Neale Fraser: A Davis Cup devotee like no other

By Russell Boxshall

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When Neale Fraser took over the Australian Davis Cup captaincy in 1970, it was a daunting task. He was taking over the reins at a historic moment in the event.  

Under the captaincy of the legendary Harry Hopman, Fraser had played in Davis Cup winning teams in 1959, 1960, 1961 and 1962. 

The 1959 Challenge Round against the USA on the grass courts at the famous West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York was his signature tie. That year Fraser was the number 1 player in the world, known for a tremendous left handed serve.  

He defeated Alex Olmedo (the hero of the stunning US win in the 1958 Challenge Round in Brisbane), teamed with Roy Emerson to win the doubles over Olmedo and Butch Buchholz, and then prevailed over Barry Mackay in the deciding fifth rubber 8-6, 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. Truly an effort meant for the Davis Cup record books. 

Neale Fraser playing Davis Cup in December 1961. Source: Smith Archive

Hopman, who had guided Australia to a total of 16 Davis Cup titles over two different stints beginning in 1938, retired from the role in 1969 after a 3-2 loss away to Mexico. This astonishingly marked the first time Australia would not play in the Challenge Round since 1937.

All time greats Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall were unable to participate in Fraser’s early years at the helm due to an International Tennis Federation rule barring players who had turned professional during the amateur era.

In 1973, the ITF relented and allowed the trio to return to the Davis Cup fold. Rosewall had been away from the competition for 17 years, Laver for 11 and Newcombe for six. They were intent on wresting the Cup from the USA who had won the trophy the previous five years.

Fraser named them in the same team for the first time ahead of the Inter Zone final against Czechoslovakia, to be played on the grass of the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club in Melbourne.

Neale Fraser united with professionals Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Ken Rosewall. Photo: Allsport Hulton/Archive

Laver kicked the tie off with a straight sets win over Jan Kodes before Jiri Hrebec responded by upsetting Newcombe in four. Laver and Rosewall stepped out on court together on day two and combined to defeat Kodes and Vladimir Zednik 6-4, 14-12, 7-9, 8-6 to forge a 2-1 lead.

Hrebec was gallant in the fourth rubber but Laver eventually saw him off 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 to seal an insurmountable 3-1 lead and ensure Australia’s passage to the Final Round.

Old foes and 26 time Davis Cup winner USA, led by captain Dennis Ralston, would host Australia in the final on carpet in Cleveland just two weeks later.

The interest in the final was such that Australian audiences received live television coverage of an overseas Davis Cup tie for the first time.

The first day’s matches were compelling with the Australians prevailing in five sets in both. Newcombe edged Smith in the first rubber 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Laver gave Fraser a precious 2-0 lead by defeating Gorman 8-10, 8-6, 6-8, 6-3, 6-1. Despite having Rosewall and Mal Anderson on the bench, Fraser went with Newcombe and Laver in the doubles.

It was a masterstroke as the Australian pair won in a canter over Smith and Erik van Dillen 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 to give Australia its 23rd Davis Cup triumph and first since 1968. Laver and Newcombe finished off the final with wins in the reverse singles to record a stunning 5-0 victory.

John Newcombe, Neale Fraser and Rod Laver celebrating in Cleveland in 1973.
Photo: AP

Four years later, Fraser took Australia back to the final after a momentous 3-2 victory over Argentina away on clay in the Inter Zone Finals. While Laver and Rosewall had retired, Newcombe was still contributing in doubles in what would be his last Cup campaign. 

Australia would face defending champion Italy in the final. This meeting came just a year after Italy had won a classic Inter Zone round against Australia 3-2 on clay at home en route to winning its first Davis Cup title.

John Alexander was heroic for Fraser at the historic Foro Italico in Rome defeating Corrado Barazzutti and Adriano Panatta in his singles encounters. However, Panatta would ultimately prevail over Newcombe in four sets in the decisive fifth rubber that was played over two days.

Fraser had hosting rights for the return bout in 1977 and chose the grass of White City Tennis Club in Sydney. Australia jumped out to a 2-0 lead on day one.

The veteran Tony Roche kicked things off with a 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 victory over Adriano Panatta and then John Alexander defeated Corrado Barazzutti 6-2, 8-6, 4-6, 6-2. The Italians under captain Nicola Pietrangeli (who had played against Fraser in the Challenge Round in 1960 and 1961) were far from done though. Panatta bounced back with Paolo Bertolucci in the doubles toppling Alexander and Dent 6-4, 6-4, 7-5.

That set the scene for one of the great Davis Cup matches between Panatta and Alexander on day three. Panatta was defiant and surged to a two sets to one lead before Alexander levelled and eventually prevailed 6-4, 4-6, 2-6, 8-6, 11-9 to clinch the Cup. 

John Alexander and Adriano Panatta before their match in 1976.
Photo: Colaimages

The USA, led by the brilliant John McEnroe, rolled to victories over Australia in final four encounters in 1979 (4-1 in Sydney) 1981 (5-0 in Portland) and 1982 (5-0 in Perth). In fact, the USA would win the Davis Cup four times in five years between 1978 and 1982.

However, when the Americans lost away to Argentina on clay in the first round in 1983 (just as they had done in 1980), Fraser was in a perfect position to take advantage with a number of potential home ties on grass beckoning.

Australia began the 1983 campaign winning against Great Britain 4-1 in Adelaide and Romania 5-0 in Brisbane to progress to a semi final tie with France in Sydney. 

Yannick Noah gave France a perfect start with a straight sets win over Pat Cash.

An inspired John Fitzgerald responded under immense pressure with a 4-6, 10-8, 9-7, 6-2 victory over Henri Leconte. Mark Edmondson and Paul McNamee teamed to clinch the doubles rubber against Noah and Leconte in three. Fitzgerald then whipped the White City crowd into a frenzy closing out the tie with a dramatic 13-11, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Noah.

Australia had the good fortune of hosting the final on grass and faced Sweden at Kooyong. The Swedish team, captained by Hans Olsson, was brimming with talent. Mats Wilander, Joakim Nystrom, Anders Jarryd and Hans Simonsson were favoured by many observers but Fraser’s men had other ideas.

Australia was on a sporting high, still basking in the glory of its America’s Cup triumph three months earlier. (It was the first time in the 132 year history of the famous yacht race that the USA had been beaten.)

Two teenagers opened the final on Boxing Day with Wilander besting Pat Cash 6-3, 4-6, 9-7, 6-3. Fitzgerald was again the man for the hour fending off Nystrom 6-4, 6-2 4-6, 6-4 to even the tie. Paul McNamee and Mark Edmondson then played a near flawless doubles match the following day against Jarryd and Simonsson winning 6-4, 6-4, 6-2 to give the hosts a 2-1 lead before a rapturous crowd. Cash would seize the initiative in the fourth rubber in a dominant display beating Nystrom 6-4, 6-1, 6-1 to clinch the Cup.

The image of Cash leaping into Fraser’s arms remains indelibly inked into Australian sporting history.

Pat Cash celebrates clinching the 1983 Davis Cup for Australia.
Photo: Bruce Postle/Fairfax

McEnroe, though, would loom again in 1984 when he teamed with faithful teammate Peter Fleming (and unusually Jimmy Connors) for a 4-1 semi final win over Australia in Portland. 

In 1985, a Wilander led Swedish team achieved some revenge for the 1983 loss romping to a 5-0 win in Malmo on clay against an Australian outfit missing an injured Cash.

The 1986 campaign began with wins away over New Zealand and Great Britain to set up a semi final clash against USA on grass in Brisbane. Tim Mayotte, Brad Gilbert, Ken Flach and Paul Annacone made the trip under new captain Tom Gorman. McNamee opened the tie with a wild 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0, 6-1 defeat of Gilbert.

Cash then had the better of Mayotte in four. The doubles saw an incredible turnaround though as Flach and Annacone recovered from a two set deficit against Cash and Fitzgerald to win 8-10, 1-6, 7-5, 13-11, 9-7.

Cash somehow recovered overnight and bounced back to beat Gilbert in four in the first of the reverse singles to propel Australia into the final.

Sweden were the opposition in the final to be played at Kooyong on grass beginning Boxing Day – just like 1983. The Swedes entered the 1986 decider having won the Davis Cup the previous two years.

Hans Olsson did not have Mats Wilander this time as he was getting married. However, he did have Stefan Edberg and Mikael Pernfors. Fraser went with the same line up from the semi final stage.

The first match saw Cash face Edberg with the Australian prevailing in a long three setter 13-11, 13-11, 6-4. The final was thrown wide open in the second rubber as Pernfors, playing only his fifth match on grass, blew McNamee away from the back of the court 6-3, 6-1, 6-3.

Paul McNamee with Neale Fraser, in his customary courtside lounge chair, during the 1986 final. Photo: Tony Feder/ALLSPORT

So much rested on the doubles between two high quality pairs. Cash and Fitzgerald were at their best in a 6-3, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 win against Edberg and Anders Jarryd.

This left Cash and Pernfors to face each other in the fourth rubber. It was a match of the highest quality. Pernfors played like he was in a dream passing Cash at will to go up two sets to love. The large Swedish fan contingent was delirious.

However, Cash eventually wore Pernfors down to win 2-6, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3. Fraser described the effort as the best Davis Cup performance he had seen by an Australian.

Neale Fraser acknowledging Pat Cash’s efforts for the 1986 victory.
Photo: Tony Feder/ALLSPORT

The Cup was Australia’s again for a 26th time and Fraser’s for a fourth time.

Fraser’s record as captain over a 24 year span was remarkable. He took Australia to the final four of the Davis Cup every year from 1975 to 1987. His one and only loss in the first round came at the hands of Austria in 1989.

The Australians then had to survive a perilous trip to Peru to decide which nation was relegated from the world group. Australia won a tumultuous contest 3-2.

A Fraser led Australian team was never relegated from the world group.

Fraser was ultimately in charge for 75 ties and ended with 55 wins. In his unprecedented 24 year tenure as Australian captain, he placed a great emphasis on the importance of practice form to determine his selections.

In addition to captaining Australia to four Davis Cup titles, he took Australia to runner up finishes away against the USA in 1990 and Germany in 1993. The latter final in Dusseldorf was his Davis Cup swansong.

Neale Fraser with the 1976 Federation Cup team of Kerry Reid, Dianne Fromholtz Balestrat and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.
Source: Sport Australia Hall of Fame

Fraser also captained the Australian Federation Cup team from 1976-78. He steered Australia to the final all three of those years but the team would lose to the USA on each occasion.

In his playing career, Fraser won singles titles at Wimbledon (1960), the US championships (1959, 1960) and 11 Grand Slam doubles titles. In fact, he won the US singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles in 1959 and successfully defended those titles the following year. It is a record that still stands.

Neale Fraser celebrated his 89th birthday on 3 October in his hometown of Melbourne. 

Title photo of the 1986 Davis Cup winning team – Peter McNamara, Paul McNamee, Neale Fraser, John Fitzgerald and Pat Cash – by Tony Feder/Getty Images

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