Continuing with our series on the greatest tennis players of all time, here’s No. 18 on our list.
No. 18 – Ken Rosewall
Very few sports have as poorly-documented records of past events as does tennis, and even fewer have had as incoherent playing structures as tennis did before the Open Era. The pre-1960’s world of tennis was a murky realm of rebel leagues, ‘professional’ exhibition tournaments, boycotted events and players playing without prize money. But there was no shortage of quality in these turbulent times; if you think the current generation of men’s tennis is a ‘Golden Age’, you might have to think of an even more flattering title for the age that had players like Rod Laver, Pancho Gonzalez, John Newcombe, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura and Tony Trabert all playing at the same time. The diminutive Aussie Ken Rosewall, however, was one of the very small number of these stupendously gifted players who actually managed to transcend the disconnect between pre- and post-Open era tennis and come out of the whole mess a certified champion.
In the early 1950’s, Rosewall played on the amateur circuit, during which time he won 4 Grand Slam singles titles. He formed a long-lasting friendship with another Australian legend, Lew Hoad, in his amateur years. The duo, popularly called ‘The Gold-dust Twins’, not only contested several Major singles finals, but also combined to form a deadly doubles team, winning 3 of the 4 Slams in 1956. But 1956 was a landmark year in Rosewall’s career for an entirely different reason: that was the year he finally accepted Jack Kramer’s proposal to sign up for a professional contract.
There was a wide gulf in quality between the amateur and professional circuits, and Rosewall appropriately suffered his fair share of defeats in his initial years as a pro. But ‘Muscles’, as he was ironically nicknamed (if you want to know why that was ironical, just take a look at any picture of his from his playing days – the man gave new meaning to the word ‘scrawny’) eventually found his footing among the pros. He started dominating the professional tour within 5 years of entering it – by 1961 he was widely regarded as the best all-court player in the world. His reign of dominance continued through the next 2 years, and in 1963 he achieved the Holy Grail of professional tennis, sweeping the 3 biggest events in the year – the US Pro, the French Pro and the Wembley Pro. His status as the best player in the world was unquestioned, despite the fact that he wasn’t even allowed to participate in any of the Grand Slams, the 4 tournaments that we have come to associate with success and greatness in the Open Era.
During his professional years Rosewall established a fascinating rivalry with one of the greatest players of all time, Rod Laver. The rivalry eventually ended at 80-63 in Laver’s favour, but Rosewall led the head-to-head 6-4 at the Pro Slams. With the advent of the Open Era in 1968, Rosewall (as well as his professional peers, including Laver) were allowed to participate in the Grand Slams, and Rosewall pocketed 4 more Majors despite being on the wrong side of 30, to bring his overall Slam tally to 8. The man continued to enjoy reasonable success well into his 40’s, and his longevity is still held up as one of the most astonishing feats in the history of tennis.
Through all the different tournament structures that Rosewall played in, one thing remained constant: his one-of-a-kind backhand, almost universally regarded as one of the best in the history of the sport. While he predominantly hit his backhand with underspin (in contrast to the more conventional topspin), his agility and reflexes enabled him to hit this shot with deadly accuracy and power. The angles he could procure with his backhand were otherworldly, and his lobs and passing shots off this wing almost invariably left his opponents bamboozled. The Rosewall backhand will probably never find a place in a coaching manual, but that’s what makes it even more special; it was a unique shot, and its effectiveness made it one of the truly great weapons in tennis history.
Perhaps the only real weakness in Rosewall’s game was his serve, but he more than made up for that by developing a devastating net game. He switched from a baseline-dominant game to a net-rushing style very early in his career, and he never looked back. His fantastic volleying skills were one of the key reasons for his incredible longevity as a top-flight player, and he even managed to win the French Open a couple of times by serving and volleying – that’s how good he was at the net.
The problem with tennis’s inadequate documentation of its history is that it’s almost impossible to get an accurate account of a past player’s accomplishments. Many historians believe that despite the relatively low number of Slams won by Rosewall, he was among the finest players to have ever picked up a racquet, and perhaps the only true rival to Laver. Should Rosewall have been higher on this list? Probably. But at the end of the day, the records show that he won 8 Slams, and we’re not in a place to go against records, as misleading as they may be. Rosewall played in an era of chaos and anarchy, and his legacy suffered accordingly. And yet, out of all his supremely talented contemporaries, Rosewall emerged as one of the most successful, perhaps second only to the great Laver. For that alone, Rosewall deserves a place in any list of all-time tennis greats.
And now, the customary video clip. It’s hard to find videos of matches from the 60′s, but here’s one I managed to find after plenty of scrounging:
Here are the other players who have made it so far:
No. 20 – Venus Williams
No. 19 – Justine Henin
Read the detailed write-ups on all the players in this list here: