Each year in Melbourne, a man leaves a small envelope for Roger Federer. Inside the envelope is a short note, wishing Federer well. The man’s accomplishments are such that he could easily see Federer in person. But that has never been the man’s style.
Yet of all the tennis players Federer has been compared to, this man might be the best fit. His name: Ken Rosewall – arguably the player with the most sustained longevity and excellence in tennis history. Rosewall won his first two of eight Grand Slam singles titles at 18, picked up a pair more in his 20s – and then snapped up four more past the age of 33. He and Pete Sampras are the only men to have earned majors in their teens, 20s and 30s. At the age of 37, Rosewall bested his keenest rival, the great Rod Laver, in a pair of season-ending matches that were part of the WCT circuit – the equivalent of the ATP Finals. At 39, Rosewall made it to the finals of Wimbledon and the US Open, beaten by another player who would also prove quite durable, Jimmy Connors. Rosewall earned his last singles title at the age of 42.
Amazingly, Rosewall’s late career accomplishments occurred after he’d endured an 11-year exile from the majors due to that era’s schism between pros and amateurs. With the symmetry that marked his entire career, Rosewall won the last Slam he played as an amateur, the 1956 US title, toppling the mighty Lew Hoad – and then took the first Open Slam, beating Laver in the finals of the ’68 French Open.
“The instant after he had executed his stroke, he began repositioning himself, with a series of quarter and half steps, and all the while that he was studying the stroke his opponent seemed to be planning; he continued to shift his position, with a dozen or so noodling little steps; then, when the return was on its way – and he was already darn close to where it was coming – he went on adjusting, with a succession of tiny sidesteps. No wonder the ball arrived so regularly in his ‘strike zone.’ And since he was always on balance, no wonder he had such exquisite timing that the ball exploded off the face of his racquet.”
Certainly the above description would be a keen fit for Roger Federer. But in this case, the subject was Rosewall, described by New Yorker writer Herbert Warren Wind in the ‘60s. Extremely alert, balanced and nimble, Rosewall reached the top with a full array of skills. Most notable was his backhand, a sharp drive struck with a scintilla of underspin. This was backed up by sharp volleys, one of the best overheads in the game and remarkable defensive savvy, from crisp service returns to pinpoint passing shots and lobs. Not for nothing was Rosewall dubbed, “The Doomsday Stroking Machine.”
The longevity link Federer and Rosewall share: unsurpassed movement, at once graceful and forceful. Footwork in tennis, distinct but in some ways related to foot speed – not the raw foot speed of a dash, but, in tennis, the ability to repeatedly arrive in the right place to take the best possible swing. Other masters of this – and they too had exceptionally long careers – were Connors and Chris Evert.
But how does footwork happen? Arguably, it begins in the feet, in the disciplined movements these greats take. But perhaps it’s always wed to the eyes, to the careful ways Federer, Rosewall, Evert and Connors so quickly absorb signals from their opponent’s grip, racquet position, ball, patterns. Or maybe even more, from the heart and mind, in a deep love and engagement with the sport. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All action begins in thought.”
“We don't speak about [Rosewall] enough," Federer said during the Australian Open. “I think he's a wonderful man…he had a tremendous career.”
“I suppose if I really pushed it I could get into the dressing room to say hello, but I've never done that,” Rosewall in January. “The last few years when Roger's been in Australia I haven't really had much of a chance to see him, so I've usually just dropped a few short lines and left it with the doorman to pass on to Roger, just wishing him good luck, and the family well, and so on.”
Here again, Rosewall let his feet do the talking.