Mervyn Rose and Australia’s golden age
He belonged to an Australian golden age, one that saw the country’s players win no fewer than 55 men’s singles Grand Slam titles out of a possible 80 between the 1951 US Championships and the 1972 Australian Open. While the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and John Newcombe were the main architects of that domination, the production line run by the fabled Harry Hopman, who coached more champions than anyone else in the history of tennis, also yielded players of the calibre of Mervyn Rose, who helped drive the record-breaking Aussie machine along by winning the 1954 Australian Championships and 1958 French Championships.
Born in 1930, Rose was the archetypal Hopman-made serve-and-volleyer. A left-hander, his wide serve and open court volley strategy might have been repetitive but it was mightily effective on clay. And it was at Roland-Garros that he won his first spurs: “It was in reaching the mixed doubles final there in 1951 that I started to get myself known nationally and earned my first call-up for the Davis Cup,” he said in a 2002 interview with Gil de Kermadec. “At the time it was tough to make your name in Australia. When I started out there were some great former players like John Bromwich, who was my idol and who would have had an even greater career but for the war, and Frank Sedgman. Ken Rosewall and Lew Hoad arrived on the scene at the same time as me and then at the end of my career came Roy Emerson, Rod Laver, Tony Roche and the rest. You could say that being Australian number one meant you were the world number one, Pancho Gonzales aside!”
In 1955, with another French Open champion, Budge Patty.
Rose never climbed that high, with tennis historians calculating that world number three would have been his highest position, in 1957 and 1958. Though he excelled on home courts at the start of his career, reaching the final of the Australian Championships in 1953 and then winning the tournament the following year, it was on European clay that his career took on a whole new dimension in the second half of the 1950s. In 1957, he won the German Championships in Hamburg and came close to reaching the final at Roland-Garros, losing 7-5 in the fifth set of his semi-final against the USA’s Herbert Flam. Even better was to come the following year, the high point of his career: after reaching the final in Barcelona, he crowned his clay-court season with a prestigious Rome-Roland-Garros double.
"The only reward – and the best one of all – is to shake your opponents’ hand as a winner"
In Italy he beat local favourite Nicola Pietrangeli in the final and was forced to rush off the court when a furious crowd started throwing things at him. There were no such problems in Paris, where, seeded number three, Rose conceded just two sets en route to the title, his path eased by the fact that the task of beating his toughest compatriots fell to other players. Among them was Jacky Brichant of Belgium, who fell to Rose in the semis after seeing off number two seed Neale Fraser in five sets in the previous round. Chile’s Luis Ayala, his opponent in the final, was also running on empty following his epic five-set semi-final win over number one seed Ashley Cooper, the winner of the season’s three other Grand Slam events.
“They opened up the draw for me, that’s for sure,” said a still-smiling Rose four decades later. “I remember Fraser’s quarter-final against Brichant in particular. Neale was two sets up and 5-2 up in the third when Brichant took a toilet break. He took his time and when he came back out on the court, Neale just fell away. He lost 6-0 in the fifth I think [the actual score was 5-7, 5-7, 7-5, 6-0, 6-3]. I couldn’t lose after that. Roland-Garros was my favourite tournament. I loved everything there: the city, the clay, the atmosphere at the Stade. Even the fact I was the favourite didn’t affect me. There was no prize money on offer at the time, no contracts and no one to answer to. So what pressure was there? The only reward – and it was the best one of all – was to shake your opponents’ hand as a winner.”
Coach of Margaret Court, Billie Jean King, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and Nadia Petrova
In offering its view of the new king of the French Championships, Tennis de France, the leading tennis magazine of the time, described him as a “a superb volleyer worthy of comparison with Marcel Bernard”, adding that he was an expressive, strong-minded character whose reactions always reflected how the match was progressing: “He gets annoyed, he loses his temper, he calms down, he expresses amazement and, through his often-comical facial expressions, he makes us feel what he feels.”
Rose was 28 at the time. Following his Parisian triumph, he took the opportunity to turn professional and make his living from tennis. The Australian never returned to Roland-Garros as a player, but did as a coach, going on to become one of the most respected on the women’s tour, working with Margaret Court and then Billie Jean King, before lending his expert eye and experience to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario in the mid-1990s and Russia’s Nadia Petrova in the 2000s. King credited Rose for her rise in the ranks in 1964."I can't tell you how he changed my life, she said. Every day he would help me. He would change my serve, my forehand. He changed my game, my tactics. I can't tell you how he changed my life. He taught me how to be No.1." Mervyn Rose died on 23 July 2017, aged 87.