As another Australian Open beckons, let’s spare a thought for Ken Rosewall – the oldest man to ever win the event, the best tennis player Sydney has ever produced, and maybe, just maybe the greatest of all time.
Self-effacing and diminutive, as every year passes his standing in the game seems to slip a little more, but nobody has ever been as good, so young, and as good, so old, for so long.
In tennis, when the conversation turns to the greatest of all time (GOAT), the first check point is the number of major titles won (a major title being either the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open), but it’s a far from conclusive criteria.
From 1967 to 2000, the athletic Roy Emerson held the record for the most major titles with 12, until Pete Sampras broke it. During those 33 years, no one, not even Mrs Emerson, ever proclaimed Roy as the greatest player of all time.
It’s never been about just the numbers – there’s a whole raft of factors that need to be considered, foremost, quality of opposition, and equality of opportunity. Up until 1968 only ‘amateur’ players were allowed to compete in the ‘Big Four’ major tournaments. Those who chose to turn professional and make a living playing tennis were barred.
Players like Don Budge, Jack Kramer, Pancho Gonzales, Frank Sedgeman, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, and Rod Laver were at their playing peak while major titles were being picked off by amateur players until the tennis world came to its senses and declared that in 1968 everybody was welcome to compete again.
Rosewall won eight majors, placing him in the middle of the pack along side Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Fred Perry. What plays heavily against Rosewall is that, like Lendl, he never won Wimbledon.
He did, however, reach four Wimbledon finals and remember that from 1957 to 1967 he wasn’t allowed to compete at the majors, so effectively he missed out on 48 opportunities to add to his overall tally of majors, including another possible 11 shots at picking up a Wimbledon title.
When you add the fact he was considered the best player in the world between 1960 and 1964, you have to like his chances during that time of winning at least two or three Wimbledons, as well as another six or seven majors.
Every great player has a ‘window.’ Think of it as a pre-ordained set period of time during which they play their best tennis and achieve their greatest results. Nobody ever really knows how long the window will stay open. Sometimes it stays open just long enough for a player to snare one or two majors.
Sometimes it looks as though the window is going to stay open forever and then it shuts suddenly and unexpectedly.
Ken Rosewall’s ‘window’ stayed open for longer than anyone who ever played the game.
He was ranked in the Top 20 from 1952 – 1977, reaching No.2 in the world in his fortieth year! He won the Australian Open in 1953 and again 19 years later in 1972. He won the French Open in 1953 and 15 years later in 1968. He won the US Open in 1956 and again in 1970. He was a runner up at the US Open in 1955 and repeated the result 19 years later in 1974. He played his first Wimbledon final in 1954 and his last in 1974. We’re talking serious legacy here.
The closest anyone comes to matching any of these feats is Andre Agassi who appeared in his first grand slam final in 1990 and in his last in 2015 – a window of 15 years, a full six years shy of Rosewall’s 1953 – 1974 record span of years between grand slam final appearances.
Rosewall was a bona fide freak and we’ll never see his like again.