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Steve Flink: One on One with Ken Rosewall

1/12/2009 1:25:00 PM

by Steve Flink

No tennis champion has had a longer run at and near the top of the men’s game than a diminutive Australian with a large heart, an uncluttered mind, and a limitless supply of court sense named Ken Rosewall. He secured his first major title at his native Australian Championships in 1953 when he was 18, and took his last Grand Slam singles championship at the Australian Open of 1972. He made it to four Wimbledon singles finals ranging from 1954 to 1974. He was victorious at Roland Garros in 1953, and returned to win the first French Open there no fewer than 15 years later. At Forest Hills, Rosewall swept to victory in 1956 at the U.S. National Championships when he was 21; at 35, coming back to the same storied venue, the “Little Master” established himself as the oldest man ever to rule at the U.S. Open in 1970.

The facts speak loudly and persuasively: among the men, Rosewall is unsurpassed as a pillar of consistency over a long stretch of time. Here is a man who carved out triumphs in eight majors, a magnificent competitor who reached 16 Grand Slam tournament finals altogether, an exemplary player who won his last official tournament in 1977 at Hong Kong when was 43. Moreover, he was one of the leading professionals from 1957 until the arrival of Open Tennis in 1968, taking more than his share of major pro events during that stretch.

Rosewall would surely have collected a lot more Grand Slam tournaments had he not been out there in the wilderness of the pro game; he did, after all, take his place in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open when he was 39, and he still stood among the ten best players in the world when he was 40. One more point: of the eight major finals that Rosewall lost, he was beaten twice by Jimmy Connors, bowing twice against Hoad, falling once against Tony Trabert, Rod Laver, and John Newcombe. That is an unmistakably distinguished cast, a top of the line group of adversaries. His only surprise defeat in a final at a Grand Slam event was to the left-handed Jaroslav Drobny at Wimbledon in 1954.

I touched based with Rosewall over the telephone last week, and was reminded that he must be the most modest great player of his or any era. He simply refuses to accept any invitation to glorify anything he has done. My first question during a fast moving 47 minute conversation was this: what enabled him to remain at such a high level for so long?

“It was a combination of reasons,” replied Rosewall. “I was fortunate the way the game was played before all of this modernization of rackets, equipment, and courts. I don’t think anyone would even think of lasting as long as I did the way tennis is played these days. I suppose my physical makeup and body helped me to get the maximum of results from the minimum of effort. I stayed healthy and injury free for many, many years. The way the game has progressed with the modern equipment and changes in technique, I don’t feel I would be very competitive in today’s game because I am not physically strong enough and I am not big enough as a person. That is my opinion anyway.”

I fundamentally disagree. Like all great players of the past, the 5’7” Rosewall would have moved with the times, made significant adjustments in his game, altered his way of thinking in some respects. He would have thrived in the modern day game just as he did long ago because his fundamentals were so sound, his style so economical, his match playing instincts so extraordinary. Rosewall’s immaculate backhand slice was one of the single greatest shots the game has ever seen because it was so versatile; he could rally and continually probe with it, he could return beautifully off that side, he could approach forcefully and keep his shots exceedingly low, and even pass brilliantly with that majestic backhand. His backhand volley was every bit as golden, and he also volleyed exceptionally well off the forehand side. Rosewall became a quintessential all court player. His serve was not a weapon but his sliced delivery was well designed for the low bouncing grass courts on which he competed frequently, and was tough to attack.

Speaking of his serve and backhand, Rosewall--- a natural left-hander who played tennis right-handed--- says, “I was disappointed I didn’t have a better serve but being a traditional left-hander didn’t help and in the early days when I came up the foot fault rule was different. When I learned to serve, you had to have one foot on the ground through the motion of the serve. As for my backhand, I think I did things better on my left side. My preparation was better and I must have seen the ball better on that side. The backhand was just a natural shot for me.”

When Rosewall emerged as one of the “Whiz Kids” along with his esteemed countryman Lew Hoad in the early fifties, it was strikingly clear that his backhand was going to take him places few players would ever visit. In 1953, he not only won his first big title at the Australian Championships on the grass, but came through at Roland Garros on the clay as well. Rosewall ousted fellow Australian Mervyn Rose in the Australian final and toppled American Vic Seixas in the championship match at Roland Garros.

In retrospect, how surprised was he by stepping up so impressively at such a young age to record those successes? Rosewall answers, “In 1952, Lew Hoad and I were on the Davis Cup team as members with Harry Hopman as captain, and we had our first overseas experience. That really did us a world of good. It was a good field for the Australian Championships in 53’, but not the big field you get these days. I just felt I had as much chance as anybody to win the tournament. I think the same thing applies to the French. I always enjoyed playing on the clay because that was a strong part of my play--- consistency and movement around the court and reasonably good ground strokes without being overpowering. Winning the Australian and French did surprise me and my father, who was my main coach, and it kind of lifted my profile in the world of tennis at that stage.”

Rosewall concluded his amateur career with three productive years from 1954-56. In that span, he won another Australian singles title in 1955 and took the U.S. Championships the following year. But he suffered a pair of hard losses in the finals of Wimbledon in 1954 and 1956, losing in the former year to the left-handed Drobny and falling to Hoad in the latter, bowing both times in four set contests.

“ People ask me about those two finals, “ he says, “ and I always say jokingly that I lost the first two of my Wimbledon finals because I was too young, and lost the last two because I was too old! When I lost the 54’ Wimbledon final to Drobny, I was giving up a lot by not using my good volleys enough. Drobny had a traditional weakness in his game on the backhand so I should have taken a few more risks by going to the net more. That was disappointing because 1954 was one of my best chances to win Wimbledon. When I lost to Lew in 56’, he was overpowering as well as having a lot of good touch and feel around the net. He was a great competitor when he felt like playing, although there were times he did not feel like playing. I got a little overexcited against Lew when I led 4-1 in the fourth set, thinking we were going into a fifth set. Before I knew what happened, he had won that set 6-4 and the match was over.”

Rosewall and Hoad clashed again a few months later in the final of Forest Hills, with Hoad needing only that match to complete a Grand Slam. Hoad took the first set, but Rosewall struck back with uncanny precision to win in four sets. As Rosewall reflects, “Maybe Lew wasn’t quite as happy playing on the grass at Forest Hills as he was at Wimbledon. It was a little more spongy and bumpy at Forest Hills so that might have upset Lew a bit, and it was breezy that day. But I think my game was improving and I was learning to be more aggressive and trying to serve and get to the net more. That helped me give Lew a little bit of shock treatment. I guess he didn’t think that I could play that way. But he was a good sport about it, and we won the doubles that year together at Forest Hills and I won the mixed [with Margaret Osborne duPont] so winning the three titles that year was exciting for me.”

Thereafter, Rosewall headed out into the relative obscurity of professional tennis. Did he resent not having the chance to compete for the next 11 years at the majors because of his decision to earn his living from the game? “It is one of those things you accept,” he responds. “At the end of 56’, I didn’t think I had much of a choice. I enjoyed my tennis and having just been married, my wife Wilma and I wanted to make our future life more financially secure. I realized I would miss the chance of playing major events and Davis Cup, but so did everybody else [who turned pro].”

How tough was the transition? Rosewall answers, “It was a big transition for me. My challenge with playing against Pancho Gonzalez was just enormous because of his reputation. He was such an intimidating character and personality and player. I won my share of matches and would like to have won more, but playing him on his favorite fast canvas court surface in the United States during the winter gave him a big edge. Even though my game had improved on faster surfaces, I still didn’t have the power to generate enough attacking tennis against him. Those facilities were lightening fast. I would say in the long run it made me a better player going through that.”

Rosewall lost his 1957 tour against the mighty Gonzalez 50 matches to 26, but came into his own thereafter in those pro years. In that period, he won all of the major professional events, taking the prestigious U.S. Pro Championships in 1963 and 1965 (defeating Laver in both finals), winning the London Indoor Pro event at Wembley five times between 1957 and 1963 (downing Hoad in three of those finals), capturing the highly regarded French Pro Championships in Paris no less than eight times from 1958-1966, taking four of those titles on clay at Roland Garros and garnering another four at Stade Coubertin indoors on quick courts. In those Paris finals, Rosewall stopped Laver four times, Gonzalez once, and Hoad twice. Those triumphs amplified the evidence that Rosewall was always among the upper crust in his profession. In the “Big Three” of pro tennis leading up to the Open Era, he secured 15 singles championships.

As Rosewall says of that period, “Some of those matches might have been lost in the dark ages somewhere and not even recorded, but we had some big events. I played pretty well in most of those places and had a good record at Wembley and played well on the fast indoor courts in Paris. Rod and I had some great matches in the years before Open Tennis and, of course, after that as well.”

Irrefutably they did. In fact, Rosewall bested Laver in the first ever final of an “Open” Event at Bournemouth in April of 1968 on the British clay. More importantly, he ousted Laver in the final of the first French Open later that spring. How gratifying was it for Rosewall to come through at 33 as all of the world’s best players--- amateurs and professionals--- competed together in the same events at last? “ In those days, “ muses Rosewall, “ it was one of those things where we professionals felt quite satisfied that the game had taken a big turn with Open Tennis and given us an opportunity to get back and be involved. So we appreciated the chances that were there. But winning those first couple of events at Bournemouth and the French Open was pretty encouraging for me.”

As the Open Era unfolded, Rosewall and Laver were able to showcase their incomparable rivalry on the prestigious WCT circuit created by Lamar Hunt. In the 1970’s--- particularly the early stages of that memorable decade--- WCT stood for the best that tennis had to offer in how the game was presented. At the end of each circuit of events, the top eight players would assemble in Dallas for the WCT Finals, and Rosewall upended Laver in the final of the first two championships there in 1971 and 1972. The first one was a terrific four set duel which Rosewall finished off with a pair of tie-break victories. But the second was an epic. On May 14, 1972, Rosewall rallied valiantly from 3-5 down in the fifth set tie-break to defeat Laver 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6 (5).

In my view, only the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final and the 2008 final round skirmish between Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have surpassed the battle of the estimable Australians at Dallas in 1972. The match takes on even larger historical context since it was televised on NBC and fans all over the U.S. watched it with unbridled passion and even awe.

Says Rosewall, “WCT showed the tennis world how tournaments could be run. It was very satisfying for Rod and I to play the 1971 final, now knowing what was ahead six to eight months later. To be a part of that and see the game accepted so well on television was a great feeling. We didn’t know the impact we were having at the time. To have a win like that over Rod in 72’--- even though it was a flip of the coin in the end--- was so satisfying.”

How does Rosewall feel about so many of us believing that his duel with Laver at Dallas 37 years ago is an absolute classic? “We have all got our opinions I suppose,” he answers with a self deprecating laugh. “ It is very nice to have that recognition for this to be considered a match of that class. All I can say is it is a pity that we can’t see the whole match now because the video is gone, but I have some good memories of playing Rod, who always wanted to win and play well every time he stepped on the court. It didn’t matter where he was playing or what the conditions were. That day in Dallas I probably should have won the match a lot sooner, but in the end I came up with the right shots at the right time.”

Meanwhile, Rosewall had his two other opportunities to win Wimbledon in 1970 and 1974. He lost the 1970 final in five sets to John Newcombe, and was beaten in straight sets by a prime time Jimmy Connors four years later in the title match. Recollecting 1970, Rosewall comments, “I might have gotten a bit tired. I played doubles during that tournament as well and looking back that probably was a mistake for somebody 35 years of age. But there was no denying that Newk was a great competitor and grass was his best surface. He certainly wasn’t intimidated about playing me in the final, although he had a lot of respect for me and the way I played. At the end of the fourth set which I won, I had a lot of support from the crowd but Newk’s game was very strong in the fifth and he deserved to win for sure.”

Looking at 1974, Rosewall explains, “Playing Connors was very exciting for me. Wilma and our two boys were there for the first and only time at Wimbledon and I was fairly relaxed having the family with me. I won a long five set match against Stan Smith in the semifinals and by the time I played Jimmy I was probably emotionally, physically and mentally worn out. On the other hand, everybody knows what a great player Jimmy Connors was. I was disappointed not to play a little better and that was true when Jimmy beat me again in the final of the U.S. Open later that summer. I was worn out. But I don’t think [even if I had been fresher] I could have beaten Jimmy in either of those matches.”

After that remarkable 1974 season when he got to the finals of the two most important tournaments in tennis, Rosewall gradually declined, but his standards remained quite high. He concluded 1975 at No. 6 in the world when he was 41. The next year, he was a semifinalist at the Australian Open. Finally, in 1977, he recorded singles victories over the likes of Vitas Gerulaitis, Eddie Dibbs, Manuel Orantes and Dick Stockton--- all players ranked in the world’s top ten. He went to the semifinals of the Australian Open again. At 43, he finished that 1977 season at No. 12. That was carrying longevity to the hilt. Rosewall appeared in his last major at the Australian Open of 1978, departing in the third round.

He had a good run in senior “Legends” events on the 35-and-over tour (“I was fortunate to be able to play some of the more relaxing, socialable senior events”) and that kept him going nicely through his forties. These days, Rosewall spends most of his time in his homeland. “I would come over to the U.S. Open until the last two years, when we were doing some corporate events for Grand Slam Sports,” he recalls, “but that is not happening any longer. Most of the time I am at home in Sydney. I have some business interests and family in Brisbane and Sydney so I am enjoying that. I am playing a little bit of social tennis with friends and a bit of social golf as well. I play golf so I can spoil a good walk.”

Rosewall follows the current players with admiration, but is not totally enamored with much of what he observes. “I am from the old school, “he explains. “ I would like to see some more of the way tennis was played in the earlier days. I believe you see too much of the same kind of tennis played these days. A lot of players don’t want to take too many risks by going to the net, which I understand. You talk to Roger Federer and he says he likes to go to the net occasionally but likes to win his matches mainly from the back of the court. He has been fantastic for the game and has lifted the level of play with everybody trying to knock him off his No. 1 perch. You can’t deny Rafael Nadal’s ability but I don’t really enjoy the way he plays. I prefer watching Federer. I do see a lot of variety in Andy Murray’s game.”

In his day, we all preferred to watch Rosewall as much as anyone else. How could we not admire the absolute purity of his play, the impeccable footwork, the ease, essential smoothness and elegance of his game? In my case, how could I not consider myself fortunate to watch him compete in pro tournaments in the mid-1960’s and see some of his signature performances in the 1970’s? Not only that, but having the opportunity as a young reporter to interview Rosewall several times toward the end of his career gave me a chance to witness how a champion ought to conduct himself on and off the court. He was as courteous a player of immense stature as I have ever met.

So as our recent interview ended, I had to ask 74-year-old Ken Rosewall how--- as one of the all time great performers in his profession-- he would like to be remembered. I liked his answer very much. Rosewall replied, “I appreciate anyone putting me in that category. I am not sure whether I am. I did my bit and I had eight Grand Slam titles and eight more finals, which was a fair average. But I would just like to be remembered for what I have done to try to help tennis along with the other guys who sacrificed in being part of the hard working professional days. We were all in it together and we moved in one direction, hoping Open Tennis would happen. I don’t think a lot of players today recognize what sacrifices were made by a lot of players in the early days that helped tennis gain all of this exposure all over the world. I am glad I was part of that.”

He is significantly understating his role in the history of tennis, as he always has done and probably always will. Ken Rosewall’s contributions to tennis were much larger than he will ever acknowledge.

Steve Flink is a weekly contributor to TennisChannel.com

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