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.

Stefan Edberg, Wimbledon 1988

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

For the obvious reason that he is still a young man, capable of striding along the summits for many more years, ths can be no more than a half-term report on a graceful, classic exponent of the ‘big’ game. Unless memory lies, Mal Anderson has been the only other player of comparable class who, in the past 30 years or so, has served and volleyed with as much elegant facility as Edberg. In 1968, in Hamburg, I spent a long time watching Anderson. The serve and volley routine can be hard to take. It lacks charm. But Anderson’s instinctive ease of movement and racket-contol somehow gave that routine the uncomplicated allure of a Strauss waltz. So it is with Edberg. This is not to suggest that Edberg is the most efficient modern graduate of the serve-and-volley school. One refers only to the natural flair with which he does his thing. Unlike such heavily muscled contemporaries as Becker and Pat Cash, Edberg brings an aesthetic quality to the three-shot rally. His emergence is a striking eminder that Bjorn Borg‘s playing method – that of a baseliner with a two-fisted backhand – inspired no more than a transient trend in Swedish tennis. That method was Borg’s, not Sweden’s.

The main features of Edberg’s game are his mixture of services (many players find the second ball more difficult to handle than the first), his volleying, especially the cross-court backhand, and his backhand service eturns, which often explode down the court like shells. His forehand is a comparatively second-class shot for a first-class player: seldom threatening, and often wayward when his confidence is low. But Edberg’s command of the backhand and the top-spin lob gives him weapons enough for counter-punching from the back of the court. He is happiest in the forecourt, bending like a sapling in a gale as he springs this way and that and tucks away the volleys – whereupon he often gives a little hop of satisfaction at a point well won.
His general demeanour, though, is one of sad, dreamy languor. Often, he looks only half-awake. But this embodiment of a sight is a dangerously deceptive as those tall, quiet gunfighters familiar from Western movies. Edberg seems reluctant to hurry but, when he does move, the action tends to be swift and short and terminal. One can picture Edberg casually blowing the smoke out of the barrel and instantly going most of the way back to sleep.

He is that kind of man: by no means the aggressive, pushy type, but stubbornly resistant to being pushed. Edberg likes a peaceful, comfortably stable life. Gentle and unassuming, reserved and laconic, he is a private man who enjoys company as long as it is not too demanding. No fuss, if you please. He is among those who apply to themselves the principle that everybody is important but nobody is very important.
Physically, Edberg is a long-limbed, willowy 6ft 2in (which Rod Laver considers may be the ideal height for a tennis player) and weighs around 11st 7lb. He has an arresting and attractive court presence and when that handsomely composed but gloomy mien is enlivened by one of his slow smiles, the mothering instinct wells up in ladies of all ages.

Edberg has a London apartment, in Kensington, but his home is the industrial home of Vastervik on the Baltic coast. He played tennis from the age of seven, took up the game full time at 16, and in the following year, 1983, won the junior Grand Slam. This invited less attention than the 17-year-old’s form in the now defunct Bournemouth tournament. He had to qualify but then reached the semi-finals by beating the cerebral and charming Balazs Taroczy, a specialist on such slow surfaces. Edberg told us that he was a policeman’s son and took up tennis because his mothe wanted him to. His Bournemouth form, plus the comment about his mother, was the first hint we had that he was something special but needed help in fuelling the fires of ambition.

For a few years he was none too sure of himself, none too sure what he wanted out of tennis, and none too sue if the ultimate prizes were worth the effort. He was lucky in that the European representative for Wilson’s, the company who made Edberg’s rackets, turned out to be a congenial friend and, before long, assumed the more constructive roles of manager, coach, and – most important of all – motivator. Tony Pickard had, in fact, turned up in Sweden almost five years before Edberg did. That was in 1961, at Bastad, where Pickard made his Davis Cup debut for Britain. As a player Pickard did not have quite enough talent to match his self-assurance. He soon discovered that it was the other way round for Edberg.

The biggest problem, was to get him to believe in himself. It took nearly three years.

Pickard, almost 32 years older than Edberg was exactly what the young man needed: a wise, witty, avuncular extrovert who knew when to nag Edberg and when to leave him alone.

At 18 Edberg made his Davis Cup debut, playing a spectacular role as Anders Jarryd‘s partner in two remarkable doubles wins. At 19 he confirmed his growing reputation as a tough, resilient competitor by winning the Australian championship. He saved two match points against Wally Masur and beat Ivan Lendl 9-7 in the fifth set. A week after his 21st birthday Edberg produced further evidence of his guts and his belief in himself when he retained the Australian title by beating Melbourne’s local hero, Pat Cash, in a five-set final contested in fierce heat. Between them, Edberg and Mats Wilander won that Australian title for Sweden five years in a row. No other overseas nation has done that.

The next big triumph for Edberg came at Wimbledon in 1988, when he recovered from two sets down to beat Miloslav Mecir in a semi-final that provided an enthralling contrast in playing methods – and then played a glorious match to beat Boris Becker in the first men’s singles final to begin one day and end the next. That year, too, Edberg came from behind to beat Mecir 9-7 in the fifth set of a decisive Davis Cup match.

In 1989 Edberg played the finest clay-court tennis of his career to each – and almost win – the French final. Becker was too strong for him in the Wimbledon final. But it takes a player of exceptional talent and competitive maturity to advance to the French and Wimbledon finals in the same summer. During the era of open competition (1968 onwards) the only other men to manage it were Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe – formidably distinguished company for a player who, for a time, had seemed to be vulnerably diffident. With Pickard’s help, Edberg learned the truth of a couple of lines in Shakespeare:

Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win

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.