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
It Isn’t Just Football Who Are Mourning The Loss Of Diego Maradona
The world of football has lost one of its icons and tennis has lost a loyal fan.
It was during the 2013 Dubai Tennis Championships when Diego Armando Maradona stated that tennis was his second favourite sport after his beloved football.
The Argentinian sporting icon was a passionate and enthusiastic follower for more than 30 years until his death on Wednesday due to a heart attack. Regularly he would be seen watching matches in crowds at various tournaments. One of the earliest anecdotes took place in 1984 when he turned up to watch the French Open final and cheered on John McEnroe, who was taking on Ivan Lendl. Swiss journalist Rene Stauffer was sitting next to him and remembers the iconic figure ‘cheering like crazy.’
Of course it was his fellow countrymen and women who Maradona was most interested in supporting. One in particular was Juan Martin del Potro who won the 2009 US Open. He once joked ‘Next week I’ll be the one training del Potro myself. I will ask Franco Davin to step aside and Diego will train del Potro.‘ He appeared to have a great amount of respect for the former world No.3 who is one of thousands mourning his death.
“I feel that you return to the place that belongs to you, HEAVEN. For me you will never die. Rest in peace,” Del Potro wrote on Twitter.
After retiring from professional football in 1997 Maradona encountered his own personal demons as he battled with health issues and drug addiction. Nevertheless, his passion for sport never suffered. Attending various Davis Cup ties, he was usually seen shouting and cheering for his countrymen. He even had his own VIP box sporting his country’s flag with the words ‘The Maradona family is here‘ during the 2017 final between Argentina and Croatia.
Despite his calibre, Maradona said that he was star struck to meet some of tennis’ top names. One of those was former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki who got talking to him during the Dubai Tennis Championships seven years ago. At the time Maradona was an ambassador for the Dubai Sports Council (DSC).
“I had the pleasure to meet Caroline Wozniacki. She is one of the top players and she is very beautiful and a very nice girl,” he said. “Despite her ranking and all her achievements, she came to say hello to me, although I’m the one who wanted to get up and go and greet her.”
As for the three giants of men’s tennis, Maradona cheered them on and spoke to them on numerous occasions. Wheather that was in person or via video message.
For Rafael Nadal this year marks the 10th anniversary of when the two spoke with each other at the ATP World Tour Finals in London. When the news broke of Maradona’s death he was one of the first to pay tribute.
“One of the greatest sportsmen in history, Diego Maradona, has left us. What he did in football will remain. My deepest and most heartfelt condolences to his family, the world of football, and to all of Argentina.” He wrote on social media.
It was in the same tournament as Nadal when Novak Djokovic once said ‘to have him as a supporter is an incredible honour and a pleasure.‘ A few months on from that, the two briefly spent time together in Abu Dubai as the Serbian conducted his off-season training.
One of Maradona’s final interactions with tennis before his death took place last year when Roger Federer played an exhibition match in Buenos Aires. In a video message broadcasted on the screens of the stadium he said to the Swiss ‘you were, you are and will be the greatest. There’s no other like you.‘ Words that brought tears to the eye of the 20-time Grand Slam champion. Originally the two had planned to meet in person but were unable to due to Maradona’s health.
It was just three weeks ago when world No.9 Diego Schwartzman spoke out about the influence the footballing great has had on his country. The two never met in person but like many others, he was an idol for the tennis star.
“He’s been a sports idol since I was a kid. I’ve seen it on YouTube, not only, I’ve seen it on TV too. I’ve never seen him for real. He’s one of my soccer idols and I love soccer.” Schwartzman said.
“Wherever we go, everyone knows Argentina thanks to Maradona! This is the reason why I have the first name, Diego.”
Argentina has declared three days of national mourning following Maradona’s death.
The ATP Finals Exceeded Expectations But There Was No Changing Of The Guard
Daniil Medvedev has shown how a player outside of the Big Three can shine at one of the most significant tournaments in men’s tennis but it is wrong to read too much into this achievement.
On Sunday afternoon the 2020 tennis season ended with a pulsating showdown between two of the biggest names outside of the formidable Big Three.
Daniil Medvedev held his nerve to fight back and edge out Dominic Thiem in an enthralling roller-coaster encounter that lasted almost three hours. Besides claiming the biggest title of his career to date, the Russian has become only the fourth player in history to defeat the world’s top three players at the same tournament, following in the footsteps of Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic and David Nalbandian.
In the aftermath of Medvedev’s victory came the inevitable question – is this the start of a new era in men’s tennis? For over the last decade the Tour has been dominated by Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Between them they have won 57 Grand Slam titles and shared the No.1 position continuously since August 2017. In fact, since February 2nd 2004, Andy Murray is the only other player outside of the trio to have held the top position.
“Hopefully all of us young guys will keep pushing and will have some great rivalries,” Medvedev told reporters on Sunday.
“Hopefully we can be there for a long time, maybe pushing the other generations back because that’s how we can be close to the Top 3.”
Medvedev’s emphatic performance at the end-of-season event showed that he has what it takes to scale the top of the game but recent history suggests that too much shouldn’t be read into it. Remarkably no member of the Big Three has won the event since Djokovic in 2015. Instead there have been five different champions most recently with each of those years raising hopes that there could be a changing of the guard on the Tour.
However, those hopes have never fully materialised. Prior to Medvedev, the four most recent ATP Finals champions have failed to win multiple titles the following year. In the case of 2017 winner Grigor Dimitrov, he hasn’t won a trophy of any sort since.
|ATP Finals champion||Titles won over the next 12 months||Best Grand Slam run over next 12 months||Year-end ranking 12 months later|
|Andy Murray (2016)||1||French Open SF||16 (down 15)|
|Grigor Dimitrov (2017)||0||Australian Open QF||19 (down 16)|
|Alexander Zverev (2018)||1||French Open QF||7 (down 4)|
|Stefanos Tsitsipas (2019)||1||French Open SF||6 (no change)|
It can be argued that the numbers above fail to tell the full story. For example Andy Murray’s injury woes started to hinder him the year after he won the tournament and Tsitsipas’ season has been marred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it does illustrate that staying at the very top of the game on a consistent basis without beng a member of the Big Three is a tough ask, raising questions about if the landscape of men’s tennis will ever change before Djokovic and co retire?
“There is going to be a time when they are not around anymore, then it’s going to be so important to keep all the tennis fans and to keep them with this great sport,” world No.3 Thiem explains.
“I think that’s our challenge, that we perform well and play great in big tournaments to become huge stars ourselves.
“It’s super important for tennis in general because they (the Big Three) gave so much to the sport. That’s our challenge to keep all those people with tennis and to maybe continue their story.”
Thiem boasts the honour of having at least five wins over every member of the trio, something that has only ever been achieved by Murray. In London he defeated both Nadal and Djokovic which was something Medvedev also managed to achieve during the same week.
Veteran journalist Steve Flink perhaps is one of the most knowledgeable figures when it comes to the evolution of men’s tennis in the Open Era. His work in the sport dates back to 1972 when he was a statistician covering the US Open for CBS and working alongside the iconic Bud Collins. In a video chat with UbiTennis, Flink notes the recent shortcomings by ATP Finals champions but is hopeful that 2021 could be different.
“I don’t think we should put too much stock on this. On the other hand, Medvedev has ended the year strong and Thiem has now finally won a major at the US Open. You have to believe that these two guys will be threatening (for titles) next year with Thiem challenging for his second major and Medvedev to maybe win his first. So maybe there will be some more equity in men’s tennis,” he said.
Only time will tell about what may happen next year and if Medvedev’s ATP Finals triumph will have any impact at all. The only certainty is that more people are starting to talk about the other guys and that is a victory in itself for the future of the sport.
Eight Reasons Why Daniil Medvedev Is The Rightful Master Of The ATP Finals
The final three matches could have gone either way, but the young Russian was the most complete player and deserved to win. Thiem stuck too much to his guns – it worked initially, but Medvedev was smarter and kept giving him different looks, prevailing in the end.
The 12-edition-long O2 residency of the ATP Finals ended as it began, with a Russian winner. Daniil Medvedev didn’t even know this was the case, but it was Davydenko himself, now a pundit for a Russian TV channel, who informed him during the post-match interview. Davydenko beat Del Potro 6-3 6-4 in the final after vanquishing his worst nightmare Federer 7-5 in the decider; in the round robin, he lost (7-5 in the decider as well) against Djokovic while defeating Nadal (6-1 7-6) and Soderling (7-6 4-6 6-3). While his victory was quite the surprise at the time, Medvedev’s really wasn’t, because he had already played lights-out tennis in Paris. Now 24 years old, Daniil is no doubt worthy of this title for several reasons.
1) He was undefeated in November, winning 10 matches in a row between Bercy and London, including seven against five different Top 10 opponents (he beat Zverev and Schwartzman twice). He ended up notching 2,500 points and winning the ATP Finals without a single defeat, and put in the effort even against Schwartzman, an adversary he played after already securing the top spot in his group – the Argentine was the weakest player in the draw, but Medvedev could have still decided to save some energies for his semifinal encounter with Nadal.
2) The fact that he won the crown as an undefeated champion gains even more significance when we look at the history of the event: the winner lost one match throughout the competition a whopping 25 times (out of 47, because the tournament has taken place 51 times but four of these had no round robin, so the champion had to be undefeated by definition). That’s more than 50 percent of the time, including nine out of ten in the 1990s – Sampras won the tournament five times and always lost a bout.
3) Medvedev is the first ever to win the ATP Finals while defeating the best three players in the world (Djokovic in the group stage, Nadal in the semis and Thiem in the final) on route to success.
4) As for other events, only three times in history had a player ousted the Top 3 in the same tournament – Becker in Stockholm in 1994, Djokovic in Montreal in 2007, and Nalbandian in Madrid later the same year. However, none of them had done it in a tournament as important as the ATP Finals, and no one has ever done it in a Major.
5) Medvedev didn’t lose a set in the group stage, but came from behind in both his knockout matches, another feat that speaks volumes of the value of his success. Nadal even served for the match against him at 5-4 in the second set, but the Russian broke him to love and never let up from then on. Against Thiem, he saved three break points in the second set, but was always on the front foot in the decider. He led 0-30 in the opening game, had three break points in the third and two more in the fifth before finally breaking through on the eighth total occasion – he had wasted a chance in each of the previous sets.
6) He proved how complete his game is. Despite not being very graceful, he has an effortless style, and moves amazingly well for a 6-foot-6 guy: he has outstanding knee flexibility and can run for hours without wearing himself out, never losing the ability to push those unorthodox groundstrokes (especially the forehand, with a very wide backswing and quite frankly unappealing to watch) deep down the court. Medvedev outlasted both Nadal and Thiem in the respective deciders, and while the advanced age of the Spaniard is an understandable factor in such situations, Thiem’s struggles probably owe to the grueling match he played against Djokovic – he faced the Serbian before Medvedev beat Nadal, but in all likelihood wasted more resources.
7) He led the eight participants in most serving stats, netting more aces, putting more first serves in play and winning more points than anybody else with his second serve. It’s quite the headstart to be able to win so many free points when your main competition has to toil far more to get on the scoreboard. When I say that Medvedev is a complete player (despite his clay-court limitations), I think of the variety of his shots. He can approach the net, often sneaking in the most unexpected situations, such as behind a second serve. He can trade sliced backhands with Nadal and Thiem – he actually outperformed Rafa with the shot, and, while less successful against the US Open champion, he still held his own. He can mix up the speed and net clearance of his groundstrokes like Mecir and Murray did, and he can flatten his shots either crosscourt or down the line.
8) He is most certainly a clever player, both on the court and outside of it.
The Austrian shanked three break points in the second set, and one in particular must have stuck in his memory: Medvedev serve-and-volleyed and barely put a drop volley over the net, but Thiem, despite getting on the ball with ease, put wide a forehand that he could have made. Thiem tried to play with a clear strategy but didn’t have the acumen to change it when things started to go south, something that is never easy to do. I asked this question to the world No.3 in the post-match press conference, although I’m aware that he is more powerful than Medvedev but not as eclectic.
My question was: “Do you regret playing so many sliced backhands?” He didn’t think that was a mistake, though: “I will do the same thing in our next encounter, it’s what I did in all of our previous matches.” Of course, that was a decision he had taken together with his coach, Nicolas Massù, and it seemed to work in the opening two sets, but I think that he should have tried something different at the tail-end of the match, because that particular shot had become very predictable and wasn’t fetching him any more points. It’s the same thing that happened to Nadal on Saturday, a tactical choice that didn’t seem to bother Medvedev: “Nadal probably won just a couple of points with the slice, it didn’t really affect me.”
There is no proof that things would have turned out differently with a different game-plan. However, my impression is that Medvedev realised that Thiem was trying to break his rhythm and adjusted by patiently slicing the ball as well and waiting for the best time to sneak to the net, where he won 28 points out of 37. In the end, Thiem went against his own nature, retreating into a conservative tactic in lieu of detonating one-handers like the one that gave him a double match point in the third set’s tie-breaker against Djokovic. Overthinking is a demanding process and can become costly when a match goes the distance.
Former Top 15 player Paolo Bertolucci kept calling for greater tactical variety when Medvedev had clearly adapted to the Austrian’s game, but he forgot to add how hard it is to alternate between slice and topspin backhands. After hitting five, six sliced shots, it is very hard to suddenly switch grips for a flat or topspin winner without losing control – as a matter of fact, Thiem tried to do so and the unforced error tally started to grow, and not just on that wing, but also on the forehand side, perhaps because the alternance between grips and ball distances was making him uncomfortable.
The fact is that Thiem was glued to the baseline, while Medvedev did it all, standing far behind the baseline, slicing and flattening his shots, following his serve to the net and even throwing in some chip-and-charge on his opponent’s serve. When he comes to the net, it’s not easy to pass him, because he’s really tall, and his touch is good. While it’s true that Thiem’s tactics worked in the past against the Russian, this line of reasoning doesn’t take into consideration the improvements that Medvedev might have undergone. I’ll stop here, because I don’t want to be thought of as an arrogant journalist who thinks he knows more than an Olympic champion like Massù, who evidently told his player to stick to his guns no matter what.
I’d like to add that I’m happy about the level of play in the knockout phase. Nadal vs Thiem in the group stage was also a good match, but the semis and the final were more vibrant and more open till the end. The three matches were decided by very fine details and circumstances, and they could have gone either way. This is why I think that Nadal, Thiem and Djokovic should be lauded as much as the champion, although this is something that seldom happens in sports. I wish I was there, but I enjoyed myself even though I had to watch on TV, and I hope that our readers can say the same thing.
During these wretched times, those who could afford it could watch some pretty good tennis in New York (where the final, while not beautiful by any means, was still a nail-biter), Rome, Paris and London. Let’s not forget that, up until three weeks before the Cincinnati-New York tournament began, we still had no certainty whether the season would have resumed in 2020 or not.
I don’t know what will happen with the Australian Open, nobody does, but I hope that the Covid nightmare will be over by the time of the first Turin ATP Finals at the latest, although there is really no way to know how long we will have to keep wearing masks.
NOTE: Article translated by Tommaso Villa
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