Before Roger Federer, another tennis player had fun playing with the passing time : Ken Rosewall, who won the 1972 Australian Open, at 37. A record in a Grand Slam tournament - in the Open era - which still stands and a late reward for a legendary player whose story tells the tale of 1960’s tennis, and its hesitations between amateurism and professionalism.
First, the introduction. Kenneth Robert Rosewall’s story is one of a precocious kid from Sydney’s suburbs, in the heart of Australia in the 1940’s. As it was the trend at the time, his father, a grocer, set up a tennis court in the garden for his son to hit his first balls from his most tender age. And Ken was the type of boy to be in a rush to succeed. The first wins came along with his first nickname : « Sydney’s young master. » As a pre-adolescent, he formed a pair in the doubles with his lifelong friend Lew Hoad. The country got to discover them as they played together in the opening match of a BNP Paribas Davis Cup round. Seven years later, in 1952, the « Whiz Kids » attracted the crowds and won their first Davis Cup together, under the guidance of David Hopman, the first great coach of modern tennis. In the singles, Rosewall won the Australian Championships and Roland-Garros before his twentieth birthday. It was just a start. The rest can be summed up in a few numbers : in 32 years, Ken Rosewall, according to the historians, played almost 5000 matches, the last ones being played at 50, and won almost 133 tournaments. He featured among the best players in the worlds for 20 years and was the youngest (18 years and 7 months in 1953) and the oldest (33 years and 7 months in 1968) winner at Roland-Garros. This longevity earned him another nickname, « Muscles », to mock his small height (5 ft 5) and his fighter’s appearance.
Professional circuit and matches played on parking lots
What else ? In between this series of records, Ken Rosewall however « only » won eight Grand Slam tournaments. Which almost seems like a sacrilege regarding his talent. To understand this journey made of ups and downs, let’s look back to 1958. At 24, the player decided to turn professional, which meant giving up on Grand Slam tournaments, which were only played by amateurs. For 60 000 dollars, Rosewall accepted to defy the American Pancho Gonzales, the other great champion of the time, in a series of matches in the USA. Why did he make this choice ? To be able to live from tennis. The man had a reputation of being a little stingy and never hid from it : « I was average at school and knew nothing about business. Playing tennis was my job », he said. On the professional circuit, Rosewall won match after match, including the pretty sad « French Pro », also organized at Roland-Garros but in the most complete anonymity, and lost his time trying to steal Pancho Gonzales’ number one spot, as nobody really cared. In 1962, he even became the director of the IPTA (International Professional Tennis Association) but never managed to get the professional circuit’s business take off. The press and the sponsors were becoming rarer and rarer and the professional players sometimes had to play some exhibition matches on parking lots to get an extra few dollars. But the tennis revolution arrived in 1967. The BBC decided to organize a tournament in Wimbledon, and to invite the pros. It was a huge hit. The sport entered the Open era, with both circuits merging into one, the profits rose and Rosewall could go back to his career, the real one, and make up for lost time.
Saved by a cop
Which he managed to do pretty quickly. Roland-Garros 1968, US Open 1970, Australian Open 1971, the Australian quickly filled up his trophy cabinet. The only challenge remaining was to leave his mark in the history books. A good opportunity came at the end of the year 1971. Rosewall was then 37 and the Australian Open was teasing him. First, because it was the first tournament to be played at the mythical Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club of Melbourne, a stadium which matched his own myth. Then, because it took place during the winter festivities, and that his opponents Stan Smith, Ilie Nastase, Rod Laver, and Jimmy Connors had all decided to take a break during that period. The road to build his legend and become the oldest player to win a Grand Slam tournament was opened. Rosewall made the most of it, as he reached the final after losing only one set. The first troubles finally came before he even entered the court on Sunday afternoon. In Kooyong, the temperature was over 37° C and 13 000 people were gathering around the court to try and get a ticket. On the court, if Mal Anderson, the other finalist, looked ready, Rosewall wasn’t there. As people started worrying, the rumors started spreading. In reality, Rosewall’s car had broken down while he was on his way to the stadium, and he was walking along the road with his rackets in hand. While the spectators were getting seated, the taxi in which he had sat wasn’t moving because of the huge trafic. A cop drove by on his motorcycle, and Rosewall shouted at him : « Please, I’m trying to get to the Kooyong stadium for the tennis. » The policeman’s answer : « Oh, you’ll never get to the stadium in time to see the final, it’s too late. » Rosewall : « See the final ?! No, I have to play it, I’m Ken Rosewall. » In the end, Ken arrived just in time, with the escort of an officer. Three sets and a few sliced backhands later, he lifted the Norman Brookes cup, with the same haircut as ever. And a good turn of phrase : « It’s not good news for tennis to see me winning again. » The record still stands.