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by Rich Hillway, Colorado Tennis Historian
Q&A with the Aussies
During my visit to the 50th Anniversary celebration at the International Tennis
Hall of Fame in Newport, RI this summer, I asked the thirty-five returning Hall
of Famers many questions. And I learned plenty.
It was not easy to get information from some of the great champions such as
Laver and Rosewall (not prone to conversation), nor could I get very close to
Agassi, Graf or McEnroe because of the crowds.
But I discovered that some of the lesser-known Hall of Famers such as Mervyn
Rose, Ashley Cooper, Nicky Pietrangeli, Art Larsen and Lesley Bowrey were
delightful conversationalists. Six Aussie inductees spoke and took questions
from the crowd at the Breakfast of Champions on July 9, an event emceed by our
own Dennis Ralston. The six were Frank Sedgman (22 major titles), Margaret Smith
Court (62 majors), Mervyn Rose (6 majors), John Newcombe (25 majors), Lesley
Turner Bowrey (12 majors) and Mal Anderson (4 majors).
One question was asked, “How did the Aussie men come to so dominate world tennis
during the 1950s and 60s?” John Newcombe responded, “It started at the end of
World War II with a skinny 17-year-old that Hopman got fit and who reached No.
It seems that coach Harry Hopman had seen players like Kramer and Schroeder and
he wanted to emulate their attacking style. So he sent Sedge to the gym to get
fit. At this time, off-court training by lifting weights in the gym was unheard
of in tennis. Many thought that lifting made one strong, but slow. But Sedgman
was the pathfinder, the first to do a lot of lifting, and later stars such as
Hoad, Rosewall and Court incorporated it into their training as well.
Newcombe gave a second reason for Aussie success. Since Australia was so far
away from the major tournaments, their national team had to travel together for
several months – mainly in Europe and the U.S. Tennis can be a lonely sport, but
not for the Aussies. During these trips, the young players learned much from the
veterans. When Newcombe first traveled, he had to squeeze oranges for Fraser,
Laver and Emmo to drink. “By hanging around champions, you become a champion.”
Then, after 20 years of domination, open tennis in 1968 put an end to this
system. Stars traveled as individuals and competed for big bucks. Without the
opportunity to travel as a team, the young Aussie hopefuls – John Alexander and
Phil Dent – were the first for many years not to reach the top.
Margaret Court was a scrawny country girl from a small town of 15,000 whose
coach told her she wasn’t strong enough to be a top player. As a teenager she
moved to Melbourne, and lived a couple of years in Frank Sedgman’s home where
she did circuit training and running five days a week. When off on the pro tour,
Frank left her with a tennis coach and a fitness trainer.
“All the players entered singles, doubles and mixed every week in those days,
and that helped their fitness.”
She became the first Aussie lady ever to win Wimbledon. Margaret said a weakness
today is that if a junior shows promise, s/he is steered into group instruction
where all the players are taught the same way and look like robots. She
recommends an individual mentor for a junior champ to tell him that he alone is
going to be the best.
The funniest Aussie was 74-year-old Mervyn Rose. He referred to Sedgman and Ken
McGregor as “Hopman’s pets.” He announced, “It took me 74 years to find out
these boys were doing weights,” as though they hid it from him. Since Hopman
exercised tight control over his team, and since Rose drank, smoked and loved
independence, the two didn’t see eye to eye. Rose recounted that when he was No.
3 in Australia, “Sedgman and McGregor turned pro. I was happy. Hop was sad. I
looked behind me and there were Hoad and Rosewall. Hop was happy, I was sad.
They turned pro and there were Cooper and Anderson. I’m still No. 3.” Not known
for his foot speed, Rose said, “My hero was Dick Savitt. He couldn’t even run.”
Only one men’s doubles team has won the grand slam – Sedgman and McGregor – who
won all four majors in 1951. They then won the first three majors in 1952 –
seven major doubles titles in a row. In the finals, the team of Mervyn Rose and
Vic Seixas defeated “Hopman’s Pets” (neither Rose nor Seixas had partners, so
they wound up playing together for the first time at Forest Hills). The upset
denied Sedgman and McGregor from their eighth straight title, and second
consecutive grand slam. After that, Rose said Hopman wouldn’t talk to him for
While in London, Hopman had his team run in Hyde Park. Emerson always led the
way so Rose only ran part way and caught him on the way back. Unfortunately,
Hopman was watching from his hotel room and made Rose run extra the next couple
Ashley Cooper told me that Mervyn Rose “named his dog Hopman so he could kick it
once in a while.” I asked Mervyn if this were true. His reply – “Yeh, never fed
him.” And yet, when asked whom he credited most for helping his tennis, Rose
cited Harry Hopman.
Mal Anderson was quite a squash player. Dennis Ralston, who had never played
squash, tells the story that when he visited Queensland, Anderson set him up
with his first squash game. It was against Heather McKay, whom Dennis didn’t
know was ranked No. 1 in the world of squash for about 16 years. Dennis said,
“It was embarrassing.”
I asked Ashley Cooper if the story were true that Harry Hopman was a heavy
gambler (he once had to sell the land he had purchased for his dream home). He
said, “Hopman, during the Davis Cup matches, used to bring all of his newspaper
clippings of the horse races. He bet on them a lot. This was common in
In 1974, 39-year old Rosewall lost to Connors in two major finals, but he had
survived long semi-final matches, and Connors was 22. I asked Cooper if Rosewall
had mentioned these matches. He replied that Rosewall had once told him,
“Connors was the only guy I never felt that I could beat. I always thought I had
a chance against Gonzales, Hoad and Laver. Not Connors.” The match-up was bad –
Rosewall’s weak serve against Connors’ big return. As Rosewall left after
reaching the finals of the 1970 US Open, one of his sons asked him, “Does that
mean we have to come back tomorrow?”
Each of the players was asked, “Who was the best player you ever played
against?” Rose answered, “Hopman’s pet Sedgie.” Anderson named Pancho Gonzales,
who “was very difficult since if you did get ahead, he had a way to upset you,
and he could exploit your weaknesses fast. Though over the hill, he beat Rod
until Rod lifted his game. Cooper also listed Gonzales whom “I never beat on the
tour. But I did beat him a couple of times on clay where his serve wasn’t as
Margaret Court named Billie Jean King as her toughest opponent, especially on
grass. Leslie Turner listed Margaret as the best she played against, naming
grass as Margaret’s best surface.
John Newcombe explained, “I spanned a couple of generations from Rosewall and
Laver to Connors and McEnroe. On clay, Borg was best, with six straight French
titles. After that, I’d give the edge to Laver. You can play him down to the
wire, but he’d come up with something you wouldn’t expect at the end. Something
you hadn’t seen all match.”
Sedgman added, “I played against probably the greatest of all time, Jack Kramer.
He could put his serve on a dime and had a great first volley. The second best
was Gonzales. I played him a lot – a great competitor – a great athlete.”
A lot of Aussies still consider Lew Hoad, Wimbledon winner in 1956 and 1957
as the best player of all time. Anderson told me, “Lew Hoad, in his day was
scary, though Gonzales was best day in and day out.”
Emerson has written to me that Hoad is the best he ever played or saw play.
Aussie administrator, Brian Tobin noted, “On his day, Lew Hoad was the best, but
he had a lot of bad days.”
Italian Pietrangeli explained, “For one match he was unbeatable. He could do
anything – the best I ever played.”
Art Larson said, “He had a harder serve than Roddick. He was the best I’ve
Laver and Hoad are the two always mentioned as the best by the Aussies. Laver
had a much better and longer record, but almost always lost against Hoad whose
injured back kept him from his best after his early twenties. One Aussie called
Laver a grinder who wore you down. “But when you play Hoad, it’s like you’re not
Anderson said he’d never miss a match between Hoad and Gonzalez. “Since they
didn’t see eye to eye, Hoad always tried (harder) against Pancho. It was
unbelievable tennis. We won titles, but were like beginners compared to them.”