A trip back in time with an Australian tennis legend

Playwright Kieran Carroll and actor Damian Callinan who plays Newk.Credit:Paul Jeffers

“We’ve both grown moustaches for the first time for this,” says comedian Damian Callinan.

Playing the titular, and only, character in the new play Newk: the John Newcombe story, it was expected that he'd don the kind of moustache wielded by the Australian tennis legend.

Playwright Kieran Carroll is also growing his own in solidarity.

Carroll has been working on this play for seven years – it was Newcombe who inspired him to take up tennis as a young boy, after he watched the January 1, 1975 match between the then world No.2 and Jimmy Connors, the world No.1.

John Newcombe fought for nearly three hours to subdue America’s Jimmy Connors and win the Australian Open at Kooyong in January 1975.Credit:The Age

“I think for me because I was only seven, because I hadn’t seen Newcombe play before that, that really became an inspirational thing for me to go out and play myself," he says.

Newk opens on January 14 at the Butterfly Club to coincide with the Australian Open, but the type of tennis it portrays is from a different time. The racquets were wooden, sponsorship was rare and Wimbledon had just allowed professionals to play alongside amateurs in competitions.

Callinan says the play is “kind of like museum theatre, really. It evokes a time that’s past. It’s quite nostalgic to audiences but educative, too, for younger generations”.

It was a period when tennis was on the brink of becoming commercial, caught between traditional conservative tennis bodies and profits-focused promoters. Newcombe was one of the first to cash in on the changing industry, appearing in advertisements and hosting tennis camps as he walked the line between commodifying himself and maintaining the integrity of the game.

Damian Callinan, front, studied John Newcombe’s flat forehand swing.Credit:Paul Jeffers

Set in 2014 at Newcombe’s 70th birthday party, the historical drama bounces between past and present, traversing his naive 1960s boyhood, his rise to world No.1, his stint as Davis Cup team captain and the stroke he suffered in 2003. Flashbacks are interspersed with light-hearted re-enactments of the commercials he appeared in.

Newcombeis still very much alive and kicking, which adds a bit of pressure to the project, says Carroll. He interviewed the tennis star early on in the project and has shown him scripts throughout the process.

“It is a difficult responsibility when the person’s alive … you’re aware in the back of your mind that this person is just in Sydney,” he says. “You have to be statistically spot-on.”

Carroll is a veritable encyclopedia of tennis facts, dropping names and dates as he talks.

“The research is endless and I find we’re putting in little touches even at this late stage because we’re finding another statistic or a little fact just to enrich things even more,” he says.

The attention to detail extends to their wardrobe. When we meet, Carroll is wearing a Newcombe-branded shirt, while Callinan is kitted out in a '70s Adidas track jacket and Newcombe-brand shorts – all original, either borrowed from friends or found on eBay.

Callinan studied Newk's courtside mannerisms closely, like his tendency to walk with his back straight and head down to block out distractions. Though he plays tennis in just a handful of scenes, he also studied techniques including Newk's flat forehand hit, where he grips the tennis racket like he's about to shake someone's hand and hits the ball front on so it goes in a straight line.

It's a marked change from the top-spin hits preferred by many of today's champions.

Newk: The John Newcombe Story is on at The Butterfly Club, CBD, January 14-19 and the Kingston Arts Centre, Moorabbin, February 1.

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