Two tennis pros who play with a bang, not a whimper
A tennis journalist once wrote that KenRosewall's finest trait was that he always carried his own bags. The same could have been written about Rod Laver, Rosewall's fellow countryman. Both always came to play -- often spectacularly -- and afterward they left as quietly as they had come, without any of the whimpers or sneers so prevalent today.
The two came to Boston recently to play a pro-celebrity exhibition with Hollywood's Charlton Heston and Rob Reiner. As always, each Aussie carried his own bags and stood quietly in the background as a television crew set up lights for interviews with Heston and Reiner.
But then, Rosewall's and Laver's rackets always did the talking for them. They were simply the best tennis players to come out of Australia -- or anywhere , for that matter -- in the 1950s and '60s. They led the sport out of the amateur age and into the big paydays of professional tennis of the 1970s.
Rosewall, who will be 46 in November, and Laver, who will turn 42 in August, now play only when and where they want to. Still, Rosewall's backhand -- perhaps the most fluid ever developed -- and Laver's repertoire of topspin shots , which revolutionized the sport, are the quintessence of beauty and proof that being small in stature is no handicap to playing a "big" game.
"I'm more or less retired now," said a tanned and superbly fit Rosewall, who had just flown in from his native Sydney, where he still lives with his wife and family. "I'll only play six or eight weeks this year, in Legends [over-35] and Grand Masters [45 and over] events. The rest of the time, I'll be involved in running two tennis resorts in Australia."
Rosewall first came to the United States in the mid-1950s with his compactly built doubles partner, Lew Hoad, whose career ended prematurely because of back problems and who now operates a tennis complex in Spain. Those were the amateur days, and Rosewall, Hoad, and the other great Australians traveled with the pre-eminent coach and disciplinarian of the era, Harry Hopman, who's still training juniors in florida. Hopman's "school" was the West Point of tennis, and his charges were taught to play uncomplainingly -- and well.
That Rosewall did. The only major singles championship that eluded him was Wimbledon, where he was runner-up four times, the last at age 39 to Jimmy Connors. He won the WCT (World Championship Tennis) title in 1971 and 1972, the latter a five-setter against Laver that aficionados still claim is one of the best matches ever played. He did as well in doubles, capturing his first major title -- the 1953 Australian -- with Hoad, with whom he also won Wimbledon the same year and in 1956. He was so indefatigable that he soon became nicknamed the "Doomsday Machine."
As he observes the current pro game, Rosewall says he sees "so many strong men players. And the women's circuit is developing along the same lines." He thinks the Association of Tennis Professionals, the players's organization, "is trying to do what is best for the game." but is worried about the number of six-player exhibitions that are disguised as round robins. "Tournaments are the backbone of the game."
Among the all-time greats, Laver is ranked first by many. In 1969, the red-haired "Rocket" won the Australian, French, Wimbledon, and US singles titles to become the first ever to win the Grand Slam of tennis twice. Before turning pro in 1962, he had won the same titles, equaling the feat of America's Don Budge in 1938. Like Rosewall, the three-time Wimbledon singles champion didn't do badly in the longevity league, either. At age 38, playing for the San Diego Friars, he was voted "Make Rookie of the Year" in the now- defunct World Team Tennis league.
But it was for his virtuoso performances as a topspin artist that Laver will long be remembered. Until his heyday, ground strokes, for the most part, were either hit flat or with underspin. "You knew that top spin had arrived at Wimbledon when you began to notice all the divots," explained Billie Jean KLing. As a left-hander with pinpoint accuracy, Laver created many of those divots by coming over the ball with a vengeance. His left forearm still looks like Popeye's.
Laver plays about the same number of tournaments now -- all on the over-35 Legends circuit -- as Rosewall. He calls home Newport Beach, Calif., and Hilton Head, S.C. Unlike Rosewall, he is more critical of the makeup of pro tennis and of players' deportment.
"It's difficult," Laver said, "to have many of the world's top 10 players at any one tournament, because there are others going on at the same time. There's no doubt that the quality of the individual tournament has been hurt."
He takes dead aim at the temper tantrums of some of today's players. "The discipline is gone. What are the kids to think? . . . A certain flair is great -- John Newcombe had it, for example -- but you don't get angry and carry on. If I had acted up when I was starting out, I would have been told to leave the court -- quickly."
Which brings up the essential truth about Rod Laver: He played for fun. "I had no idea," he said, "that I would make any money [and he made more than $1 million] from the game. When I was growing up, tennis was just a social sport and you played for the fun of it. Ambitions were just as great, but they were channeled to the one-and-only goal: to win Wimbledon. Players played just as hard as they do now, but, again, unlike today, they accepted defeat gracefully."
With that, Laver went off to fulfill another engagement, gracefully, with rosewall. LAver and Rosewall, two small men who made it big in professional sports. And they're still not too big to carry their own bags.