Inside Story

Fletch, Muscles and the Rocket

Books | Three players, three hard slogs. Jock Given on the golden age of Australian tennis

Jock Given 26 February 2013 3047 words

Rod Laver says Ken Rosewall (above) is the “least appreciated great player in the history of tennis.” AAP Image/Presse Sports

Ken Rosewall must have spent more time on Australia’s centre courts this summer than any Australian player. He was at Ken Rosewall Arena in Sydney when Bernard Tomic thanked “Mr Rosewall” for his first ATP Tour tournament trophy. He was at Rod Laver Arena when Andy Murray was too good for Roger Federer in a semi-final of the Australian Open, and he was there two nights later when Novak Djokovic was too good for Murray.

Australians see a lot of this in January. There are many more Australian tennis champions in the stands than on the courts and it has been that way for a long time. Rosewall will turn eighty next year; Rod Laver will turn seventy-five in August, the day after Roger Federer’s birthday; Margaret Court is seventy. Australia’s last winner of an Australian Open singles title was Chris O’Neil in 1978. In six of the ten championships before that win, both the female finalists were Australian.

Australia’s golden age has produced a book bubble lately, with the release of Rosewall’s Muscles: The Story of Ken Rosewall, Australia’s Little Master of the Courts (as told to Richard Naughton), Laver’s The Education of a Tennis Player (with Bud Collins), and Hugh Lunn’s The Great Fletch: The Dazzling Life of Wimbledon Aussie Larrikin Ken Fletcher. These players come from an era when future champions lived with ironic nicknames from their early days on the court: Rosewall became “Muscles” because he didn’t have any; Laver, the “Rocket” because, as a boy, he wasn’t one. The two of them ended up in one of the great rivalries in the history of tennis, its duration, intensity and closeness masked by the invisibility of many of the matches they played as professional one-night stands all over the world, often in makeshift venues, in the 1960s and early 70s.

Laver came from country Queensland, Rockhampton, about 650 kilometres north of Brisbane; Rosewall from Rockdale in Sydney’s south. Neither was tall even by the standards of the time: Laver 1.73 metres (five feet, seven inches); Rosewall, four years older, an inch shorter.

Rosewall and his almost exact contemporary, Balmain boy Lew Hoad, were teenage stars. Chosen for the Davis Cup training squad in 1951 at seventeen, they travelled overseas the following year with an Australian team whose star, Frank Sedgman, won the singles and the men’s and mixed doubles at Wimbledon. In 1953, at nineteen, Rosewall won the Australian singles title at Kooyong and then the French title on clay in Paris. Back at Kooyong between Christmas and New Year, Rosewall and Hoad became national heroes when Australia won the Davis Cup from the United States. Down two matches to one after the doubles, both won their reverse singles, Hoad over just-crowned US singles champion Tony Trabert and Rosewall against reigning Wimbledon champion Vic Seixas.

Davis Cup coach Harry Hopman might not have thought Laver the quickest kid around the court but he saw enough in him to select him as one of two youngsters for the Australians’ overseas tour in 1956. Laver lost the Wimbledon junior final but won the junior US and was at Forest Hills to see Hoad fall one match short of the Grand Slam Laver would win twice – the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US singles championships in the same year. Hoad made the cover of Sports Illustrated and the US final, but his Sydney mate Rosewall got through as well, played better in the windy conditions and won in four sets.

Players now measure their achievements by the number of “slams,” or major tournaments, they win. Margaret Court won twenty-four in singles, the record, including all four, the Grand Slam, in 1970. Roger Federer has seventeen, the most by a man. In three separate years he has won three of the four, but has never won all four. Rod Laver’s two Grand Slams came first as an amateur in 1962, then in 1969 as a professional, the first calendar year professionals were allowed to play in all four major tournaments.

It was the chance of a Grand Slam in 1969 that Boston Globe tennis writer Bud Collins says gave him his book about Laver, first published in 1971 and re-released in 2009 for the fortieth anniversary of the achievement. Laver’s agent had approached Collins about a memoir. Publishers Simon and Schuster were interested but only if Rod won the four tournaments: “No Slam, no book,” though Collins didn’t tell Laver that.

The fact that he won a Grand Slam of mixed doubles with Margaret Court (Margaret Smith at the time) in 1963 is what makes Ken Fletcher’s disappearance from the list of Australian tennis champions of the era so puzzling. Explaining “the dazzling life” of this “Wimbledon Aussie larrikin” is the job former journalist with the Australian, Hugh Lunn, sets himself in The Great Fletch.

With Grand Slams in singles, Rod Laver and Margaret Court have got arenas named after them at Melbourne Park, where the Australian Open gets played each January. With plenty of grand slam singles tournament wins but no Grand Slam, Ken Rosewall’s Arena is in Homebush. Ken Fletcher has a park on the river outside the Pat Rafter Arena in Brisbane.

The authors of these three books have different relationships with their subjects. Lunn was the oldest of old mates with Fletcher, who died in 2006. They were “in the playpen together as babies,” at different schools a few hundred metres apart in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley, young men travelling the world together and, in 1965 and 66, tennis player and cheerleader at Wimbledon.

This is a much more personal story than the other two. Fletch, we learn, didn’t like people who were tight with their money, people with no personality, and skites. “No Australian man was ever more upfront about his feelings for others.” There is plenty of tennis, because that was what Fletcher was best known for – as well as his mixed doubles Grand Slam in 1963, he won another five major mixed doubles titles, won men’s doubles titles at Wimbledon and in the French Open, and made the singles final of the Australian Open in 1963, losing to Roy Emerson, and the Wimbledon or French quarter-finals five times.

But there is just as much of the anguish of falling short in an era when those around him were climbing higher, of the difficulties of piloting his own prodigious talent – “the greatest and purest tennis shot I have seen in my life, and I have seen them all, was Fletcher’s forehand,” says a contemporary, Jim Shepherd. There is a lot about life beyond tennis courts, sometimes rich and raucous, at other times troubled and impecunious. A park by the Brisbane River, just outside the courts, with swings and barbecues and lots of people, seems a much better memorial for Fletch than an arena.

Bud Collins is the voice of Rod Laver in The Education of a Tennis Player, credited as “Rod Laver with Bud Collins.” The reader gets Laver’s story, peppered with wisecracks that sound more Boston than Rockhampton. Cliff Drysdale is “a good-looking South African who could talk a Kruger Park lion into becoming a vegetarian.” On one Laver backhand: “You don’t plan a shot like that, not unless you’re on marijuana, and the only grass I’m partial to is Wimbledon’s.”

But Collins, Laver’s choice of biographer, gives a strong sense of the distance a kid from Rockhampton traversed to become a world champion. He worked out very early what he wanted to do and set about doing it. It meant leaving home, travelling constantly, living everywhere at once, eventually mainly in California, grinding out tennis matches when he was exhausted or injured or just not playing his best, getting himself ready for the ones that really mattered.

Collins doesn’t give us a neat linear tale of Laver’s career or even of his second Grand Slam year. The rough chronology of tournaments and matches is there, but he detours for the backstories and twenty-five “Lessons” on topics like “The Crisp Volley” and “Playing against Familiar Opponents.”

Rosewall’s biographer Richard Naughton – credited “as told to…” – is an academic lawyer and tennis lover, a senior fellow in the law faculty at Monash University and author of Australian Labour Law: Text, Cases and Commentary, as well as a biography of Australia’s first Wimbledon champion, Norman Brookes. His story is relentlessly chronological, but it seems exactly the right way to write about Rosewall’s long quest, match after match, set after set, serves, returns, approaches, passes, handshakes at the net. Rosewall just kept doing it and in a way he still does. You can’t summarise Muscles without diminishing him.

All three books are centrally about the era when becoming a professional tennis player meant not being able to play the four major tournaments. Rosewall turned pro at the start of 1957, aged twenty-two, Laver in 1963, at twenty-four. Fletcher, two years younger than Laver, stayed an amateur. John Newcombe, younger still, won Wimbledon as an amateur in 1967 and turned professional right at the beginning of the Open era.

This was not a split like World Series Cricket or Super League that blew sports apart for a couple of years before they got back together again and lived happily ever after. It went on for decades. Pancho Gonzales turned professional after winning the US championships in 1948 and 1949 aged twenty and twenty-one. He got to play his country’s national championships again at forty. Two-time Wimbledon champion Laver got a letter from the All England Tennis Club after he turned professional advising him he could no longer wear the club tie.

When professionals were finally allowed to play the major championships again, they were called “Opens” but separate playing circuits continued for most of the year. Queensland’s amateur tennis boss Bill Edwards, no supporter of pro tennis, put on an embarrassing Australian Championships in January 1969, apparently heading to the races one afternoon rather than watching the tennis. This was how Queensland welcomed the Rocket back to Milton. The International Lawn Tennis Federation banned Rosewall, Laver and members of the professional World Championship Tennis circuit from the French Open and Wimbledon in 1972 and the professionals boycotted Wimbledon the following year over a different issue. Australia’s professionals could play the Opens from 1968 but weren’t allowed back to play Davis Cup until 1973.

The pro tours were rough and hard, small groups of fine players up against each other over and over again on all kinds of weird, temporary surfaces – canvas stretched over boards or even ice-rinks – and only occasionally getting access to the established tennis venues. They drove themselves from one town to the next each day after treasurer Rosewall had counted the money, set up again, and faced up to the same opponents. If you got injured you played on because if you didn’t there’d be no crowd and no pay next time the troupe came to town.

We know how the story ends now, in an Open Era when professionals got to play in the great championships again, but there was never any certainty about that. The pros were better, and if you wanted to be the best and make decent money without taking a PR job with Dunlop or Slazenger then you had to turn your back on the great trophies and accept it might be forever. When Rosewall turned pro, Pancho Gonzales whipped him, although Rosewall eventually turned that around. When Laver turned pro at the start of 1963, having just won his first Grand Slam against the amateurs, Lew Hoad beat him in their first seven matches and Rosewall in four of their first six. Meanwhile, the next generation of “amateurs” were winning the major championships the pros couldn’t enter.

Laver says Rosewall is the “least appreciated great player in the history of tennis.” He – Rosewall – “was the player we all had most trouble with.” In the French Pro Indoor final in 1963, Laver says he played “the finest tennis I believe I’ve ever produced” and still got beaten by Rosewall. Fred Stolle said he’d “rather play Laver any day than Rosewall. If the Rocket’s hitting his shots there’s no chance for me… But there’s always the chance he’ll be a bit off and then you’re right in the match. Rosewall was never off.”

Harry Hopman said the initially “scrawny and slow” Rocket “worked harder at it than anybody else.” “The dangerous thing about Laver is he hits the impossible shot when he’s out of position – the time you least expect it,” said Pancho Gonzales. Rosewall thought – and Laver doesn’t deny – that Rocket always found something special when there was big money at stake.

One tennis historian scores the many Laver–Rosewall matches 80–67 Laver’s way, another 79–71, also Laver’s way, including 22–7 in the Open era. On his way to his two Grand Slams, Laver met and beat Roy Emerson in five of the eight tournaments, but Rosewall only once, in the French final in Paris in June 1969. They’d met in the final a year earlier, in the ’68 Paris Spring; Rosewall had prevailed. This time at Roland Garros, the Rocket put Muscles down in straight sets. The tennis jury is still out on what happened: some thought it was Laver’s day, Laver’s year; others that it was just Laver.

With two legs of his second Grand Slam secured, Laver won thirty-one straight matches between July and September, including Wimbledon, the US Open and five other tournaments. After winning the four major tournaments in a single year for the second time, he never won another one.

The stories of Fletch, Muscles and Rocket are about the long, hard work required to get to the top of tennis and stay there. But tennis, more than most other sports, is also about moments and these books feast on them.

There’s Rosewall in his first Wimbledon final in 1954, his best chance it turned out, getting a strange soft serve on match point from the Czech Drobný and pushing it into the net. And Laver, match point down against Marty Mulligan in the quarters at Roland Garros in 1962; getting a crucial line call against Tony Roche late in the fifth set of the semi-final at the 1969 Australian Open, the first tournament in his ’69 Slam; hitting a backhand slice across court to pass John Newcombe, who was serving at a set apiece, 4–2, 0–15 in the ’69 Wimbledon final – a point Laver later thought to be “the whole match.”

For Ken Fletcher, it’s a different kind of moment: playing the Hungarian István Gulyás in the 1966 French, unable to put away three smashes in a row, fed another by the scrambling Gulyás, choosing to belt it over the stands and into the Bois de Boulogne, shouting, “Get that one, you Hungarian bastard!” It’s Fletcher’s response to the relentlessness of top tennis – or maybe just a grass court specialist’s frustration at how often the ball comes back on clay.

If you were starting to watch a bit of sport on TV in the early 1970s, after live satellite broadcasts began but before colour, you might have seen the Davis Cup final in Cleveland Ohio in late 1973, when all the pros were finally allowed back. Australia picked the apparently ageless Rosewall (thirty-nine), Mal Anderson (thirty-eight), Laver (thirty-five) and Newcombe (twenty-nine). The younger Geoff Masters and Ross Case, who later won a Wimbledon doubles, were there too, but it was a sign that Australia’s golden tennis era was almost done.

They all had to earn their spots. Laver showed he was ready at the Sydney Indoor tournament, beating Rosewall and recently crowned US Open champion Newcombe. Picked for the semi-final against Czechoslovakia at Kooyong, he beat Jan Kodeš in straight sets, won a marathon doubles with Rosewall, and beat Jiří Hřebec – surprise conqueror of Newcombe on the first day – in five sets.

For the final in Cleveland, the triumphant return of Australia’s greats to the Davis Cup, Newcombe and Laver got all the work. Both won their opening day singles in five sets, Laver coming back from two-sets-to-one down to beat Tom Gorman. Then captain Neale Fraser chose Newcombe ahead of Rosewall to partner Laver in the doubles. They made short work of the Americans and the Cup was Australia’s. Two decades after his and Lew Hoad’s teenage heroics at Kooyong, Rosewall didn’t get the chance to put on his whites.

The next year, astonishingly, the thirty-nine-year-old Rosewall made the finals of Wimbledon – twenty years after his first final there – and the US Open, five years after Laver’s last wins there, but had to play the tough young superstar of the moment, Jimmy Connors, in both. Rosewall won just eight games over six sets in the two finals. Fans came away from Forest Hills, according to Tennis World, wearing “the glazed expression of those caught too near an exploding bomb.” It felt like the cruellest luck that Rosewall had been extraordinary enough to be on the court at all. To be so good for so long, to want it so much… and that was the reward.

Whether or not Connors really demanded that his manager “Get me Laver!” after that 1974 US Open, as was reported, Jimmy got him. The Rocket turned up at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, in February 1975 for a match billed as “$100,000 Winner Take All,” though Laver tells Bud Collins he got $60,000 for it, his biggest ever single payday. The twenty-two-year-old American was too good for the thirty-six-year-old Australian, but Laver did manage to get a set off him.

Laver also hit a shot that has stayed with me, a running forehand from way, way out of court. I didn’t know then what it took to play that shot – the left forearm as big as Rocky Marciano’s and the seven-inch wrist, the legs to get to the ball, the head to believe it was possible, the heart to want it. But something about it stuck. It was a moment and you were so lucky to see it. Jimmy couldn’t reach it, it was in, it was the Rocket. •