He still weighs 142, as he did nine years ago at Wimbledon, and the bushy eyebrows still pucker at the ends. The racket may be made of graphite, but it's as compact as the man who wields it. Ken Rosewall has not conceded anything to the times or his age.
You haven't changed to an oversized racket, he was asked?
"Not yet," he said, wryly.
In fact, he's barely changed at all. Here to play in the E.F. Hutton Masters Challenge at George Washington's Smith Center, he may be the best-preserved 48-year-old in creation. "Just got out of the pickle bottle," said Roy Emerson. "There's not another 48-year-old in the world that can play like he can."
"He's one of the phenomenons of the game," said Fred Stolle. "I don't think there is anyone in any sport who has achieved what he has over that period of time."
Emerson says they call him muscles because he doesn't have any. When he was 15 and won the Australian junior hard court championship, he wasn't sure he would last. "I wasn't sure I'd be any good," he said. "I wasn't sure I'd be able to stand the physical grind, the mental grind, not being big. A lot of people felt I would wear myself out, that I would crack up physically."
He won the Australian championship for the first time in 1953 and for the last time 19 years later. He won the French in 1953 and 1968, the U.S. championship in 1956 and 1971. He won everything but Wimbledon and almost did that in 1974, at 39.
That day, he lost to Jimmy Connors in 90 minutes. That night, he had dinner and put in an appearance at the Wimbledon ball, as a gentleman and a tennis player should. Though he lost, he remembers that Wimbledon, his fourth time as a finalist, as a sweet one. His father had always told him he'd be over the hill at 30. At age 39, his wife and two sons saw him almost win. "It was the first and only time we were at Wimbledon together," he said. "It was very educational. Both boys learned the difference between winning and losing."
Rosewall always played the straight man. "He has a very dry sense of humor," Stolle said, laughing. "But you wouldn't want to be living in the desert. You've got to be able to understand him. He's a pretty good little guy. He's not as outgoing as most Australian players over the years."
"We would tease him," said Emerson. "One night, Rod (Laver) and I played a joke on his family. We were all staying in the same hotel. We got in at 2 or 3. They already had their breakfast menu out for 10 or 11 the next morning. We grabbed it off and made it for 6:30. We ordered four bowls of prunes and pig's trotters. Unfortunately, room service didn't bring it up. The menu was kind of strange. They called Ken at 6 and said, 'Did you order pig's trotters for four?' He didn't find out who did it until much later."
In his mild way, Rosewall says, "I've done everything in moderation."
Except sleep: he sleeps a lot. He would like to play at least twice a week, but often he doesn't. He is the part owner of two tennis resorts in Sydney that bear his name. Last year, he played about 12 tournaments on the senior circuits, winning seven of them. He was ranked No. 2 in the 35s and No. 1 in the 45s. "If you look at the way he hits the ball"--especially his legendary backhand--"there's a lesson in every step," Stolle told some children at a clinic.
Last week, Laver beat him for the first time in a couple of years. They have played so often that neither can remember how many times or who has won more. Most remember the WCT championship in 1972, when Rosewall won the last four points of a fifth-set tie breaker and $50,000, then the biggest purse in tennis; 21 million watched on TV.
"We played in so many in dim, dark arenas where the tennis was great," Rosewall said. "But most were lost except to the result book. We played a great final at White City in Sydney, a five-setter, on grass. I lost. It was still one of the best. In my mind, matches come and go."
But not the drive. That's one reflex that doesn't go. "He knows I want to win and I know he wants to win," Laver said. "That usually brings out the competitive spirit, as much as it can come out."
Don't you tire of him, someone asked?
"Only if he's playing pretty good," Rosewall said.
Last night, they played for more than two hours, resolutely defying the years. This time, Laver won, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5.