Tales from a touch artist

Tales from a touch artist

Tales from a touch artist

Marvel at Roger Federer, who last year reached the Wimbledon final at age 33 and the US Open final at age 34.  But when it comes to setting the standard for enduring men’s tennis excellence in the Open era, Federer still has some graceful aging to do.
In 1974, Ken Rosewall was 39 when he reached the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, losing to Jimmy Connors in a hurry on both occasions.

“What Ken did is just incredible,” Federer said Saturday. “I certainly look up to him, and what he did gives me hope that if I remain healthy, I can play for many more years to come. But even just contemplating matching his success at 39 is crazy to think about.”

Rosewall is not only the oldest men’s finalist in a major singles tournament in the Open era. He is also the oldest men’s singles champion. He won the last of his eight Grand Slam singles titles at the 1972 Australian Open when he was 37, defeating a fellow Australian, Mal Anderson, who was not much younger at 36, in straight sets.

“I think Ken and Roger have a lot in common,” said Tony Roche, an Australian who played with and against Rosewall and later coached Federer. “Their games weren’t the most physical types of games. It all came pretty easy for both of them. Ken got through without any major injuries, and so has Roger, which, when you consider the amount of tennis he has played, is incredible, really.

“But it’s got a lot to do with the way they hit the ball. Ken was so smooth and fluid with everything that he did, so that obviously helped him, I think, with being able to play into his 40s.”

Rosewall is now 81 and stopped playing tennis only about three years ago because of persistent pain in his right shoulder. He collapsed in Rome in 2011 and as hospitalized for several days but has rebounded well from the scare and said he now took heart medication. He still has the firm handshake and brisk gait of a younger man. He still parts his thick hair on the left and still weighs 143 pounds, just as he says he did when he finally stopped competing at the highest level.

“My weight’s okay,” he said in an interview last week at a Melbourne hotel, tapping his flat stomach. “It’s just the way it works out. I’m not really conscious of it, but I’m pretty careful with what I eat, and I always eat well.”

Australians like their nicknames, and Rosewall’s was and remains Muscles, and not because he had many. But that did not mean he lacked punching power, even at 5 feet 7 inches and 143 pounds.

“He wasn’t big, wasn’t very strong, but boy, he could hit the ball hard,” said Darren Cahill, a coach and ESPN analyst who grew up watching Rosewall, Rod Laver and other great Australians. “In terms of power for weight and height, he may have been the best ball striker the game has ever seen.”

As the decades pass, great players tend to be reduced to a detail or two in the collective memory, and Rosewall’s signature shot was his backhand.

Steve Flink, the tennis historian, ranked it the second best in history in his book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time,” and Rosewall’s contemporaries were quick to lobby for a better ranking.

“The best — it would stand the test of today’s tennis,” Roche said.
Fred Stolle, Rosewall’s former doubles partner, said: “The best. He could put it on a dime and look for the dime.”

It was a one-handed shot that Rosewall generally sliced but also could flatten out when desired. Topspin was not an option, quite a contrast with the Federer backhand. “He used the slice so offensively,”

Flink said of Rosewall. “It’s not like Roger, who uses the slice to break up the pattern. Ken could pass with it, which amazed me. It was a flat slice.”

The differences are a matter of technology — wooden rackets with smaller heads versus today’s highly evolved models — as well as a matter of playing surface.
“Muscles to this day couldn’t hit a topspin backhand,” Stolle said, adding: “All the guys in our generation were brought up on grass courts, so that made us all what we called in those days low-ball hitters. As a low-ball hitter, you got down there, and the topspin just wasn’t there. But you know full well, the boys today, if they were going to use those wooden rackets, they wouldn’t be able to flick the ball around like that. Someone like Rafael Nadal couldn’t play that way.”

Rosewall believes the player whose game might translate the best is the young Australian Bernard Tomic, a talented iconoclast with remarkable touch who is not averse to hitting sliced forehands if the occasion warrants it.

But Rosewall, like so many tennis stars of the past, is above all a fan of Federer — for his achievements but also for his style, both on the court and off.  Federer holds the men’s career record with 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Rosewall is tied for ninth on the list with eight, but Federer might still be chasing Rosewall if Rosewall had not missed 11 years of Grand Slam tennis during his physical prime after turning professional in 1957.

Rosewall, a teenage prodigy before he became an elder marvel, won his first at age 18 at the Australian Championships in 1953 and his last 19 years later.

Although Rosewall, to his distress, never won the singles tournament at Wimbledon, losing in the final four times, no other modern great can match his longevity.

Laver, who completed Grand Slams in 1962 and 1969, had a nine-year gap between his first and last major singles titles. So did Connors, who also played deep into his 30s.  
Asked how he managed to stay competitive until 39, Rosewall credited the support of his wife, Wilma, a former player, much as Federer is quick to credit his wife, Mirka, a former tour player who understands the demands of the circuit. “Playing professional tennis as a living, that was the best thing I knew and the best thing that I could do,” Rosewall said. “So I wanted to keep at it as long as I was fit and healthy and basically enjoying the competition and winning a fair share of matches.”

Rosewall also made it clear that he and his family needed the income, which is presumably no longer the case for Federer. Federer is approaching the $100 million mark in career prize money and earns well over $2 million per night for some exhibitions. That is quite a contrast with the $500 that Rosewall said he averaged per night during his professional barnstorming days, when he got a percentage of the gate from tour impresario Jack Kramer.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Rosewall said of Federer’s numbers, pausing for several seconds to consider them further. “Absolutely mind-boggling.”