"Newcombe is ahead of me right now. He's ranked higher than I am on the computer. But then again, he started his comeback before I did. I was kidding him the other day, telling him that I was going to pass him by the French Open in May."
The names, the faces and the powerful, attacking games are familiar. John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe each have been the No. 1 player in tennis.
The Australian with the pulverizing forehand, once characterized as "a kind of Rolls Royce bulldozer." The skinny American with a whipcord backhand and no hint of emotion in his expression. The moustache and the Afro. The remain among their game's most recognizable and attractive personalities.
And each yearns to be its best player once again.
Newcombe and Ashe each have won most of the major international prizes in tennis - the Australian, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and World Championship Tennis (WCT) titles among them.
Their reputations are secure, and because they are bright, articulate, responsible and marketable, their futures are as well. The opportunities available to them outside tennis are virtually unlimited.
Yet they are both back on the tour, the "comeback kids" of the 1978 season.
Both came to Washington this week for the $125,000 Volvo Classic, one stop on the long and winding road - uphill all the way - they hope will lead them back to the pinnacle of their profession.
Why? Obviously it is addictive, this business of being No. 1. "Not many people in life taste that champagne," Ashe once said. "Knowing that you are the best in your field. It is a supreme high."
Newcombe, 33, was last pre-eminent in the early part of 1974. He is a full-time player for the first time in three years, following a period of voluntary semiretirement and a series of injuires: sore elbow, torn knee cartilage, strained muscles and tendons in his forearm and a broken leg.
He is currently No. 25 in the computerized rankings of the Association of Tennis Professionals, of which he is president. He says he won't be satisfied unless he is among the top half-dozen in July, when he hopes to win his fourth Wimbledon title.
That is the goal for which he is, as he so eloquently puts it in fundamental Aussie idiom, "spilling my guts out."
Ashe, 34, who won Wimbedon and ranked No. 1 in 1975, never left the pro tour by choice, as Newcombe did when he plunged himself headlong into the business of becoming the sport's first one-man conglomerate. Ashe's absence last year was forced by the deterioration of a chronic condition in his left heel that required surgery 13 months ago.
He is currently No. 58 on the computer list. He was No. 234 when he started his comeback last month in his hometown of Richmond, beating Ilie Nastase in the first round of his first tournament in six months.
Newcombe got to the final of the Richmond tournament, losing to Vitas Gerulaitis, but is disappointed with his rate of progress at the moment. He only recently has shaken a nasty attack of the flu, whose effects stuck with him for three weeks. "That set my program right back to where I was in Richmond," he said.
He had hoped to be more fit and match toughened than he was last week during the U.S.-Australia World Cup at New Haven, Conn.
"I was hitting the ball really well, but I went loose on the big points," he said in describing frustrating 6-4, 6-4 losses to Jimmy Connors and Brian Gottfried.
"If I'm not toughter and playing better by Wimbledon, you won't see me around after that," Newcombe added. I was playing like the No. 15 or 20 player in the world, and that's not what I'm busting my guts for. But I needed those matches to show me just how far I have to go."
He took a giant step toward getting there last evening, coming from 1-3 down in the final set to beat Zeljko Franulovic, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, in an excrucrating first-round match that had the crowd at George Washington University's Smith Center howling excitedly at the torrid shotmaking and dramatic twists.
Newcombe was two points from elimination at 4-5, 15-30, when he summoned a mighty ace down the middle, held for 5-5, then produced two more great games to close out the match.
All the old instincts for what to do on the critical points resurfaced. "They had to or I'd have been out," he gasped afterward, physically and emotionally drained but exhilarated by this struggle that would have made a worthy final. "Do you believe that match?"
After the crucial ace, Newcombe poured in another good serve and drilled a forehand volley winner down the line, then held with a forehand cross-court winner hit with his back to the net, off a superb Franulovic lob. He then broke Franulovic at 30 with a crackling forehand passing shot down the line and served out the match at 15, starting the game with another ace.
The final point was old-time Newcombe, a forehand down-the-line first volley so crisp it could have pierced the barriers of time. Demonstrative throughout, Newcombe threw up his arms and grinned like an Aussie who had just discovered cold beer after a sojourn in the desert. "Four more matches like that," he said, "and I'll really be back in shape."
Ashe is more cautious, though no less optimistic, in discussing his prospects.
"This year I'll find a level, and then I'll have to decide whether that level is acceptable," he said. "If not, then I'll just hang it up. But right now, I plan to play for three or four more years.
"After going through a pretty urged rehabilitation process last year, I found out that physically I haven't lost that much. My first five tournaments this year have proved that, too.
"I got to the semifinals at Denver and came within a match point (against Tom Leonard) of getting to the semis at Palm Springs. In practice I've been holding my own with the top players - Gottfried, Gerulaitis, all of them. I think I can still play at the top level. I really do. I'm playing 24 tournaments this year, and I've geared my schedule to try and peak for Wimbledon and the U.S. Open."
Both players put in long hours in gyms last fall - Newcombe in Sydney, Ashe in New York - lifting weights and doing rigorous, special exercise programs.
"In October and November I did four weeks of intensive training," Newcombe said. "I had a special course of exercises drawn up, designed around my legs, right arm and stomach muscles. I'd do 50 minutes nonstop in the gym, then jog two or three miles and do wind sprints."
Ashe tried to come back last summer, against the advice of his doctor, and aggravated his heel in August.
"That's when I said, "That's it, I'm just going to wait it out now," he recalled. "I didn't pick up a racket for 2 1/2 months, and didn't do any running, but went to the Nautilus Gym every day and really worked out. Finally, in November, I was able to play, and I've gotten stronger and stronger."
Both continue to train conscientiously, driven by their quest.
"All the guys of our vintage, I think, have found we have to do a bit more extracurricular training than the younger guys," said Ashe. "Your muscles naturally start to atrophy past the age of 27 or so, and you have to do a little weight training just to keep up. So when I get time off, I'm in the gym three or four times a week at least, and I've bought an exercise bicycle for my apartment.
"It has been a godsend. I think every home should have one. I get up in the morning and ride for 20 minutes. I just stick or earphones with some music and ride until the album is finished."
After arriving in Washington late Monday afternoon, Ashe appeared on a television show, then promptly went out to practice from 8 to 10 p.m.
When he finally got to sit down to a late dinner at Clyde's 90 minutes later, he agonized over the menu. Would a steak sandwich be too heavy to digest by his 1 a.m. bedtime. Perhaps an omelette would be better.
Newcombe thinks the training regimen is the most trying aspect of coming back.
"The loneliness of the tour, that's the hardest thing," he said. "It's been three years now since my whole life has revolved around the tennis matches that I play."
Ashe, on the other hand, has never found the life style of the tour grating.
"I love it. I can't think of anything else I'd rather do. I love the travel, the tennis, the camaraderie of the locker room," he said.
"My situation is different from Newcombe's. I don't have any kids. I haven't been married for very long (a year), and my wife has never been to a lot of the places we go. She wants to see them.
"Besides, I've never looked at the tour life style as regimentation. To me, it's just what I have to do to make a living. It's going to the office, for Christ sake, and it's a very enjoyable job.
My injury stopped being just aggravating and became debilitating in the middle of 1976," Ashe said. "I had just had an unbelievable spring. I won five WCT tournaments and was No. 1 in the WCT standings. I wasn't finished."
It is easy, then, to see why Ashe came back. But what about Newcombe? He felt he wasn't finished either.
"I'm doing now what I started to do two years ago, until I buggered up my arm," he said.
"This is the 18th year I've been playing international tennis, and I think it's ridiculous not to try to finish up at the top. I guess you could call it ego. I wanted to give it one last try, full time and without injuries. It's just a matter of wanting to finish something up proper."