dung, all left to bake hard under the fierce midday sun.
At least they had no trouble finding the courts: “Just follow yer nose mate” was the Aussie cry.

Equally keen to live up to their reputation in the matter of stadium design, the Indians had lost no time in commissioning the construction of a state-of-the-art arena at the Madras Gymkhana Club – unfortunately, the state-of-the-art 1973 style was distinctly Primitive School. The whole 15,000-capacity stadium was built in just ten days; timber poles and planks were lashed together, using the odd nail here and thee where real strength was needed and the whole thing was topped off with a roof of dried palm fronds. Health and safety inspectors and fire officers were not part of the package.
Yet, strange as this venue was for what was, after all, the twentieth and not the nineteenth century, that wasn’t the worst of it for the gallant Australians.

As the veteran squad (they called them Dad’s Army) – of Newcombe, Anderson, Masters, Giltinan and Cooper – arrived in Madras, they were not so much given a warm welcome as a pretty darn hot one. The Pakistani terrorist group Black December had issued death threats against them as part of an effort to get the Indian government to release 90,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. By way of a warm up they’d blown up an airline office a few days before.

If ever the resolve of a tennis team had been tested this was surely it, but the Australians agreed to stay after a personal guarantee of safety was offered by the assistant commissioner of police. Meals were checked for poison, police with machine guns guarded the visitors day and night and all letters and packages were intercepted. Always at the players’ side was the best sharp-shooter the Madras police could muster – dressed in casual civvies, his ever-present sun hat certainly looked the part but actually concealed his revolver.

It is to the eternal credit of the Australians that they overcame what must surely rank as the worst conditions ever to prevail at a Davis Cup match to win the tie without losing a rubber. They went on to win the trophy that year, taking the Indian experience in their side like true pros.

The story that John Newcombe, asked to sum up the trip in a few words, simply replied that “The courts were crap”, is almost certainly apocryphal.

The Rocket Rod Laver

Rod Laver

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy, published in 1990:

Rodney George Laver was the most astounding player I ever saw, and may have been the greatest ever. His record is without parallel. Consider what that record might have been but for his exclusion from 21 Grand Slam tournaments when he was, presumably, at his physical peak, between the ages of 24 and 29. Had professionals been eligible for those events, Lew Hoad might have had the better of laver for a year or so and Ken Rosewall would always have been worth an even-money bet. But one has to believe that from 1963 to 1967 Laver would have collected another bunch of major championships and perhaps a third Grand Slam. Laver overlapped and dominated two Grand Slam eras separated by seven years. He did so because he had it all. Because he was adventurer and artist in one. Because he could raise his game to any level demanded of it.

Laver was only 5ft 8 1/2in tall and usually weighed around 10st 71lb. But he had gigantic left arm and his speed and agility were breathtaking. The circumference of his left forearm was 12in and the wrist measured 7in. The strength of that wrist and forearm gave him blazing power without loss of control, even when he was on the run at full stretch. The combination of speed and strength, especially wrist-strength, enabled him to hit ferocious winners when way out of court – often when almost under the noses of the front ow of spectators. And he was a bow-legged, beautifully balanced, and as quick as a cat. He had some glorious matches with Rosewall – and with Tom Okker, who could match Laver’s speed and panache but was second-best in terms of strength and technical versatility. Laver also had the eyes of a hawk and fast anticipation and reactions. Like Budge, he was feckle-faced and had copper-coloured hair. Another distinguished feature was a long nose that, in spite of the kink in it, gave a false impression of hauteur. For much of his career Laver was confessedly shy and self-conscious, but there was no ‘side’ to him. He was easy going – except on court.

Marty Riessen once summed up Laver admirably: “To look at him walking around, you wouldn’t think he was world champion. He doesn’t stand out. His stature isn’t something you expect, like a Gonzales or a Hoad. Off the court, his personality seems almost retiring. But it’s as if he goes into a telephone booth and changes. On court he’s aggressive. Such a big change of personality – when a lot of players play the same as they act. What impresses me is his quickness. Speed enables him to recover when he’s in trouble. And the thing I learned from playing Laver is how consistent one can be with power. It’s amazing how he can keep hitting with such accuracy. He combines everything. There are a lot of good competitors. But he’s fantastic.”

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1973 Australian Davis Cup team

From Rod Laver‘s autobiography The education of a tennis player:

“The ITF, in a rare burst of sense and forgiveness, announced in 1973 that all pros were now eligible for Davis Cup. She’ll be apples! That’s an old Aussie expression for good days ahead.

And I got the Davis Cup itch again after years of feeling it was no longer for me. Why not? But, realistically, I was 35, not at my very best, and for a very long time hadn’t been involved in the most stifling of tennis pressure, Davis Cup – yes, greater than a Wimbledon final. Especially in Australia where so much success had raised expectations to the clouds. I hadn’t been on the team for 11 years, a lark, overrunning Mexico in 1962. But I was getting itchy to prove myself since the 1960-61 Cups were also romps, over Italy. The lone tough encounter of my four winning teams was the U.S. in 1959, and I lost both singles, to Barry Mac-Kay and Alex Olmedo. Only the presence of Neale Fraser, winning both singles plus the doubles with Emmo, saved us.

Now I had to talk to Fraser, the successor as captain to Hopman. A good friend, but very practical. Was I up to it? And how would the other guys feel about a newcomer at this stage? They had won two series to lift the team to the semis. Happily, I was accepted by my mates: Newcombe, Rosewall, Geoff Masters, Ross Case, Mal Anderson. They just wanted to win for Australia. If I could help, fine.
But could I? Fraser wasn’t at all sure. The acid test prior to the semifinal against Czechoslovakia was the Australian Indoor Championships in Sydney. Captain Fraser made it clear that I’d have to do well to have any chance to play against the Czechs.
I worked my bum off to get fitter than I’d been in almost a year. The lineup of would-be Laver-flatteners was daunting. In the quarters, it was Raul Ramirez, the quick, sharp-volleying Mexican, and I got him, 6-3 6-4. Next, world No. 6 Rosewall. Where did they find him? I barely escaped, 6-4 3-6 8-6. Finally, it was No. 2 Newcombe, in a roaring five sets, 3-6 7-5 6-3 3-6 6-4.
Captain Fraser shook my hand with, “Rocket, welcome to the team.”

It couldn’t have been a nicer setting after gloomy, rickety Hordern Pavilion, site of the Indoor. We were in Melbourne for the semi, plenty of November sunshine heralding the onset of summer on the famed grass courts of Kooyong. The Czechs would have preferred clay, but Jan Kodes, a future Hall of Famer, could handle the lawn. He’d won Wimbledon and was finalist to Newcombe at Forest Hills only months before.
For the last time, my parents saw me play, and fortunately I didn’t let them down. Or Fraser and the country. It was extremely difficult, though. After I stopped Kodes, 6-3 7-5 7-5, Jiri Hrebec, wildly erratic, put it all together to stun the crowd as well as Newcombe – on grass! – 6-4 8-10 6-4 7-5. Now Rosewall and I were on the same side for a change, and we needed each other in a long, demanding go-ahead doubles over Vladimir Zednik and Kodes, 6-4 14-12 7-9 8-6. That left it up to me to tame Hrebec (seldom heard from again) 5-7 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-4 settling it.

We were on our way to Cleveland, a quartet called, by my co-author, “Captain Fraser’s Antique Show”Rosewall, 39; Laver, 35; Mal Anderson, 38; Newcombe, 29. Rosewall had been away from Cupping for 17 years, Anderson for 15, Laver, as I said, for 11, Newcombe for six, Fraser for 10. Never been anything like it.

We were old enough to go out alone, but nobody wanted to in the December chill of downtown Cleveland. What a place for a Cup final. Old, vast, drafty Public Hall, attracted few people to see us do our stuff: a 5-0 triumph that ended the U.S. streak of five years and a record 15 encounters. A terrible promotion. Some writers were calling us the greatest of all Davis Cup teams, yet nobody wanted to see us (maybe 7,000 for three days) or the home heroes.
It didn’t matter to us. We wanted Yank heads to show that the, shall we say mature, Aussies were still breathing. And we got them on an overly drawn out Friday night and a brief Saturday afternoon. Newcombe led off with a mixture of uncharacteristic spins, soft stuff, plus his usual muscle to overcome Stan Smith in five 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then Tom Gorman and I went at it furiously, charging the net, serving and-volleying for five more sets. A bit of revenge for Wimbledon ’71 was mine, 8-10 8-6 6-8 6-3 6-1.

Fraser decided he wanted two forehands down the middle plus troublesome serving in picking me and Newc to conclude the assignment. We fast-finished the Yanks, Erik van Dillen and Smith, 6-1 6-2 6-4. How pleasant to have the company of our old friend, the Cup, again, and swill victory grog from it. Long time no guzzle for all of us. My Davis Cup itch had been unexpectedly scratched.”

Watch out Australia’s winning team of 1973 reflect on their famous 5-0 victory over the United States in Cleveland.