Born: November 2, 1934
in Sydney, Australia
At an age when most players were several years into retirement or at the very least at the tail end of their careers, Ken Rosewall was still winning major singles titles.
On a sweltering 100-plus degree day in Melbourne, one better suited for the pool or beach, Rosewall became the oldest major tournament winner in the Open Era when, at age 37 years, 2 months and 1 day, he defeated fellow Aussie Mal Anderson, 7-6, 6-3, 7-5, to win the 1972 Australian Open at the Kooyong Lawn Tennis Club.
By tennis standards, the final was Old Timers Day. Anderson was 36, and had been working as a tennis and squash instructor the four previous years before coming out of retirement only a few weeks before the tournament. Both were family men and fathers – Anderson had three children, Rosewall two.
Age was never a factor for the resilient Rosewall. He was a modern day Ponce de Leon, and found his Fountain of Youth was on the tennis court. He was ranked No. 3 in the world entering the ’72 Australian Open and was the defending champion, winning at age 36 over Arthur Ashe in straight sets, 6-1, 7-5, 6-3 in 1971. He whipped through that Australian Open without losing a set, becoming the first male player during the Open Era to accomplish that feat.
Not lost in Rosewall’s magnificent three-decade assault on worldwide tennis courts was that his first Australian Championship was as an 18-year-old in 1953 and his last was in 1972 – a record 19-year gap between championships that won’t likely be broken. In 1974, proving he still had plenty of fuel in his tank, the 39-year-old Rosewall advanced to both the Wimbledon and US Open finals, thwarted by Jimmy Connors each time, but he became the oldest player to compete in two major finals in the same year.
Rosewall’s career transcended through the amateur, professional, and Open eras, and he was was immensely successful at every stage of his career. He was like the Energizer Bunny – he never slowed down and his game was timeless, proficient and effective until he decided it was time to end his remarkable run. He won 18 majors (eight singles, nine doubles, one mixed), which is sixth-highest male totals, and an additional 15 titles in 19 opportunities in professional tournaments.
Rosewall’s longevity combined with his results was remarkably uncommon: He won his first French Championship in 1953 and his second in 1968. When he captured his first Australian championship in 1953 at age 18 years, 2 months, he became the youngest champion of that major in history, a record he still holds. He returned to the Australian semifinals in 1976 and 1977, a stunning 22 years after his first time. Rosewall won his first U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship in 1956 and his last in 1970, producing another long gap between titles that stands alone in tennis annals. When he won the 1970 US Open, he was 35 years, 10 months, 11 days old, the third oldest in history behind Bill Tilden and William Larned, but the oldest during the Open Era. He also advanced to four Wimbledon finals (1954, 1956, 1970, 1974), in 20 years, the only major he failed to win. Rosewall didn’t stop competing until his early 40s. In 1975, at age 40, he was still ranked No. 2 in the world. In 1977, at age 43, he won the Tokyo Gunze Open International over Ilie Năstase, 4-6, 7-6, 6-4. Just 15 days prior, he defeated Tom Gorman to win the Hong Kong Colgate Tennis Challenge, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4. Rosewall then slid into the senior tour.
“I was lucky,” the modest Rosewall said, “because the game didn’t change a great deal from the start of my career to the end.” Rosewall was severely downplaying his accomplishments, though, because the game did change during his career. Players were bigger and stronger, more prone to attack than languish on the backcourt and advances in racquet technology created a faster and more powerful game. Rosewall simply adapted and flourished.
Rosewall was a complete player in every regard, who didn’t have any discernible weaknesses as he switched from grass to clay to hard courts. Mentored by legendary Aussie coach Harry Hopman, Rosewall developed a game built on speed, agility, and quickness. He possessed a brilliant slice backhand, his best shot, hit tightly and accurately. He began his career as a backcourt specialist – he’d stroke ball after ball after ball – and as he matured, brought the serve-and-volley technique into his arsenal. Similar to his compatriot and longtime rival Rod Laver, the right-handed Rosewall wasn’t big, 5-foot-7, 145 pounds, and was affectionately nicknamed “Muscle” by his Aussie mates because he was anything but strong and powerful. He started playing tennis as early as age 3, learning the game as a natural left-hander who was converted into a righty by his father Robert. Many believe Rosewall’s ambidextrous ability greatly benefited his backhand, widely considered among the best of all time.
Rosewall played on the amateur tour from 1951 to 1956, winning three majors – 1953 Australian over fellow Aussie Mervyn Rose, 6-0, 6-3, 6-4; the French Championships over Vic Seixas, 6-3, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2; and the 1955 Australian over compatriot and frequent doubles partner Lew Hoad, 9-7, 6-4, 6-4. He turned professional in 1957, making him instantly banned from the majors, and competing for a decade on the circuit where he flourished, winning eight French Pro championships (1958, 1960-68), five Wembley Pro (1957, 1960-63), and two US Pro (1963, 1965).
The decision to turn professional left Rosewall unable to compete in major tournaments, but when Open tennis made its debut in 1968 Rosewall won the first available major at the French, defeating Laver 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2. Laver defeated Rosewall in the 1969 French Open and held a distinct advantage when competing on the pro tour against Rosewall.
The duo did play two incredible matches competing on the World Championship Tennis tour in 1971 and 1972. Rosewall won both matches played in Dallas, earning the sweet $50,000 purse. The 1972 final against Laver is regarded as one of the greatest matches ever played. In a 3 ½ hour marathon seen by millions on television, Rosewall outlasted The Rocket, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6, winning the match with his bread-and-butter shot, two huge backhand returns produced in the tension-filled final tiebreaker. In typical understated Rosewall fashion he downplayed his victory, telling the media, “There were 10 easy points he gave me,” he said in reference to Laver’s 10 double faults. “When he double faulted in the tiebreaker he really let me off the hook. I was fortunate he started serving poorly.” Rosewall had tied the match 1-1 with a 6-0 second set victory. “I’d like to say I planned it that way, but I didn’t,” Rosewall said. “It’s something that doesn’t happen very often. It certainly gave me a lift.”
Rosewall captured the 1970 US Open over Tony Roche, 2-6, 6-4, 7-6, 6-3, and won the back-to-back Australian titles in 1971 and 1972, ostensibly closing out his career in the majors, though he splayed sporadically until 1978.
In doubles play, Rosewall won nine majors; three Australian (1953, 1956, 1972) and two each at the French (1953, 1968), Wimbledon (1953, 1956) and U.S. Championships (1956, 1959). Five of those titles were earned alongside Hoad. In mixed action, he teamed with Margaret Osborne duPont to win the 1956 U.S. Nationals.
Rosewall was a youthful member of the Australian Davis Cup team, joining the squad as an 18-year-old in 1953, and helped the Aussies win the Cup that year three other times (1955, 1956, 1973) during his six years competing.
During the Open Era, the ATP lists Rosewall’s record at 550-175. He won 133 tournaments spanning his lengthy career (35 ATP) and was the No. 2 ranked player in the world in 1975. He earned $1,602,700 during his career in both singles and doubles play, pale in comparison by today’s standards.
In 1971 he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire and in 1975 he was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. He holds the distinction of being named an Australian Living Treasure for his outstanding contributions to Australian society.