1972: The Rod Laver vs. Ken Rosewall WCT Final in Dallas

by: Steve Tignor | March 12, 2015

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“The greatness of the match was that it had everything: a huge title, comebacks by both of us, spectacular shotmaking, tension, heavy money, and a steady buildup to an unbelievable finish.”

And that was the loser talking.

Ken Rosewall’s 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7(3), 7-6 (5) win over Rod Laver in the WCT Finals in Dallas in May 1972 has been called the “match that made tennis in the United States.” It’s hard to argue.

That spring, the sport had made its national TV debut, on NBC. To fit into the network’s schedule, WCT, which had wrapped up its previous season just six months earlier, moved its 1972 schedule up half a year—no sooner did one season end than the next began. Now it had all paid off in Dallas. Muscles and the Rocket were so brilliant for so long that NBC did the unthinkable and preempted its sacred 6:00 P.M. Sunday news broadcast, as well as two programs that followed it, to show the climax of what many would call the greatest match of all time. Twenty-three million people, many of whom clicked over from the NBA play-offs that were being shown on another channel, watched the two aging Aussie legends run each other around in what one writer described as “the kind of match that one waits a lifetime to see—a nerve-wracking, blood-tingling epic.”

By 1972, the 34-year-old Laver and the 37-year-old Rosewall had been waiting a lifetime to play this match as well. Each man had spent years toiling in the pro-tour backwoods for whatever money would get them to their next event, and they had faced each other on hundreds of lesser occasions. Looking back, Laver said he believed that he and Rosewall had played better matches against each other than this one, “But did anyone else but Kenny and I know?” Whether this was their best or not, it was the first one where the winner took home a $50,000 check presented by Neil Armstrong, a gold ring, a giant cup, and a Lincoln Continental. It was tennis, Texas-style, and the Laver-Rosewall final made Dallas the sport’s new capital.

If Chris Evert’s run at Forest Hills the previous summer introduced mainstream America to tennis, the Battle in Big D introduced it to a new phenomenon known as the pro tour. WCT had been launched the year before by Lamar Hunt, an heir to a family oil fortune and a major force behind the rise of pro football in the 1960s—five years earlier, Hunt had invented the term “Super Bowl” after watching his kids play with a new toy called a Super Ball.

Hunt’s move into tennis was feared and fiercely resisted by the ILTF, the game’s longtime amateur governing body. The organization believed, incorrectly, that he wanted control of everything. Still, the old guard was right that tennis in the early 70s was slowly but surely being dragged from its traditional headquarters in London to its new headquarters in nouveau riche Texas.

In 1970, the women’s tour had begun in Houston, where promoter Gladys Heldman’s husband was a Shell Oil executive. Soon after, the two most-watched matches of the 70s, Laver-Rosewall in ’72 and the Battle of the Sexes in ’73, would take place not on the lawns of Wimbledon, but in modern, team-sports arenas in Dallas and Houston. You might say that tennis, which had belonged to the British Empire since its invention a century before, had been annexed by the American Empire. Its new rulers were the agents, promoters, lawyers, teaching pros, and TV executives from the States who understood the game’s money-making potential and were determined to exploit it.

Hunt, the smartest of those promoters, knew that tennis didn’t just need a little Texas-size pizzazz to make it succeed; it needed a logical tour that culminated in something sports fans everywhere could comprehend: A world championship. WCT succeeded in offering both, to the amazement of the old pros who never thought they would see their names in the bright lights of Dallas or anywhere else.

Richard Evans, a writer who traveled with the WCT in the early 70s, wrote of those days, “I cannot remember a more enjoyable period or one in which the bond of rivalry and competition, so often a fractious influence nowadays, combined to produce such wonderful tennis or such lasting friendships. There was a sense of adventure because we were, indeed, setting out on one.”

What tennis needed most, of course, were entertaining matches, and few have ever fit that bill like Rosewall-Laver. It was a see-saw affair from first set to last. Laver jumped ahead early; Rosewall bounced back to lead two sets to one; Laver countered by winning the fourth-set tiebreaker. When the Rocket went up 3-0 in the fifth, and had four break points in the following game, it looked like he would record his first win at the only major event that had eluded him.

But Rosewall, who Laver once described as a “bloody thief,” had another charge left. Winning four of the next five games, he reached match point on Laver’s serve at 5-4. When Laver wiped it away with an ace, held serve, and went up 5-3 in the tiebreaker that followed, it appeared again that this match had taken its final turn. Rosewall, to Laver’s eyes, was spent.

Or was he? “Ken’s exhaustion was always something of a deception,” according to Evans, and there was no greater proof than the last three points in Dallas. When Laver stepped up to serve at 5-4, he had the title on his racquet, and watching Rosewall drag himself around the court in between points, he was confident it would soon be his. A few minutes later, Laver found himself walking to the net a loser, wondering what had happened. Rosewall’s backhand is what happened.

At 4-5, Rosewall found a crosscourt angle with his backhand return that Laver himself had never seen from him. “I hit a terrific serve,” Laver said, “but the return was even terrificker.” At 5-5, Rosewall reached out and smacked a backhand return—Kenny’s last stab—for a winner. Laver was too stunned to get his return at 5-6 over the net.

Ironically, Laver would have won the match if the tiebreaker had been a nine-pointer instead of a 12-pointer; it was the Rocket himself who had pressed the game to adopt the latter, longer, and slightly less risky version two years earlier.

Rosewall, after gathering the check, the ring, the cup, and the car, cried in the locker room. But it was Laver, who never won a WCT Final, who called this loss the most disappointing of his career. The big winner was pro tennis.

“It’s our match forever,” Laver said years later. “His win, but our match, and I feel people will keep talking about it. I won’t discourage them.”

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