One of my heroes, Ken Rosewall, turned 86 on Monday. He is one of the all-time greats, and it always seems unfair to me that the GOAT discussion should always encompass Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Laver, Sampras, or even Tilden and Budge, but never once the diminutive Aussie… The reason, besides the age of arguers who are usually too young to have witnessed his playing days, is also the fact that the debate usually boils down to how many Majors this or that player has won, which is understandable, but it eschews the fact that Rosewall had to miss 44 of those!
It’s hard to write about Ken without mentioning Rod Laver, his greatest rival, but in this article I will try to to mesh his long-standing Rocket affair with some personal anecdotes on my personal experience with Rosewall – some of them fairly recent.
This year’s French Open final was branded as the 56th duel between Djokovic and Nadal, a rivalry that has risen to be the most frequently combated of the modern era of tennis, with the Serbian leading the way with 29 wins to Rafa’s recently clinched 27. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova met even more often, facing each other 80 times, 60 of which happened in finals! In a dualism spanning 16 years, Martina won 43 times to Evert’s 37.
Well, statheads will tell you that even the Navratilova v Evert rivalry pales in comparison to what Laver and Rosewall did – they met 164 times! Laver won 89 of those, conceding on 75 occasions – the actual tally might actually be well over 200. Some of these results include matches played in Nairobi, Harare, Knokke le Zoute, Lake Tahoe, and Perth – I don’t think Chrissie or Martina ever braved any of those places. However, just like them, rural Rod and city kid Ken (he hails from Sydney) became very close friends and never missed a chance to showcase their reciprocal respect. “I can’t remember how many times I played Ken,” Rod Laver told me the day the Centre Court in Melbourne was renamed after him. “Nobody kept count in those days, except maybe for your friend Rino Tommasi!”
Their careers can be divided in three acts:
- The amateur years, which for Rosewall lasted until 1956 and for Laver until 1962.
- The professional saga, i.e. the years in between the end of their dilettante debuts and 1968, living like gypsies at Jack Kramer’s behest. Laver won 11 Slams to Rosewall’s 8, but while the former had to skip 5 seasons and 20 of the greatest tournaments due to his pro status, the latter disappeared from the Slams for 11 seasons and 44 events – how many would he have won of those? Would he have been able to surpass Federer and Nadal’s current tally? I believe he would have. The pros had annual (almost) guaranteed contracts, but they were far too proud to tank a match, and always put the effort in – you can bet on both players’ desire to always have an edge on the rival.
- The Open Era, from 1968 onwards – the great revolution? The prize money. Very few players were able to make a living with tennis until 1968: there were those who played for authoritarian, Eastern European countries, others who were subsidised by their national federations (Pietrangeli in Italy, Santana in Spain, and some who elected not to go pro for various reasons), and then there were the pros. However, even the members of Kramer’s troupe weren’t exactly well off, since they had to pay for travel, day after day, in places that were pretty far from being the fancy hotel suites that contemporary champions enjoy. Rod Laver once recounted that in Khartoum insects were so numerous that they basically enforced a curfew over the city! “We were playing outdoors, and we kept going until a swarm of hornets showed up and physically dimmed the court’s spotlights – that was our night-night signal!” That night he and Rosewall weren’t actually slated to square off, so their duel tally wasn’t affected.
After helping Australia to three Davis Cup triumphs, Rosewall turned pro in 1956 at a time when Pancho Gonzales was the top dog among the Kramer-led group. Several Aussies had tried (and would try) to topple him, Sedgman, Cooper, Hoad, Anderson. In 1957, Gonzales beat Rosewall 50 times to “Muscle”’s 26, and the ensuing season he dominated with a 14-3 score – that would be 35 more wins for the American. Because of this early lead (which would extend into 1960, when he paced Rosewall 20 wins to 5), Pancho ended up prevailing in the head-to-head tally, 116-86. However, Ken had the edge in 1964, 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1970 – Gonzales, born in 1928, was six years older, explaining the progression of the rivalry, and also explaining why Laver had a comfortable 43-22 lead against him, although it should remember that he lost three times out of five in 1970, when Pancho was 42!
It was thus inevitable that Gonzales would give way to Rosewall, who validated his newfound pre-eminence by winning several tours and Pro Slams – he would end with a record-breaking 15 titles in the then de facto Majors. The tour needed some fresh competition, though, as he recounted himself: “In 1962, some of us were getting up there in terms of our age, so we needed to inject some new blood, and Rod had just completed a calendar year amateur Grand Slam… Lew Hoad and I helped to find 150,000 dollars, which were guaranteed to Rod over a three-year contract.”
“I admired Ken, but I was younger and I had never faced him as an amateur,” says Laver. “The first time I played him it was in Sydney as a professional… and he was too good for me!”
Rosewall won 11 of their opening 13 meetings throughout the American winter. Laver reminisces: “I wondered whether I had made a sound decision in joining the professional circuit, which meant having to drive on those icy roads while I could have been playing as an amateur in the Caribbean and getting handsomely reimbursed! But I wanted to compete against the best, and the pros were the best.”
It wasn’t an easy time. In 1963, after winning the previous year as an amateur, Laver lost against Rosewall at Forest Hills, and all the two finalists had to show for it… was a handshake, albeit hearty. “There was never any certainty regarding money… nor regarding the future as a whole.”
In 1967, Wimbledon organised a tournament for the pros, one months after the Championships. Laver handily won the event, and the AELTC realised that there was no point in keeping up the façade and in excluding the best in the business. Soon after, the committee voted to admit professionals from the ensuing season.
By 1968, Rosewall and Laver were both over 30, but Ken still managed to win the very first Slam of the Open Era, defeating Laver at the French Open. A year later, the Rocket avenged his defeat, clinching the second Major of the year on his way to another Grand Slam.
Their most memorable matches would come later, at least from a commercial standpoint, since their WCT Finals matches in 1971 and 1972 were broadcast all over the world. The latter is still considered one of the greatest matches of all time, with Rosewall prevailing, 4-6 6-0 6-3 6-7(3) 7-6(5). Laver had a 5-4 lead in the decider’s tie-breaker with two serves on hand, but Rosewall counterpunched with two signatures backhands to net the 50,000 dollars winner’s loot, a hefty sum for the time. Muscle was 37 years old: “I never thought I’d be able to play in a match like this at 37… By now, I thought I would have been selling insurance…”
Well, he kept going for a few more years, winning more titles: his final trophy came in Hong Kong in 1977, when he was 43, two years after Laver’s last win in Orlando, Florida, at 37 years old. As I mentioned, they dueled 164 times over a 14-year span, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, since many other matches were lost down “the long winding road,” as the Beatles would sing. Laver had a 22-9 edge during the Open Era, but Rosewall won their final outing in Houston – at least, these numbers are certain.
On page 2, the last time I met Rosewall
US Open: Shelby Rogers Delivers; Serena Still A Threat To Win 24th Major
After all of these years of playing in the U.S. Open, Shelby Rogers is finally a seeded player.
The Charleston, S.C., native has been playing America’s premier tennis event almost continuously since her debut in New York in 2010. She’ll turn 30 years old in a few weeks and has worked her way up the rankings to 31st in the world.
That’s a big achievement from the little girl who hung on the fences more than two decades ago to watch her older sister Sabra play high school matches that eventually led to an Al-American career for Sabra at Emory University. Sabra became a psychologist and, of course, is one of Shelby’s biggest fans.
LOOK OUT FOR ROGERS?
Rogers took the direct route. She didn’t play high school tennis, but left the classroom before high school to train in tennis, study online and play the junior circuit. She turned pro in 2009 at age 16.
Monday evening at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, It took Rogers awhile to start living up to her ranking. But once she turned the corner after dropping the first set in nine games, Shelby started looking like a seasoned top 30 player.
Rogers sort of blew The Netherlands’ slim Arantxa Rus away, taking a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory in the opening round of the U.S. Open. Rogers especially played the deciding 28th game of the match like the veteran pro she is. She hit one long forehand and netted one ball in that game, but otherwise she rode her big serve to victory in the clinching game. At 40-30, she delivered a huge first serve down the middle that Rus couldn’t put into play.
WOMEN’S RACE TO TOP PRIZE WIDE OPEN
The way things are on the women’s tour these days, with no true leader while once-amazing top-ranked Iga Swiatek tries to regain her dominance, anything is possible.
Yes, even finally a 24th Grand Slam title for Serena Williams.
But this is about Shelby Rogers. She is playing the best tennis of her career nearly a decade and a half after her life as a professional tennis player started.
With any kind of luck, Rogers could leave New York ranked among the top 25 players in the world, or maybe higher if she continues to serve and play the kind of big-ball tennis she played in the last 19 games Monday night.
WHO’S NEXT IN LINE
So, what’s after Swiatek, who started the year on fire with a long unbeaten streak that went through the French Open and rewarded her with as many points as the confined totals of the Nos. 2 and 3 players. Of course, Ashleigh Barty’s retirement after winning the Australian Open opened the door for Swiatek’s rise to the top.
And then Wimbledon’s grass took care of Swiatek.
Nos. 2-5 Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari, Paula Badosa and Ons Jabeur are all outstanding players, but none currently fit in the great column. They appear to be waiting in line for Swiatek or another Barty-like player to step forward to rule the women’s tour.
WHAT ABOUT UKRAINE’S DARIA!
Then there are almost totally unknown players such as Ukraine’s Daria Snigur. I hadn’t given Snigur much chance at all on the pro tour until her shocking U.S. Open first-round victory over multi-Grand Slam tournament winner and seventh-ranked Simona Halep.
The last time I had thought about Snigur was when she upended Charleston’s Emma Navarro in the Junior Wimbledon semifinals and then won the Junior Grand Slam tournament.
At Junior Wimbledon in 2019, I thought Navarro, who also is now on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 145th in the world, would roll past Snigur the way she had in the 2019 Junior French Open quarterfinals. But Snigur is so deceptive with her ground strokes that strike like lightning, she dominated Navarro at that Junior Wimbledon.
So, maybe the currently 124th-ranked Snigur may be ready to make a mark on the tour after scoring her first tour victory by defeating Halep.
NO NOVAK, BUT RAFA IS THERE
Without Novak Djokovic, the men are about as unpredictable as the women, with the exception of one player. Rafa Nadal, of course, entered this U.S. Open, with a perfect 19-0 record this year in Grand Slams.
Daniil Medvedev is the defending champion at the U.S. Open, but even though he is ranked No. 1 in the world, it’s a long road to the final for the Russian. Medvedev hasn’t always been predictable.
And already, No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been eliminated by a complete unknown, Daniel Elahi Galan.
Wow! The Greek star probably was about as much of a favorite as Medvedev.
And poor Dominic Thiem was cast on an outside court. And he lost. Just a couple of years ago, Thiem was winning the U.S. Open.
My top five picks in order would be: Nadal, Jannik Sinner, Nick Kyrgios, Medvedev and Andy Murray. Yes, Andy looks pretty fit.
James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com.
Will Rafael Nadal Keep The Grand Slam Winning Feeling Going In New York?
Rafael Nadal has injury doubts heading into his search for a 23rd grand slam title in New York.
Rafael Nadal will look to repeat successes from Melbourne and Paris by answering his doubters with triumph in New York.
The Spaniard enters the last grand slam with injury doubts having only just come back from an abdominal injury suffered in his Wimbledon quarter-final against Taylor Fritz.
It was injury that saw his calendar grand slam dream come to an end and ever since then has been recovering in the hopes of finishing the grand slam year strong in New York.
However in his first match back Nadal was defeated in three sets to Borna Coric in New York which has put doubts on whether the Spaniard can be a threat in the US.
Nadal will likely not have to worry about Novak Djokovic but a victory in New York could see him be world number one with current number one Daniil Medvedev defending the title.
The likes of Medvedev, Carlos Alcaraz and Stefanos Tsitsipas will be standing in Nadal’s way and if the Spaniard isn’t match-fit then he could face an early exit.
However as tennis pundit Barbara Schett pointed out, ruling out Nadal at this stage would be foolish and the Spaniard always raises his level at the grand slams, “The match is always different from practice,” Schett told Eurosport.
“And whoever had an abdominal injury and a tear on the abdominal muscles knows how it feels. You have to be extremely cautious. You’re worried that you’re going to reinjure it again.
“And I think that’s what we’ve seen on Wednesday. When he played against Coric, he was a little bit uncertain how the body was going to hold up. And for sure he’s going to feel better and better.
“If there’s no damage to the abdominal muscle, then he still has a week and a half to improve his health, to improve the trust also that he can extend and he can’t bend on the serve because that’s the trickiest shot, the serve and the smash.
“When that is the case, Rafa Nadal certainly can be dangerous again at the US Open. I mean, he’s so fired up at every single Grand Slam. We’ve seen this year playing the best tennis of his life. You can never, ever write him off.”
Nadal is currently undefeated at grand slams and if fit, the Spaniard will certainly fancy himself to win another seven matches at the US Open this year.
Whatever it should be interesting to see if Nadal improves before the US Open with the tournament starting on the 29th of August.
Does WTA Need A Top Rivalry To Drive The Sport?
Iga Swiatek is the WTA’s dominant world number one but does she need a rival in order to drive the sport to new heights.
The WTA has a dominant world number one and a variety of talented players on the tour but the one thing it’s lacking at the moment is a top rivalry.
First of all it was supposed to be Bianca Andreescu and Naomi Osaka, then Ash Barty and Osaka and also Barty and Iga Swiatek.
However none of these match-ups created a top rivalry over a long period to generate an overwhelming amount of interest.
After Barty’s shock retirement, many people were left disappointed at the fact that her and current dominant world number one Iga Swiatek could not compete for the sport’s biggest titles in a fierce rivalry.
Now Swiatek sits at the top of the WTA rankings with almost a 4,000 point lead at the top. The rest of the field are very talented and that in itself is an intriguing aspect of the WTA’s appeal.
But the one thing the women’s game lacks is a top rivalry to generate a hype that the ATP clearly has right now.
As Mark Petchey said it’s an issue that needs solving soon as every sport has one, “Rivalries drive the sport. What they do is make sure that it manifests itself in a big polarisation of a large fan base, against another one,” Petchey was quoted as saying by Tennis365.
“You look across the board, over F1, look at the tribal nature of AFL, of Premier League football here. It’s a huge part of what you need to have a successful sport. That is the one thing that is missing from the women’s tour at the moment, is a superb rivalry, with a little bit of edge.
“That’s why I say I’m sad that Ash pulled up stumps, because I think that rivalry could’ve developed with Iga in that way. Would it have been quite as intense as the Rafa-Novak and Roger-Novak rivalries? Probably not. But it would have been there. Going into every major saying that you’re not looking forward to a specific clash potentially when the draw comes out, does hurt the tour a little bit.
“You can’t keep saying ‘oh, anyone can win it’. Because you’re just not tagging anybody… you’re not setting the scene for something amazing that’s going to happen, a nice little volcanic eruption right at the back-end of a major. They need some people to be a bit more consistent and getting through, because that’s what will be a massive driver for the WTA.”
It’s hard to argue with those points of view from Petchey as rivalries are what are talked about for decades after players have retired.
It will be interesting to see whether Swiatek will continue to dominate the rest of the field or whether someone can build a rivalry with the Pole heading into the remainder of the season.
The next big WTA event of the year will take place at the Rogers Cup in Toronto on the week of the eighth of August.
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