As the Doomsday Stroking Machine, the remarkable Kenneth Robert "Muscles" Rosewall was a factor in three decades of tennis, winning his first major titles, the Australian and French singles in 1953 as a teenager, and continuing as a tournament winner past his 43rd birthday. Probably nobody played better longer. He was yet a tough foe into 1978. At the close of the 1977 season, he was still ranked as one of the top players in the game, No. 12, on the ATP computer, having won two of 24 tournaments with a 44-23 match record. "It's something I enjoy and find I still do well," was his simple explanation of his prowess in 1977, "but I never imagined myself playing so long when I turned pro in 1957."
The son of a Sydney, Australia, grocer, Rosewall was born in that city Nov. 2, 1934, and grew up there. A natural left-hander, he was taught to play right-handed by his father, Robert Rosewall, and developed a peerless backhand. Some felt his size (5-foot-7, 135 pounds) would impede him, but it was never a problem. He moved quickly, with magnificent anticipation and perfect balance, and never suffered a serious injury. Though his serve wasn't formidable, he placed it well, and backed it up with superb volleying. Rosewall was at home on any surface, and at the baseline or the net. He had an even temperament, was shy and reticent, but good-natured.
Although Rosewall, the little guy, always seemed overshadowed by a rival, first Lew Hoad, then Pancho Gonzalez and Rod Laver, he outlasted them all, and had the last competitive word. Even when Laver was acknowledged as the best in the world, Rosewall could bother him, and twice shocked Rod in the rich World Championship Tennis finals in Dallas (1971 and 1972), snatching the $50,000 first prize from the favorite's grasp. The latter match, thought by many to be the greatest ever played - a 3-1/2 hour struggle watched by millions on TV went to Rosewall, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7(3-7), 7-6, (7-5), when he stroked two magnificent backhand returns to escape a seemingly untenable position in the decisive tie-breaker (down 5-points-to-4) and win by two points. It was the closest finish of an important championship until Boris Becker beat Ivan Lendl, also 7-5, in a fifth-set tie-breaker, for the 1988 Masters title.
Rosewall and Hoad, born only 21 days apart, Ken the elder, were linked as teammates and adversaries almost from their first days on court. In 1952 as 17-year-olds they made an immediate impact on their first overseas tour, both reaching the quarter-finals of the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills, Ken beating the No. 1 American, Vic Seixas, 3-6, 6-2, 7-5, 5-7, 6-3. Later the following year (having won the Wimbledon doubles together), shortly after their 19th birthdays, they became the youngest Davis Cup defenders, collaborating for Australia to repel the U.S. challenge in the finale. Rosewall beat Seixas in the decisive last match to ensure a 3-2 victory.
Though Hoad was considerably stronger physically than Rosewall, who had been given the sardonic nick-name "Muscles" by his mates, Ken always managed to keep up with (and often surpass) him in the early days. Hoad beat Rosewall in the 1956 Wimbledon final, but his bid for a Grand Slam was spoiled when Rosewall knocked him off in the U.S. final at Forest Hills.
Linked in doubles as well as the public mind, Ken and Lew might well have made a Grand Slam together in 1953, but came up three wins short. After taking the Australian, French and Wimbledon, they had a bad day in Boston, dropping a close U.S. quarter-final decision to unseeded Americans Hal Burrows and Straight Clark, 5-7, 14-12, 18-16, 9-7. But they (Kenny unerring of return from the right court) grabbed that title in 1956. After helping Australia win the Davis Cup twice more, both 5-0 over the U.S. in 1955 and 1956, winning all four singles and a doubles seemingly effortlessly, Rosewall turned pro to take on the professional king, Pancho Gonzalez. Gonzalez stayed on top, winning their head-to-head tour, 50-26, but it was apparent that Rosewall belonged at the uppermost level.
Thus began one of the longest professional careers, certainly the most distinguished in regard to significant victories over so lengthy a span. Rosewall won the first of his three U.S. Pro singles titles over Laver in 1963, the second by beating in succession, Gonzalez, then and Laver in 1965, and the third over Cliff Drysdale in 1971. That was one of the three championships that the pros held dearest during their days as outcasts prior to opens. The others were the French Pro, won by Rosewall eight times, including seven in a row (1960-66), and Wembley in London, won five times by Rosewall between 1957 and 1968. Memorable battles were the five-set, 1963 French Pro final over Laver and the 1962 Wembley final over Hoad. Ken's sparkling rivalry with Laver stretched over 111 encounters, Rod ahead, 62-49 (6-4 in the open era). He was 59-101 against Gonzalez and 45-25 over Hoad.
Rosewall holds several longevity records. Fourteen years after his 1956 Forest Hills triumph over Hoad, he beat the favored Tony Roche, 10 years his junior, to win the U.S. Championship again. Eighteen years after that final - having beaten favored John Newcombe, 6-7 (3-5), 7-6 (5-1), 6-3 - he was crushed in the 1974 windup by Jimmy Connors. Twenty years after appearing in the first of four Wimbledon finals, he lost the 1974 final to Connors. The only big one Rosewall missed out on was Wimbledon singles, but he won the doubles twice. Nineteen years after his first major title, the Australian, over Mervyn Rose, he won it again, in 1972, over Mal Anderson. He also made it to the semis in 1976 and 1977 - 24 years after the first time!
Twenty years after his first Davis Cup appearance, he returned to help Australia win once again in 1973, and played his last cup match in 1975, having been in on four Australian Davis Cups and three World Cups in the since-disbanded team match against the U.S. Altogether, Rosewall won 18 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed, the sixth-highest male total.
In 1974, he served as player-coach of the Pittsburgh Triangles of World Team Tennis. He was the second tennis player to cross $1 million in prize money, following Laver, and had a career total of $1,600,300. Like Laver, Gonzalez and Hoad, and a few others, he had one of those rare careers spanning the amateur era, pro one-night stand years and the open era. His victories were innumerable, but in the last section, begun at age 33, he won 50 titles, 32 in singles, 18 in doubles. The first of those was the baptismal "Open" the British Hard Court singles at Bournemouth in April 1968; the second, the initial major open, the French, a month later - both over Laver. His last pro triumph, Hong Kong in 1977 over 30-year-old Tom Gorman, was recorded two weeks after his 43rd birthday, making him the second oldest (just shy of Gonzalez) to win an open-era title. Still going, like some super battery, gray but the same in frame and slick of backhand, Ken is just warming up for the super senior wars.
Rosewall was named to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1980, and the Australian Tennis Hall of Fame in 1995.