2 decades in pro tennis, Rosewall keeps style right on top
Time has never run out on Australia's Ken Rosewall, who at 46 still plays in the Tennis Legends Championship, which restricts its contestants to 35 years and over. But it is still excellent tennis; a place where Ken can rub memories with the likes of Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Cliff Drysdale, etc. and win substantial amounts of money at the same time.
What Rosewall is most proud of over the years is his style -- a style that has kept him at or near the top of his profession for more than two decades. Ken's name still slips naturally into any discussion about which great players had the best backhand. His has always been hit with such decimal-point precision that it seems almost as though he carries extra backhand shots around on microfilm for just the right moment.
Rosewall's game, and this has been written many times before, is basically an extension of his personality. Although Ken probably played as brilliantly as anyone in the days when he was always a high seed at Wimbledon and the US Open, the thing that always came through in the final analysis was his steadiness and control. He won without the big serve, and he won without killing the ball if a quieter shot would do. He was not the kind who showed up in night clubs after a victory or spent money recklessly.
The only coach Rosewall ever had growing up was his father, who would work for weeks on a given shot until Ken had the mechanics committed to memory. He also taught his son to think a few shots ahead and to accept questionable line calls, right or wrong, as part of the game.
Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Rosewall is that he is a natural left-hander, who would actually throw a baseball that way if you suddenly asked him to play catch.
"Early in my career as a kid, when I had to make a choice between playing right-handed of left-handed, I picked the former because of the way I liked to play my backhand," Ken told me in Los Angeles. "As a right-hander, I was so comfortable and confident hitting my backhand with my arm going away from my body that I just didn't want to give that up.
"If you stop and think about it, all of the top tennis stars over the years had one terrific natural shot that they could rely on and mine was my backhand," he continued. "of course, you must have a little of everything to win consistently, including the mental attitude that can accept the traveling and still let you play well while you are hundreds of even thousands of miles away from your family."
Asked if he thought Bjorn Borg would ever win the US Open and why the sweet-swinging Swede has had so much trouble beating john McEnroe, Rosewall replied:
"I don't know, at this point, whether there is a US Open championship somewhere in Borg or not. He is young enough at 25 to still have many chances and he beats everyone else.
"But McEnroe's power game right now seems to be a bit too deceptive and too varying for Borg to handle. There is also something Bjorn and every other top tennis player has to consider -- the fact that there is always some young kid coming along from somewhere who is going to beat you."
Rosewall, probably the best player never to have won Wimbledon (he was a four-time finalist), is very partial to grass as the surface best suited for championship tennis. He favors grass because it requires skills that man-made surfaces do not and makes for a better game for both players and spectators.
"But everybody knows that the upkeep on grass courts today is so costly that maybe only Wimbledon can really afford it," Ken said. "The problem is that the synthetic surfaces that are in use now simply don't give players the variations the game needs to be more exciting. To me we've got a stereotyped sport which is dominated by entirely too much topspin."
Although Rosewall at 5ft. 7in. and seldom a pound over 145, never though of himself as a giant killer, most of the opponents that he "bean-stalked" seemed to feel that they had been finessed to death.
"I was beaten by a chess player with a tennis racket," was the way one US Davis Cupper explained a los to this demitasse Australian. The point is, Ken Rosewall is still winning tournaments that way -- and this is a guy with one son old enough to be a commercial airline pilot and another who is a certified public accountant.