In August, Roger Federer will turn 37. Though this Golden Era of men’s tennis is running out of time, and though the days of a robust Big Four (which is largely what we had in 2014) appear to be over, so much of the story of the Big Three has not yet been written. That’s right: Most of the story has been written, but we truly don’t know how many chapters and pages are left in the tale. How long the Big Three continue to play represents a fascinating question regardless of context, but this source of intrigue becomes even more resonant within the larger course of tennis history.
Will the three greatest male tennis players of our generation all become great “old-man” tennis players? We will have to wait several years to see what Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will do. Federer is building his old-man resume as we speak. Yet, all three men have not yet done what one of the more overlooked figures in the Open Era has managed to achieve.
When a conversation about tennis history shifts to 39-year-old men, chances are most Americans think about Jimmy Connors and his 1991 U.S. Open semifinal run. Yet, the more impressive display of tennis from a 39-year-old man in the Open Era was something Connors was party to as a witness, not as the primary author.
As the Open Era hits 50 years, it has to be said: If anyone can claim to be a better old-man tennis player (defined as north of 35 years old) than Roger Federer, it is not Connors, but the man who faced him 17 years before that 1991 U.S. Open.
Cross-generational comparisons are immensely difficult in any sport because the style of play, technology, rules, and other assorted components change so much over time. The 1996 Chicago Bulls and 2017 Golden State Warriors are two of the greatest NBA teams ever. Which team would win? It’s impossible to offer a fully informed opinion without first knowing whether the officiating would operate according to 1996 rules or 2017 rules. Basketball allowed far more contact and physicality in the 1990s compared to today. The team which wouldn’t easily be able to adjust to the officiating is the team which would almost certainly lose. In the absence of such context, identifying the better team is impossible.
It is not all that different in tennis. Comparing today’s greats with late 1970s players is hard because of the differences in racquet technology. Wooden racquets were still used on tour back then, creating a vast ocean of separation from the tour we have today. Comparing today’s players — or even the early 1980s stars — with the players who came of age before the Open Era and finished their careers in the early years of the Open Era is similarly impossible because the older players were robbed of many years at the major tournaments. Moreover, that same earlier era of tennis was a point in time when three majors were played on grass, none on hardcourts. The distribution of majors is dramatically different today.
When the discussion regarding the greatest tennis players of all time is rekindled, the first name from that older time period — straddling the end of amateur tennis and the beginning of the Open Era — is Rod Laver. The man who won the Grand Slam twice in a span of seven years most naturally comes to mind as a player who might have won a truckload more than the 11 majors he ultimately collected. This is not a misguided or flawed notion. However, much as Federer’s current major title total — while worthy of the highest praise — has nevertheless obscured Novak Djokovic’s accomplishments, so it also is that Laver’s feats have caused some tennis observers to overlook the body of work turned in by Ken Rosewall.
Yes, before there was Jimmy Connors at 39 in 1991, Ken Rosewall set an even higher standard at age 39 in 1974. If you thought Jimbo’s run to a major semifinal was special, Rosewall made both the 1974 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals at that age, just a few months before turning 40. Rosewall won the 1971-1972 Australian Open (it started in December and ended in January) at age 37 and remained an elite tennis player through his 30s.
Rosewall — more than the slightly older Pancho Gonzalez, who might have occupied Rosewall’s identity to a greater extent had he been five years younger — became the pre-Open Era player who maximized the relatively brief window of opportunity afforded by the arrival of Open tennis in 1968. So many of the men who couldn’t play at the majors for several years — but then received a second chance when tennis went fully professional in spring of 1968 at the French Open — were past their primes but relished the chance to see what they could do at tennis’s most important tournaments. These men were placed in a very uncomfortable competitive context, but the tradeoff was a chance to make money at the most revered locations and coveted events on the calendar. 1968 began a sprint… but not for young pups. This was a sprint from the old-man brigade.
Rosewall had the legs — or as his nickname would indicate, “Muscles” — to win that race.
Laver did not win a major or even make another major semifinal after his 1969 Grand Slam repeat. Pancho Gonzalez, as referred to above, was punched out and could not make a major final at any point in the Open Era. Lew Hoad and other Australian giants weren’t able to find a second wind once the Open Era began. John Newcombe is an Australian who first rose to prominence at the majors before the Open Era began, but he was only 24 years old in 1968 and doesn’t occupy the same universe as Laver (on the younger side) or Gonzalez (on the older side).
Among the 10 years encompassing the Laver-Gonzalez cohort (Laver born in 1938, Pancho in 1928), Rosewall is the man who produced the most productive years in the Open Era. With four major titles, four other major finals, and five other major semifinals from 1968 onward, Rosewall — who made the 1977 (January) Australian Open semifinals at the age of 42 — established old-man credentials that are very hard to beat. They make Connors look pedestrian by comparison, and they give Federer a high bar to clear. The Swiss is certainly performing at a level which could eclipse Rosewall, but assuming Federer plays through the year 2020 (to participate in the Tokyo Olympics, among other reasons), all eyes will be on him at the 2020 U.S. Open, his first age-39 major event.
Why? Not because of Connors, even though American papers will process and filter Fed through the prism of Jimbo in 1991. No, Rosewall — in 1974 in particular, and more broadly in his Open Era career — will represent the standard Federer will compete against.
Laver. Borg. Sampras. Bill Tilden. The Big Three. Pancho Gonzalez. Don Budge. Only a select few men deserve to be in the top tier of the GOAT conversation.
You had better believe Ken Rosewall deserves to be inside the ropes, not left in the cold. What he did after turning 35 is a central, not peripheral, reason for his enormous place in tennis history… even if Rod Laver overshadows him even now.
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