Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall and Roy Emerson - Signatures of the Gods


I collected these three signatures in one fell swoop at the the first Wimbledon Championships of the Open era (i.e. professionals were allowed to compete) in 1968. I was taking a break from watching play on Centre Court (there used to be standing areas for spectators behind the seats immediately to either side of the court - on hot days, people would be dropping like flies after a couple of hours) and found myself out by the practice courts, watching two Aussie champions - Roy Emerson and Ken Rosewall - knocking up (as it's known), getting ready for a doubles match. For some odd reason, and for the only time in my life, I felt the need to get someone's signature (the legendary Rosewall was the main prize).
I ran to the main concourse, bought a biro and postcards featuring the players, and hurried back to the practice court, which they were just leaving. When Emmo (as he was known) tried to sign my card, the pen wouldn't work, so I frantically scribbled it into life (that's the squiggle above his signature) and he obliged. I shoved Rosewall's card and the pen into his hands, and he signed without fuss. 

Ken "Muscles" Rosewall
I now had proof that I'd been in direct contact with two giants of the sport: Emerson won 28 Grand Slam titles (12 singles and 16 doubles) and Rosewall ended up with 32 slam titles in all (8 amateur slams, 9 doubles, and 15 Pro Slam titles). I was ecstatic. 

At that point, I realised that the other small chap standing behind Rosewall was... ROD LAVER!!! (28 slams - 11 singles, 6 doubles, 3 mixed, 8 pro slams). Now, to me, at that time, this was the equivalent of being in the presence of God. 

When I was twelve or thirteen, I'd raved to my brother about all the great tennis players I'd seen in the flesh at Wimbledon that year, only for him to reveal the existence of professional tennis, populated by the likes of Rosewall, Laver and Gonzalez, any of whom - he claimed - would smash all my childhood heroes off the court. 

I found this hard to believe - until I attended a special event featuring eight top pros staged at Wimbledon (No. I Court, I seem to remember) in 1967, the year before Open Tennis was introduced. Laver played in the first match. His very first serve smashed into the net. So much for Superman, I thought. His second serve on the same point was a fizzing ace. When the skinny little redhead unleashed the first of a string of heavy topspin passing shots from the baseline, I believe the comment I made to my companion on that day was "Bloody hell!" This was tennis being played at so high a level, it deserved to be categoried as a different sport.

Now, eleven months later, I tentavely proferred Rodney George Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket, my Rosewall card to sign, and he did so without fuss. By the standards of today's tennis players, Laver was tiny - just over 5'7" - and Rosewall was even shorter (I doubt if any man in this year's Wimbledon draw is that short - the main threat to Andy Murray is Jerzy Janowicz, who stands 6'8"). And both Rosewall (aka "Muscles") and Laver were very slight. But Laver's left forearm belonged to a giant: it was like some bulging hunk of meat you'd find hanging in a butcher's shop (only without the freckles). To this day, I remember how his muscles rippled as he wrote his name.

And then they were gone, leaving me stunned. I had Rosewall and Laver's signatures on the same card! 

Deities chatting on Olympus
If you add their amateur and pro titles together, the three Aussies who gave me their names that day ended up with a grand total of 88 slam titles between them. I know it's pathetic, but I still get goosebumps whenever I look at their signatures.

Later that day, I saw another Australian great - Lew Hoad (12 slam titles) - besuited, near Centre Court. I asked him for his autograph. He told me to piss off. Luckily, I didn't bump into Pancho Gonzalez - the notoriously grumpy old sod would probably have punched my head in.

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