Stories You Should Know: Rosewall vs. Connors

Rosewall vs Connors

The 1974 United States Tennis Open Final was a changing of the guard in professional tennis.

There was the brash, take no prisoners, Jimmy “Jimbo” Connors who was seeking his third Major of the year. His opponent was the reserved and distinguished, former World #1, Ken “Muscles” Rosewall.  Rosewall was 39 years old, winding down a Major career that had begun in 1953 with victories in both the Australian and French Championships. It was the old guard (Rosewall) vs. the new breed (Connors) to determine the future of tennis.

Despite the fact that the match was played in Forest Hills, New York, the crowd overwhelmingly supported the Aussie, Rosewall, against the American, Connors. The two had met two months earlier in the Finals at Wimbledon, where Connors had won easily in straight sets. Most tennis experts felt that match was an unfair burden for Rosewall. Tiny Ken had a brutal run to the Finals at the All England Club.  As the #9 Seed he had drawn the #1 Seed, John Newcombe in the quarterfinals, and then ousted him in four sets. He then faced former Wimbledon Champion Stan Smith in the Semis, and shocked the Wimbledon crowd by rebounding from a two sets to none deficit to win, 6-8, 4-6, 9-8, 6-1, 6-3. Smith said of the match, “I’d be rooting for him too, if I weren’t playing him.” It seemed to much to ask of the aging star to topple the 21 year old phenom, Connors, in the Finals. He didn’t, losing badly 1-6, 1-6, 4-6.

Two months later Rosewall and Connors would again meet in a Major Final. This time “Muscles” didn’t have as tough of a draw as he did at Wimbledon. He again ousted John Newcombe, this time in the Semis, in four sets, but was relatively fresh entering the Final. It didn’t matter, Jimbo crushed him 6-1, 6-0, 6-1. It is the most one sided final in U.S. Open history. 1974 launched Connors into one of the most storied careers in tennis history, while the loss cemented Rosewall’s legacy as good, but not great. Today he is not even in the conversation when discussing the greats of the game.

Where did the consensus of the tennis community come up with the notion that Connors was a greater player than Rosewall. Sure, Connors crushed Rosewall in the two Grand Slam Finals that they had, but Connors was 21 at the time, and Rosewall was 39. 

Connors, in his career, won eight Major Championships and participated in seven other Major Finals. He also won two end of season World Championship of Tennis Titles (1977, 1980). He finished the tennis season with the #1 ranking five times. That’s very impressive. Now let’s look at Rosewall. In the traditional Majors, Kenny, like Connors won eight, he also bettered Jimbo with eight other Grand Slam Final appearances. In the end of the year WCT Championship Rosewall, like Connors, won twice (1971, 1972). 

Now here’s the kicker; All four traditional Majors were available to Connors his entire career (except the French in 1974 & 1975), while Rosewall was not allowed to participate in any of the traditional Majors between the ages of 22 and 32, because those tournaments did not allow professionals. Of Connors eight Major Titles, five of them came between the ages of 22 and 32.

Most tennis experts discount Rosewall’s four Major Titles in the 1950s because the best players (the Pros) weren’t allowed to play, but then they give him no credit for his 16 (that’s right, 16) Professional Major Titles, when he was competing against the best players in the world.

Finally, the Connors’ defenders point to the fact that Jimbo won 109 Association of Tennis Professionals Titles, that is more than anyone else in history. Rosewall only won 11 such titles, but you have to remember that the organization didn’t even come into existence until Ken was 38. Before that he won 96 Professional Tour Titles, for a total of 107. Add in his 26 Amateur Titles and his total is 133. We don’t see this as an advantage for Connors. 

As to Connor finishing the year ranked #1 five times, in Rosewall’s best years there was not a universally recognized World Ranking body. Between 1960 and 1970 Rosewall was ranked #1 by at least one reputable source every year but one (1969). He was clearly the #1 player in 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1965. Again, this is not an advantage for Connors.

Both Connors and Rosewall had two main rivals during their reigns as a top player. Coincidentally they each had losing records against those rivals. Connors was 8-15 against Bjorn Borg (2-4 in Majors), and 14-20 against John McEnroe (3-6 in Majors). Rosewall against his two main rivals also had a losing record, against Pancho Gonzalez, 86-116 (never met in a traditional Major) and 75-89 (1-1 in Majors) against Rod Laver. This does not help Connors case. 

So why is the consensus among tennis experts is that Jimmy Connors is one of the top ten male players of all time and Rosewall is down around 25?

Mostly modern media perception. The “Tennis Boom” occurred right at the beginning of Connor’s dominance, and at the end of Rosewall’s. The most memorable memories of the two were Connors’ thrashing of Rosewall at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1974. We can’t expect them to surmise that the fact Ken was in the Finals was a testament to his greatness. Connors last Major final was when he was 31. The traditional Majors didn’t opened their doors to the Professionals until Rosewall was 33. “Muscles” won four Grand Slam Titles and appeared in four other Grand Slam Finals after that.

The other point the detractors of Rosewall make is that the competition Ken faced was not as tough as Jimbo’s. That’s a tough sell. Rosewall was 18 years older than Connors. As we have documented, their careers overlapped some. Finally, these same experts consistently place Rosewall’s chief rival, Rod Laver, in the top five. Many list Laver as #1. If Laver is in the top five, with his 11 traditional Majors, and 12 Professional Majors, how can Rosewall not be in the top ten with his 8 and 16?

 It’s the sports media, stupid!

One of the prime examples of the Media’s double standard of their coverage of these two Hall of Fame players is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED decision to put Jimmy Connors on their cover after the 1991 United States Open. This would be Connor’s 6th SI cover, which is six more than Rosewall. Jimmy celebrated his 39th birthday during the tournament, and made an unexpected run through his quarter of the draw, before falling in straight sets to the eventual champion, Stefan Edberg , in the Semi-Finals. To the sports media Connors was the story. None could remember that 17 years earlier another 39 year old former #1 had made his own unlikely runs through his half of the draw at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills. Falling in the Finals of both events in straight sets. The media response; The unprecedented run of a beloved tennis legend, Rosewall, was not the main story, but the winner of the tournaments, Jimmy Connors, was. As he should have been.  

Ken Rosewall was always a gentleman, beloved by the fans and fellow tour players. Connors, on the other hand, was an obnoxious jerk, who wouldn’t play Davis Cup, who alienated his fellow pros by not joining the Association of Tennis Professionals, and then forming his own tour. He had public feuds with John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe. To be kind, we’ll just say, he was not well liked by his contemporaries. 

A final note on the forgotten Rosewall. Since Roger Federer is only 38, the record for oldest player to play in a Grand Slam Final is still Ken Rosewall in the United States Open in 1974. The second oldest finalist in a Grand Slam event was also Ken Rosewall in 1974 at the All England Club at Wimbledon.

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