Ken Rosewall: Supreme Longevity, Quiet Greatness

When he attends the Australian Open, Ken Rosewall is a distinguished guest.

He is a global legend, one especially cherished in Australia. He’s part of the phenomenal golden generation of Australian male tennis players, the group of marvelously skilled wizards who — from 1950 through 1967 — won 14 of 18 Davis Cup championships, part of a remarkable string from 1946 through 1973 in which Australia and the United States were the only two nations to win the famed international competition. (The United States leads the all-time Davis Cup standings with 32 titles and 29 runner-up finishes; Australia is right there in second with 28 titles and 19 runner-up showings.)

More than being an exemplar of excellence, Rosewall and his Australian compatriots represented the heart of the old-school ethos of tennis, one which holds that if you take the court, you’re fit to play. The Australian ethos also values tennis as rigorous competition, but ultimately fun, something which should be cutthroat as long as the combat is still going on, but which should immediately give way to a cordial handshake at net and — if possible — a beer afterward. Today’s ATP pros might not be that chummy, but then again, the spirit of sportsmanship exhibited by the stars of the present day is closer to the Australian Way than it is to the nastiness of the 1980s and the McEnroe-Connors-Lendl Cold Wars we saw on our television screens.

When Rosewall watches today’s greats do battle inside the white-lined rectangle, he surely appreciates what he sees.

One hopes that the 2015 Wimbledon men’s singles final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer will help younger tennis fans to appreciate Rosewall. This is a brief attempt to pay tribute to Rosewall’s accomplishments and the place in tennis he deserves to maintain as a result of them.

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Why say that Rosewall is a “distinguished guest” when he attends the Australian Open courtside? It might be a generic term bereft of specific meaning, but the point to emphasize is that the central court at Melbourne Park is not Ken Rosewall Stadium, but Rod Laver Arena. Laver can be said to be a true host — when a building is named after you, such is the reality of things. Rosewall lives in Laver’s shadow — not unhappily, but certainly in a larger tennis sense. Laver had the nerve and indecency to win the calendar Grand Slam twice — once in the amateur era of men’s tennis (1962) and then seven years later, in the Open Era of the sport (1969). That double-feat by “The Rocket” represents the seminal achievement in men’s tennis history, replicated seven years apart. That’s why Laver has the building name and Rosewall — with “only” eight major titles and eight more major runner-up showings — is a distinguished guest in Melbourne.

Rosewall’s career was and is — and should always be remembered as — an extraordinary one. We’ll get to that very shortly. Yet, he is improbably boxed in by circumstance and contemporary talents who outshone him. Laver is the most accomplished Australian male tennis player of all time. (Margaret Smith Court is the most accomplished Australian player of all time, period.) In terms of raw ability, the man often brought up as the most gifted Australian player ever is Lew Hoad.

The great cloud which hangs over Laver, Rosewall, and Hoad is that the transition from the amateur era to the Open Era robbed them and other contemporaries from other countries of the chance to play in the majors on an uninterrupted annual basis. Australia’s greatest generation of tennis players missed out on dozens upon dozens of years (when combining the missed years of each individual player) at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and Roland Garros.

Give Laver five more prime years, and imagine how many more majors he could have won than the 11 he wound up with.

Give Hoad the 11 years he missed, and imagine where he could have landed.

For Rosewall, 11 years at the majors — 1957 through 1967 — were also taken away from him. The need to earn a living and chase prize money on the pro circuit was understandably more important.

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What’s particularly poignant and relevant in discussing Rosewall’s career is that — more than both Laver and Hoad — Rosewall remained formidable at a much older age. First of all, though four years older than Laver, Rosewall beat his great contemporary in the 1972 World Championship Tennis Finals in Dallas. The five-set title match is regarded as one of the better singles clashes in men’s tennis history:

What was professionally satisfying for both men is that they took home fatter paychecks in the made-for-TV event, the kinds of riches which were large for the times and represented at least a small bit of compensation for all the wealth they were unable to attain at the four majors for most of the 1960s.

However, when looking beyond the prize money, it bears repeating: Rosewall, four years older, was able to turn back Laver in 1972 (as he had done in 1971 as well). As we contemplate the reality of Roger Federer becoming the oldest Wimbledon men’s finalist since Rosewall in 1974, it’s worth noting that Federer is a “mere” 33 years and 11 months old. Rosewall — in that 1974 Wimbledon final — was 39 years and eight months old. Just for good measure, he made the U.S. Open final two months later. Jimmy Connors — who turned 22 in early September of 1974 — was able to see off Rosewall in each of those major finals, but the fact that Rosewall slashed past everyone in his half of the draw to even make those finals represents a staggering achievement.

Moreover, since we’re talking about Jimmy Connors — another player who established longevity at a very high level — it has to be said that as captivating as Connors’s run at the 1991 U.S. Open turned out to be, Jimbo was easily dismissed in the semifinals by Jim Courier. Rosewall made the final of two majors, two months apart, at age 39. It puts his staying power into perspective.

One other fact puts Rosewall’s quiet and underappreciated brilliance in a clearer and more radiant light: Whereas Federer is making Wimbledon finals 12 years apart (2003 to 2015), Rosewall can say that he made Wimbledon finals 20 years apart. His last one in 1974 was preceded by a first encounter in 1954. As a fun little postscript, Rosewall made the semifinals of the 1976 and 1977 Australian Opens after turning 41.

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Sunday at Wimbledon, you will hear Ken Rosewall’s name. You might see the face and the name posted on your television screen. When you do, please realize just how great a player you are contemplating. If a handful of players deserve more consideration — not less — in the pantheon of the all-time legends in men’s tennis, Ken Rosewall certainly stands as one of them.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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