They will tell the story in Australia forever—indeed, it seems forever already—about how Ken Rosewall learned his tennis by practicing endless hours on the clay courts of a working-class neighborhood of Sydney. Less widely appreciated are the lessons he received in a six-story building containing no tennis facilities at all. The building, an exhausted, peeling relic on the edge of Sydney's main commercial district, houses the Metropolitan Business College, where Rosewall studied accounting as a teen-ager. That was back before either John Alexander or Phil Dent, a couple of the young bulls he regularly dispatches on the pro tennis circuit, were born.
Rosewall's failure to become an accountant is accepted calmly in the halls of Metropolitan Business College. "Ken used to bring his racket to class," a school official relates over the chatter of aspiring stenographers in thigh-high skirts. "He was always on his way to play tennis." Yet the people at Metropolitan should be consoled that Rosewall could pass for an accountant today almost anywhere. His manner is correct, his personal habits are governed by honesty and thrift, and his clothes, in contrast to the sunburst hues that predominate in tennis, run toward prudent grays and blacks. Because he further lacks what anybody would call a commanding presence, he has occasionally had to talk his way into dressing rooms by assuring the guards, "My name is Rosewall—I'm one of the tennis players."
He deserves better. It is not simply that Rosewall has lasted at the very top of tennis for two decades, nor even that he ranks as the current world champion by reason of his victory last November in the 32-man World Championship of Tennis tournament—a title he will be defending next week in Dallas. It is that he has done these things, and gone from child prodigy to geriatric phenomenon, without losing either his schoolboy air or the quiet authority he has always exerted on the tennis court. While this authority will never be distilled into The Wit and Wisdom of Ken Rosewall
, it was at bottom a truthful reply when, asked how he has changed over the years, he recently deadpanned, "I'm just a little heavier in the wallet."
So slight of build that he is ironically nicknamed Muscles, Rosewall stands, in a further irony, as one of nature's indestructibles. Having performed in his share of lonely, dimly lighted arenas during the early years, having survived the sport's recurring political wars and having suffered the scourge of Rod Laver's deadly top spin, he has finally made his way, a tired warrior of 37, into the sunlight. One can almost hear the trumpets blare. Reflecting in part the impact of the riches of WCT boss Lamar Hunt, Rosewall's winnings last year amounted to more than $137,000. That was a distant second to Laver's positively indecent $290,000, yet the significance of the $137,000 figure does not escape Ernie Christensen, longtime tennis writer of the Sydney Sun. "One-thirty-seven," Christensen observes. "That's 100 plus his age—it's just like a blood pressure measurement."
To ever arrive at six digits, Rosewall, the ex-accounting major, had to make a bookkeeping operation out of life itself. Not quite 5'7", he canceled this debit by learning to hit a tennis ball with decimal-point precision. As the years accumulated, he balanced the books by practicing moderation, especially in assaying his own place in the cosmic scheme of things. Awarded the Order of the British Empire last summer, Rosewall thought enough of the honor to drive his wife Wilma and their two boys over to Government House in Sydney and proudly join other recipients at the ceremony. But he was embarrassed, too. "There were a lot of older, unmarried women there—75 or 80 years old—who had given their lives to charities and other worthy causes," he said afterward. "It was sad. I wondered what I was doing there."
Equally restrained and level-headed about his own physical well-being, Rosewall keeps himself coiled in a state of constant watchfulness. He watches his weight, which has varied in a decade little more than a scoop of ice cream either side of 142 pounds. He watches his sleep, aided by the capacity to curl up mouselike in a jetliner and doze off even before it leaves the runway. He watches his vitamins, eating great heapings of Kellogg's Product 19. "Maybe I'm being led along by the advertising, but they say it's better for you," he explains. Confronting the mirror in the morning, he watches, helplessly, for any new strands of gray that may have found their way into his sleek black hair overnight.
Something else Ken Rosewall watches are his investments, this with a shrewdness not seen in tennis since Frank Sedgman got Australian schoolchildren to drink more milk by selling their mums chocolate-flavored straws. From his home in Sydney, Rosewall is forever flying up to Brisbane on some land deal or down to Canberra for a tennis clinic on behalf of British Petroleum, which employs him as "professional adviser." For matches in Australia, he religiously competes with a Ken Rosewall-model wooden racket made by Slazengers, the sporting-goods firm he has been affiliated with for 20 years. Everywhere else he wouldn't be caught dead without a Ken Rosewall-model metal job by Seamless. He also endorses Revere sportswear and lends his name to John Gardiner's tennis ranch in Arizona.
In attending to these far-flung ventures, Rosewall shuns the business agents—and their fees—without whom other athletes of equal prominence would never sign an autograph, much less a contract. "Maybe I'm wrong, but I feel I can work things out myself," he says. His confidence is shared by friends. "When you hear Muscles has invested in something, you can invest in it, too, without question," says Fred Stolle, his doubles partner and countryman. "You know he's already asked all the questions."
Stolle and others who know Rosewall find it convenient to speak of him in terms of the many things—extravagant, flamboyant, devil-may-care—he is not. Rosewall himself says, "I try not to overdo anything. I try to keep fit and not hurt myself." Discipline and denial show in his face, too, the skin drawn severely over bones that seem about to break through. It is a heavy-lidded, darkly handsome face with a narrow railing for a nose, but very occasionally, as when some silliness tickles him, it can form a wide, delighted smile.
Peel away the layers of what Rosewall is not, get to the core, and one ends up sharing the conclusion of Arthur Huxley, a Slazengers official and close friend of Rosewall's for 20 years, that "Ken's just a very decent little bloke." In the starched and sometimes bloodless world of tennis, Rosewall's sobriety makes him seem at home, yet there is a gentleness about him that at times seems oddly out of place. There was the moment when a ball boy fainted at courtside as Rosewall was beating Arthur Ashe in the semifinals of the WCT tournament last February in Philadelphia. A worried hush fell over the crowd, but the silence was quickly broken by a call over the public-address system by the umpire. He was calling not for a doctor—but for another ball boy.