Who is the greatest male tennis player of all time? The most common consensus is Roger Federer or Rod Laver, with others in contention including Pete Sampras, Bill Tilden, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad and even Rafael Nadal. Myself, I feel there is someone that is often left out of the conversation who is certainly worthy of consideration … more on him later.
The truth is that one cannot objectively say who is the greatest. Comparing generations is fraught with difficulty. Prior to 1968, the men’s tour was separated into two separate tours - the professional and amateur ranks– with the greatest players generally turning pro for the lucrative dollars on offer. Making comparisons between generations became even more difficult with the explosion of technology around the late 1970s. Tennis has since morphed into a new sport. Previously, players played predominantly with wooden rackets on grass and clay courts– the game tended to favour all court tennis. Nowadays players compete on synthetic surfaces with large frames made from highly advanced materials and new strings allow players to generate tremendous amounts of power and spin. The majority of players can stay at the baseline and blast winners from the back of the court without the need for a single volley.
Regardless, we humans love to try and come to some consensus on the greatest ever. I think the best method is to look at the actual achievements of the main contenders – at least it’s relatively objective.
Looking at the oft mentioned Laver and Federer – we know that Laver won 2 x calendar year Grand Slams – something no other player has been able to replicate. Federer because he has won 16 Grand Slam singles titles and broken just about every open era record on offer. These two share more in common – their styles. Both played the game like artists, able to slice their glorious backhands or revert to topspin off both wings. Both had beautiful touch at the net and highly effective serves. These two have resumes that automatically qualify them for greatest ever discussions.
And it is the resume (or list of achievements) that is the key to this article …
I have been following the sport for over 40 years. In addition to watching live tennis on TV since the early 70s, I also collected thousands of hours of footage of all the greats since the 1950s. And after seeing most of the greats in action, and researching their achievements I have someone in mind who, if not the greatest of all time, certainly deserves to be ‘in the mix’ in any discussion on the greatest ever.
I am talking about the ‘Doomsday Stroking Machine’– the legendary Ken Rosewall.
Born in 1934, Ken Rosewall was not only a teenage phenomenon, but he had perhaps the longest career at the top of the world’s elite – a career which saw him competitive with the very best from 1952 through to the mid 70s. In 1977, at the age of 43 he was still ranked in the top 15 players in the world. Rosewall’s astonishing reign at the top of the game is unparalleled and almost unbelievable except for the fact that it’s true.
Rosewall was born in Sydney into a family that played tennis and owned tennis courts. A natural left-hander, he was taught by his father to play right-handed. Perhaps as a result of this unorthodox training (or in spite of it), he developed a powerful and effective backhand but never had anything more than an accurate but relatively soft serve. He was 1.70 m tall (5 ft 7 in) and weighed 67 kg (145 pounds) and was ironically nicknamed "Muscles" by his fellow-players because of his lack of them. He was, however, fast, agile, and tireless, with a deadly volley. His sliced backhand was his strongest shot, and, along with the very different backhand of former player Don Budge, has generally been considered one of the best, if not the best, backhands of all time.
Let’s take a look at some of the key highlights in terms of ‘major’ success in Ken’s career:
In 1952, as a 17 year old, Rosewall made an immediate impression in his first overseas tour, reaching the quarter finals of the US Championships, beating the #1 ranked American Vic Seixas along the way.
In 1953 Ken Rosewall teamed with fellow 18yo Lew Hoad to win the Davis Cup for Australia, beating the USA in the final and Rosewall again beating the world #1 Vic Seixas to clinch the tie in the 3-2 victory.
This same year Rosewall won his first two singles Grand Slam titles – the Australian and French Championships. And so the teenage sensation had started his collection of Grand Slam and Major titles.
1954 marked the first Wimbledon singles final for Rosewall, losing a very tough 4 setter to Jaroslav Drobny. It’s hard to believe it’s possible, but an incredible 21 years later Rosewall made the Wimbledon singles final yet again, for the 4th time, this time falling short to the youthful Jimmy Connors after beating the world #1 John Newcombe in the Quarter Finals.
In 1955 Rosewall won his 2nd Australian singles championship but 1956 was a bigger year with his second runner-up at Wimbledon before claiming his first US singles title over Lew Hoad who was bidding for the Grand Slam that year, having won the Aussie, French and Wimbledon crowns. After helping Australia win the Davis Cup yet again over the USA, Rosewall turned professional to take on the king of that tour, Pancho Gonzales. Gonzales won that first tour, winning 50-26 over Ken, but it was obvious that Rosewall belong at the uppermost level.
Thus began one of the longest professional careers, certainly the most significant in regard to major victories over such a long span.
The following table highlights Rosewall’s dominance of the Pro Majors between 1956 until 1968 when the Pro and Amateur circuits were combined. Rosewall won an astonishing 8 French Pro titles of the 10 he contested, 5 Wembley Pro titles from 11 and 2 US Pro titles from 6. These fields generally contained the greatest players of the day including Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, and Rod Laver.
1968 was a watershed year for men’s tennis. Finally, after years in the wilderness, and unable to compete in the regular tour and Grand Slam events, the professional players were re-united with the amateur tour.
Rosewall entered his first "open" tournament at 33 years of age at Bournemouth on clay and successively defeated the great Rod Laver in the final. At Roland Garros, the First Grand Slam Tournament of the Open Era, Rosewall confirmed his status of probably the best clay court player in the world (in fact since 1958) by defeating Laver in the final by the remarkable score of 6–3, 6–3, 6–1!
1969 marked a turning point for Rosewall – he was to turn his attention to the one Grand Slam title he had never won. Knowing he could reach the last rounds of the French tournament but then be too tired to play well at Wimbledon, Rosewall decided not to play Roland Garros any more in order to be in optimal condition for Wimbledon.
In 1970, the strategy almost paid off - a more rested Rosewall reached the Wimbledon final and took the young Newcombe, his 9 and a half-year-old junior, to 5 sets but ultimately succumbed: 5–7, 6–3, 6–2, 3–6, 6–1. Two months later at the U.S. Open, one of the two 1970 Grand Slams with all the best players, Rosewall took revenge in their semifinal match in three straight sets before overcoming Tony Rochein the final: 2–6, 6–4, 7–6, 6–3. His second US Singles championship – 14 years after his first!
In 1971 Rosewall won the Australian Open title, his second consecutive Grand Slam win, without losing a single set and defeated Arthur Ashe in the final convincingly 6–1, 7–5, 6–3. This time at Wimbledon, in the quarterfinals, Rosewall needed about four hours to defeat Cliff Richey 6–8, 5–7, 6–4, 9–7, 7–5 whereas Newcombe quickly defeated Colin Dibley 6–1, 6–2, 6–3. In the semifinals, the older Rosewall was no match for the younger, and fresher Newcombe and lost 6–1, 6–1, 6–3.
Rosewall ended third on the lucrative 1971 WCT circuit behind Laver and Tom Okker and qualified for the WCT Finals. He won the title, taking his revenge over Newcombe, who had beaten Rosewall at Wimbledon, in the quarters, defeating Okker in the semis and beating Laver 6–4 1–6 7–6 7–6 in the final in what was considered at the time as their best match since their 1968 French Open final.
At the age of 38 years, Ken Rosewall was to win his last Grand Slam singles title – the 1972 Australian Open – 20 years after winning his first. Incredible! He was unable to enter Wimbledon due to an ILTF ban on the majority of the professionals of the day. By now, the WCT Finals held in May at Dallas were considered the greatest event after the U.S. Open. In what is considered one of the two best matches played in 1972, the other being the Wimbledon final, and the best Rosewall-Laver match of the open era, Rosewall won his last major title of his long career: 4–6 6–0 6–3 6–7 7–6. This particular match is hailed by many tennis historians and experts as one of the greatest matches of all time.
1973 saw the start of the decline for the 39yo Peter Pan of tennis. He was unable to play Wimbledon for the 2nd consecutive year, this time due to an ATP player ban on the tournament. He only won 2 titles this year and although still one of the world’s best players, he was no longer in contention for #1.
The following year, 1974 was the first year since 1952 (in 22 years) that Rosewall did not win a single tournament! He only entered 9 tournaments, but the amazing thing is that this remarkable 40 year old made the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open! Unfortunately, for many tennis fans, he was beaten very easily in both by Jimmy Connors – a player 18 years his junior. Due to his strong performances he was ranked between #2 and #7 in the world by the various leading tennis journalists of the day.
In 1975 Rosewall won 5 tournaments and was still ranked in the world’s top 10. And the following year he was still able to win 3 titles and remained in the top 20.
1977 was Rosewall's last year in the Top 20, which means he was one of the best players for 26 years (in the Top 20 from 1952 to 1977). He won his last tournaments in Hong Kong and Tokyo (Gunze Open) at the age of 43.Rosewall played in the Sydney Indoor Tournament - approaching his 43rd birthday he beat the #3 in the world Vitas Gerulaitis 7–6 6–4. He then put in a credible performance losing to Jimmy Connors 7–5 6–4 6–2 in the final.
Below is a snapshot of Rosewall’s amateur and Open era record at the Grand Slams (noting he was ineligible to play from 1957 – 1967 inclusive). It’s an impressive record, with 8 Grand Slam singles titles despite missing 11 of his peak years (that’s 44 Slams he couldn’t play)!
Overall, Rosewall played the great Rod Laver 142 times with Laver coming out ahead 79-63. It’s a relatively close H2H record overall, but even still, when looking at greatness it isn’t just about a H2H rivalry. It’s even more about how you performed in the big ones and your career overall. And Rosewall managed to win far more majors (amateur and pro) than Laver – including his domination of the Pro tour majors even when Laver was at his peak.
Rosewall didn’t win Wimbledon, however one has to remember that he made two finals 1954 & 56 before he turned professional and was therefore ineligible to play there again until 1968 when the two tours were merged. Then he made two more finals in the combined Open era in 1970 and 74. Had he been eligible to play during his peak years 57-68 he surely would have been heavily favoured to have won a Wimbledon crown.
Being a dominant player in the Pro majors from 1957-58 his success would have similarly translated across into the Grand Slams of the amateur tour, especially considering he was the greatest clay court player, and one of the best grass court players of his time.
Rosewall was named to the International Hall of Fame in 1980.
A number of tennis historians have named Ken Rosewall as the greatest player of all time, including Robert Geist and Peter Rowley. If I had to pick one player as the greatest of them all, then Ken Rosewall would be my choice as well.
In truth, one cannot accurately compare different generations as I mentioned earlier in the article, only the greatest of each era can be objectively quantified. The thing is, that Rosewall was one of the greatest of 3 generations – the 1950s amateur era, the 1960s professional ranks and the early 70s Open era. Nobody in tennis history can match his greatness for such an extended period nor the amount of ‘major titles’ that he notched up – 23 amateur and pro slams plus 2 x WCT end of year titles.
Some interesting facts about Ken Rosewall:
▪ Second oldest player to win a single title in the open era: 43 years, 1 month (1972, Gunze Open International). Only surpassed by Pancho Gonzales: 43 years, 9 months (1972, Des Moines).
▪ Biggest gap between first and last single title at Australian Championships: 19 years (1953–1972).
▪ Youngest singles champion at Australian Championships: 18 years, 2 months (1954).
▪ Biggest gap between first and last single title at French Championships: 15 years (1953–1968).
▪ Biggest gap between first and last single title at U.S. Championships: 14 years (1956–1970).
▪ Rosewall swept all the pro majors: French Pro, Wembley Pro and U.S. Prowinning the Pro Slam (1963). In 1967 Rod Laver equalled this achievement.