At one point, he was both the youngest (at 18 years and 7 months in 1953) and the oldest man (at 33 years and 7 months in 1968) ever to have won Roland-Garros, and there is surely no better way of encapsulating the exceptional longevity of Australia’s Ken Rosewall than the 15 year gap between his two Paris titles. And while he did not win any others, he has earned a place on the podium of the greatest clay-courters in the history of the game alongside Rafael Nadal and Björn Borg.
Ken Rosewall, precocity and longevity
(Don’t) mind the gap! Of the many records and exploits throughout his long and storied career, there are few more impressive than the two French Open titles won no fewer than 15 years apart.
Ken Rosewall was just 17 when he first shot to prominence as far as the French public were concerned. This was in 1952, and although it was his first appearance in Paris, the Australian was one of the main attractions at the event. A week before he would go on to win the boys’ singles, fans at the Porte d’Auteuil had flocked to Court No.3, where his incredible accuracy and exceptional stamina, despite being a featherweight, had pushed Italy’s top player at the time, Fausto Gardini, all the way to five sets in an epic second-round encounter.
Rosewall was one of a pair of "Wonder Kids", or "Whiz Kids", as he and Lewis Hoad were known. He and his fellow Australian were both born in November 1934 and had been taken under the wing of the “Old Fox” Harry Hopman, who was the first genuine star tennis coach. Back in 1952, a practice session featuring these two teenagers was enough to bring out the crowds and draw compliments even from those who had followed tennis in the pre-war years, such was the finesse with which Hoad and Rosewall played.
With a sliced backhand that shaped an era and was described by French tennis musketeer Henri Cochet as being "rapier-like", Rosewall was back just a year later to get his hands not on the boys’ trophy this time but the men’s, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the event at 18 years and six months. He also bagged the doubles title that year, alongside Hoad of course.
These were the days of separation between the amateur and professional ranks however, with only the former allowed to take part in the Grand Slam tournaments. When Rosewall turned pro, he was no longer allowed to play at the French Open or indeed any of the other majors between 1956 and 1967. Nevertheless, he proved himself to be the stand-out player of the decade on clay, winning the "French pro" event – the professional equivalent of French Open, also held at Roland-Garros – four times in five attempts.
Winner of the first ever Grand Slam in the Open era: Roland-Garros in 1968
When the French finally became Open to professionals in 1968, Rosewall had the honour, at the age of 33, of becoming the winner of the first ever Grand Slam of the Open era. In front of a record crowd in Paris, he defeated his closest rival Rod Laver 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2 in the final. Upon becoming the oldest winner at Roland-Garros 15 years after being the youngest (though both records have fallen since), Rosewall was handed the cheque for his prize money by former Real Madrid footballing legend Raymond Kopa. The following year was the last time that he played in Paris, and this time Laver got his own back in the final, dominating his fellow countryman to the tune of 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.
It is obviously a real shame that over 32 seasons spent plying his trade on courts around the world (his last match on the circuit came in October 1980, a few days before his 46th birthday) and racking up some 5,000 matches (though exactly how many he played remains a mystery…), Rosewall only took part in the French Open five times. Nonetheless, this has no bearing on his reputation as an exceptional player on clay. And while it is always tricky to compare one generation’s stars with another’s, there is little doubt that he, Rafael Nadal and Björn Borg make up the all-time red-dirt top three.
Ken Rosewall's record at Roland-Garros
. 24 wins, 3 defeats
. 2 titles (1953 and 1968) and 1 final (1969) in singles, 2 titles (1953 with Lewis Hoad et 1968 with Fred Stolle) and 1 final (in 1954, with Hoad) in doubles, plus 1 junior title (1952). Ken Rosewall is also a four-time winner of the French Pro, the biggest tournament on clay for the professionnals (1958, 1960, 1961, 1962). He also won the Australian (1953, 1955, 1971, 1972) and the US (1956, 1970) Championships.
. 5 participations to Roland-Garros (the first in 1952 as a 17 year-old, the last in 1969 as a 34 year-old).
. 16 matches played on Centre court (the first in 1953 on first round, against Christian Boussus, "the 5th Musketeer")
. Notables wins against Vic Seixas (1953 final), Andres Gimeno (semi-final 1968), Rod Laver (1968 final), Tony Roche (semi-final 1969).