It has been a nice fortnight at the Australian Open, with pleasant weather most days and good behavior (at least by their standards) from the two young guns of Australian tennis, Bernard Tomic and Nick Kyrgios. The latter had a long argument with the ump during a third round match against Tomas Berdych, both of which he lost, and the former made a dumb comment on Roger Federer, and proceeded to lose, also in the third round, against Andy Murray. The Last Great Aussie, Lleyton Hewitt, lost in the second round of his tennis swansong, fought on with countryman Sam Groth to the fourth in the doubles, and got a fond farewell from fans, with Federer contributing a class comment during the show.
Hewitt is the last Australian man to win a Grand Slam tournament in singles (U.S. Open, 2001, Wimbledon, 2002); he helped Australia win its last Davis Cup in 2003. Far be it from me — especially when watching all this stuff on TV — to indulge in the game of cross-era comparisons, but for what it may be worth, back in the day the Aussies played a different ball game.
A generation of mainly working-class boys born in the late 1920s and 1930s dominated the sport in the post–World War II years. Australia kept the Davis Cup every year but two in the 1950s and won again in 1960, and six more times in that decade. Led by Margaret Smith Court (born 1942), who passed the baton to Evonne Goolagong (born 1951), Australian women were no less impressive; but the men’s game was more visible back then. For example, there was no Fed Cup, the women’s equivalent of the Davis Cup, and the mixed-gender Hopman Cup, named for the great Australian coach Harry Hopman, did not commence until 1989.
Frank Sedgman, Roy Emerson, Lew Hoad, John Newcombe deserve their fame; however, the best known during those glory years were Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall. This, and the fact they remain the best remembered, is due in good part to their court longevity. Rosewall entered high level tournaments at 15 and won the Australian and French championships at 18, in 1953 (amateurs only, of course, so not called Opens). He turned pro in 1956, played in the first Open in 1968, at Roland-Garros, at the age of 34 (he beat Rod Laver in three sets), continued playing until 1974, when at the age of 39 he lost in the finals at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows (U.S. Open), against Jimmy Connors, 22.
Rod Laver won his first Slam when he was 20, the 1959 edition of the Australian championship, and is one of only four men to have won a calendar year Grand Slam (winning all four majors in a single calendar year), which he did twice. The conventional wisdom is that he would have done it one, two, even three other times in the 1960s had he not turned pro after the first one. Laver and Rosewall were both fairly small by today’s standards, and Laver’s body did not withstand the years of pressure quite the way his friend’s did.
They met innumerable times, of course, and since back then tennis players did not have entourages, or teams, of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, and yogi, they gave one another advice. According to tennis historian Steve Fink, the most dramatic match they ever played was the WCT final at Dallas in 1972.
World Championship Tennis was not Texan Lamar Hunt’s idea, but he was the first big investor and he soon became sole owner. He recruited John Newcombe, among other stars, which is probably why Newcombe met the young George Bush, whose father was the last U.S. president to play tennis seriously on the White House courts; Newcombe was in the car on the passenger side when W. was arrested for DWI. When he took his turn as White House tenant a few years later, W. did not invite Newcombe to play, notwithstanding his youthful enthusiasm for the sport. He favored jogging and cycling.
In the formative years of the modern Tour, WCT played a crucial role in popularizing the professional game. Under the ATP it is doubtless better organized and there are few if any of the lawsuits that marked the sport in the ’70s, but this is the usual curve of business consolidation. Lamar Hunt, who coined the term Super Bowl, was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame. He is credited with launching the Open era.
Prior to which, Laver, Rosewall, and their friends often played on broken down courts in hangars or high school gyms, hitting flat balls over torn nets. They played fantastic tennis anyway, and Mr. Pleszczynski, as a boy growing up in Santa Barbara, saw them compete at his town’s WPA-built tennis stadium before a packed house of maybe 1,200 people.
Laver was known as the best serve-and-volley player of his time; in an era of grass courts, S&V was basic to everyone’s strategy. Rosewall had a backhand that back then observers could compare only to Don Budge’s. It was completely different: Budge’s was a flat shot that came at you, reportedly, like a cannonball, whereas Rosewall almost always relied on a graceful, masterfully placed slice.
Rosewall and Laver knew each other’s game better even than do Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, who will play their semifinal match at Melbourne after we go to our site. Watch for an update later today. The world numbers 1 and 3 last met at last year’s U.S Open (Djokovic won); career wise they are even, but the man from Belgrade of late has been outplaying the man of Basel, mainly on the basis of an impregnable defense. Which is a little like Laver and Rosewall; the latter outlasted his friend and rival in a five-set classic in that famous ’72 showdown, which finished in a fifth set tiebreak. As to the match Wlady Pleszczynski witnessed, I cannot say, because it was so good it has passed into myth, and it has not yet ended.
Australian Open Update:
First, apologies: Roger Federer is from Basel, not a place called Bale.
Second, Novak Djokovic handily won the semifinal, despite a strong show by Roger Federer in the third set, when he was able to maintain control after gaining a break early. Over four sets, however, the bunker from Belgrade played masterful defense — though with several net approaches, as if to show Federer he can do it too — choking off the Swiss maestro’s normally dictatorial offense. If you keep getting the ball back to the baseline until you set up a winner, well, that’s the modern defense, and no one does it better than Djokovic.
Andy Murray-Milos Raonic in the upcoming other semi; Murray should be favored, but Raonic has been outstanding throughout the tournament. Murray-Djokovic in the final would be a battle of defensive tactics, and somehow Djokovic seems for the time being unbeatable in that game. Raonic has become increasingly agile and aggressive, but if Federer couldn’t do it, can he? But ya never know.
On the ladies’ side, it will be Serena Williams defending her title against Germany’s Angelique Kerber, the question being whether the challenger can overcome Miss W.’s immense serve and power groundstrokes.