Generations of Australian players connect at Wimbledon barbecue

Rod Laver (second from left) is honored on the 50th anniversary of his last Wimbledon championship at the Tennis Australia barbecue with Neale Fraser, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle and Craig Tiley. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

LONDON -- In the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed as if Wimbledon turned into a mini version of Australia every summer, so successful were its players. Between 1950 and 1969, there was an Australian man in 17 of 20 finals, and in the 1960s, Australian men won eight singles titles and produced 15 of the 20 men's finalists.

Only two Australian men -- Pat Cash in 1987 and Lleyton Hewitt in 2002 -- have won the title since John Newcombe picked up the last of his three titles here in 1971, but the tradition of Australians at Wimbledon lives on.

Every year, just a short walk from the gates of the All England Club, in a house rented for the fortnight by Tennis Australia, the country's incredible Wimbledon history is celebrated in a very Aussie way -- with a barbecue, a few beers and some great, well-told stories.

Referred to as "Aussie house," it is a home used for a combination of meetings, functions and this now-traditional celebration.

This year's honoree was Rod Laver, the greatest of the lot. It has been 50 years since Laver won Wimbledon for the fourth and last time, his win extra special as it came in the year that he completed the Grand Slam of all four majors, for the second time, having done it first in 1962.

Unable to compete at Wimbledon for five years after he turned professional in 1962, Laver returned to Wimbledon to win the title in 1968. Then in 1969, he beat Newcombe in four sets to win again at the age of 30.

Fifty years later, he was the guest of honor at the barbecue, with Newcombe leading the tributes to a man who lit up the sport for more than a decade, winning 11 Grand Slam titles.

"I thought it was great," Newcombe told ESPN.com. "I interviewed Rod up there [on the stage]."

Laver was presented with an original Wimbledon program from 1969, as well as an engraved section of the seat he sat on during his win over Newcombe. In front of his old friends and many players who were inspired by his achievements, Laver told stories of 1969 and his career, and offered a few opinions on the players of today.

Newcombe, Fred Stolle and Neale Fraser were among the Grand Slam champions in attendance, but the evening is about more than just having some nice food and a good glass of wine. Rather, it's a chance for generations of Australian players to meet informally, and for the older generations to chat with the young players about their experiences, hoping some of it might rub off.

Few of the younger players were able to attend this year, but in previous years, Newcombe said the players of the past have been happy to offer their advice.

"That's the main point of it," he said. "I'd get Fred Stolle or Mark Woodforde or myself to talk to the kids about the first time we came to Wimbledon and what it means. It was a way of breaking the young kids into the culture.

"It was a pity the young players were not there to hear Rod, because he won't be around forever."

It was Newcombe who began the tradition many years ago, hosting a barbecue at his own house, also near the All England Club. But as the guests grew in number, Tennis Australia decided to rent a place itself, less than 10 minutes from the grounds.

"We've got such great legends, and we've got to connect the legends as much as we can to the current generation of players," Craig Tiley, the head of Tennis Australia, told ESPN.com. "A lot of times our legends act as mentors as well to them, so this just gives them another platform. We celebrate with an Aussie legend every time.

"It's a connection to the Aussie playing group and the Aussie team, and having it in a location close to the courts, it's a place where anyone who either works for the organization, or even players, can come. It's typical Aussie, a low-key house. ... It's an easy house. We kind of camp all over the place.

"It's a place where people can go to have a chat, every night we've got something on. We had some meetings with external agencies that we've been working with. It just makes a lot of sense. We wouldn't be able to do what we do if we didn't have this opportunity."

When Ash Barty won the French Open last month, she became the first Australian woman to win in Paris since Margaret Court in 1973. The last Australian woman to win Wimbledon was Evonne Goolagong, in 1980. Barty described Goolagong as her hero, and Tiley said that the annual Wimbledon celebration was designed to help establish the kind of connection the two women share.

"Without this kind of thing, Ash and Evonne knowing each other just doesn't happen," he said. "They don't [usually] get a chance to connect and have that conversation in a social setting.

"We have a number of connections there through Grand Slam champions, but it's casual. It's a nice barbecue, we have some nice food, we stick up a marquee, we've got a lawn and it's very Aussie, very casual."