The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era (M): No. 7, Ken Rosewall

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If there were an award for the Open era’s most underappreciated player, the little man affectionately and ironically known as Muscles would be a strong contender. (AP)

Tennis has been transformed over the last five decades by TV, money, technology, equipment, fashion and politics. But through all of that, the players have remained at the heart of the game. As part of our golden anniversary celebration of the Open era, presents its list of 50 best players—the Top 25 men and the Top 25 women—of the last 50 years. You'll be able to view the entire list in the March/April issue of TENNIS Magazine.

(Note: Only singles results were considered; any player who won a major title during the Open era had his or her entire career evaluated; all statistics are through the 2018 Australian Open.)

7. Ken Rosewall

Years played: 1951–1980
Titles: 35 (per ATP website)
Major titles: 8 

“In the bang-bang power game era, he was an artist,” the journalist Al Laney wrote of Rosewall in the 1970s, “and it continues to be a joy to watch him operate.”

If there were an award for the Open era’s most underappreciated player, the little man affectionately and ironically known as Muscles would be a strong contender. Neither his official statistics, nor his place in the pantheon of Australian legends does him justice. After turning pro in 1956, Rosewall was banned from the Grand Slams for 12 years. And for most of his career, he was overshadowed by his more arresting and accomplished countrymen, Lew Hoad and Rod Laver.

Compared to those forceful shot-makers, Rosewall, at 5’7”, with his nice-guy’s haircut and slump-shouldered walk, didn’t look like much. That is, until he swung his racquet. Then the Sydney native was transformed into one of the sport’s most elegantly concise stylists. A speedy attacker and born net-rusher, he was nonetheless best known for his hard-chop, one-handed backhand. With a compact but flowing swing, Rosewall made underspin into a weapon, and produced a stroke of understated beauty.

Active for a mind-boggling 29 years, Rosewall reached the quarterfinals at Forest Hills at 16 in 1951, and became the oldest man to win a major title, at the 1972 Australian Open, when he was 37. While he’s credited with just 35 ATP titles, he won 133 professional events and 1,655 matches in total. Two of them came over Laver in what were arguably their most significant meetings: In the final of the first Open era major, at Roland Garros in 1968; and in the classic title match at the 1972 WCT Finals in Dallas.

While Rosewall was a man of the Open game, many observers saw earlier golden eras embodied in his measured artistry.

“The mere thought of the little guy,” Laney wrote, “with the delightfully half-embarrassed air he had of apologizing for being so very good, gives the sort of pure pleasure one got from a Fred Perry or a Henri Cochet.”

Defining Moment: “I hit a terrific serve,” Laver said, “but his return was even terrificker.” The return in question came with Rosewall down 4-5 in the fifth-set tiebreaker of the 1972 WCT Finals in Dallas, a match watched by a then-record 21 million people. Like a “bloody thief,” as Laver said, Rosewall stole the last three points and the title. Afterward, the 37-year-old walked back to the locker room and cried. All of the years in the pro-tour wilderness had been worth it.

Watch: Ken Rosewall wins the 1956 US Open title

Follow the men's and women's countdowns of The 50 Greatest Players of the Open Era throughout the month of February right here.

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