NORMAN GILLER returns to Wimbledon and finds a sport transformed thanks in part to the efforts of an old Aussie mate
As I sat in the air-conditioned splendour of Wimbledon’s Centre Court on men’s quarter-finals day I pondered on how tennis is a revealing barometer of the way sporting times have changed beyond recognition.
Last time I was there on quarter-finals day was 1971, when I saw my hero Rod Laver shocked to defeat by American Tom Gorman. Eventual champion John Newcombe (pictured right), playing with a wooden racket, eased through in straight sets against fellow-Aussie Colin Dibley. The seat cost me Â£3.50 and the programme set me back 50p. On Wednesday I paid Â£82 for my ticket and a whopping Â£7 for the magazine-style programme.
My partner Jackie Jones and I had a snack meal and a couple of drinks that gobbled up Â£27. Back in ’71, a hot dog and a few beers saw off 30 bob.
While the prize for this year’s men’s (and women’s) champion is Â£850,000, John Newcombe only picked up the trophy. He was the last of the amateur champions at the dawn of revolutionary changes in the way the game was played and promoted.
It was “The Newc”, he of the trademark Mexican moustache, who became the instigator and president of the original International Tennis Players Association. He, more than just about anybody, deserves the thanks of today’s travelling tennis millionaires for their riches. He did the groundwork for players like Murray to make a mint (sorry).
I had the privilege to get close to Newcombe in the 1980s, when we collaborated on The Book of Tennis Lists. Using The Newc’s unique standing in the game, I got to each of the major players with a questionnaire asking their views on the major issues.
Twenty-five years on it’s fascinating to read the “Greatest of the Greats” post-war list, which was based on the votes and opinions of the finest players around at the time:
1, Rod Laver (Australia)
2, Bjorn Borg (Sweden)
3, Jack Kramer (USA)
4, Pancho Gonzales (USA)
5, John McEnroe (USA)
6, Lew Hoad (Australia)
7, Ken Rosewall (Australia)
8, Frank Sedgman (Australia)
9, John Newcombe (Australia)
10, Jimmy Connors (USA)
11, Roy Emerson (Australia)
12, Manuel Santana (Spain)
The Newc sticks to the view that Laver was the greatest he had ever seen, but like just everybody else in the game is having his opinion challenged by the emergence of the Clockwork Swiss, Roger Federer.
I thought Federer was majestic on Wednesday but against poor opposition in Ivo Karlovic, who had as much mobility as a lamppost. It was like watching Max Baer against the Ambling Alp Primo Carnera.
For those of you not into boxing history, Baer waltzed to a world heavyweight title victory against his lumbering opponent and when they wrestled each other to the canvas in the 11th round, Baer famously said: “Last one up’s a cissie â€¦”
But I digress â€¦ Murray was masterful against the past-his-peak Juan Carlos Ferrero, and I will be astonished if he and Federer do not contest Sunday’s final, with the Fed a slight favourite over the five-set course.
The Newc, happily recovered from a stroke not of the tennis kind, now surveys the tennis world that he created from his renowned tennis ranch in San Antonio, Texas, where he reflects on a bygone age when you played for fun and silverware.
Despite a typical Aussie-grit competitive nature, John always had the charisma to make friends easily and there have been few more popular personalities in the world game.
One particular friendship made front-page news back in 1976 when he and a companion got rollocking drunk on a night out in Texas. His friend first of all made the mistake of trying to keep pace with black-belt drinker Newcombe. It was game, set and smashed to The Newc.
His friend then made the even more stupid misjudgement of getting behind the wheel of his car.
He was pulled over by the police and arrested for drunk driving. What made the incident such a magnet for the media was that the driver’s father was then head of the CIA and a prospective Presidential candidate. They said it would finish the driver’s political career before it had even started.
Some would say unfortunately, he recovered from the incident and later followed in his father’s footsteps as President George W. Bush.
A final word on Wimbledon: Lucky old me, I have travelled the world reporting sport from Moscow to Madrid, Sydney to Sofia and Turkey to Torquay, but I have rarely found a better organised event in a finer setting. It is a great advertisement for the best of British and we should be very proud of it.
Now wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a British winner of this jewel in the crown of sport.
Over to you Mr. Murray. Hope you make an even bigger mint.
Oh yes, and don’t forget to thank The Newc.
Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.