Rod Laver is not convinced that his 1972 final-round match with Ken Rosewall at the WCT Finals in Dallas was the greatest match of all time. He does, however, say that the title tilt – played 38 years ago this Friday, May 14, 2010 – was an important one in the history of tennis in the United States.

In his newly re-released and updated memoir THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER ($19.95 New Chapter Press, www.NewChapterMedia.com, co-written with Bud Collins) Laver says of his epic with Rosewall, “I think if one match can be said to have made tennis in the United States, this was it.”

What happened?

Read all about it in this exclusive excerpt from THE EDUCATION OF A TENNIS PLAYER.

The biggest disappointment of my career came in 1972: another defeat by Rosewall in the WC of Tfinal in May. Nevertheless, in retrospect, it had its positive aspects, too. Gene Ward in his column in the New York Daily News appraised that three-hour-and-thirty-four-minute installment of “The Rod and Kenny Show” as the greatest tennis match ever played. Takes in a few tennis matches, and, though I’m grateful for that opinion of a writer who has watched top tennis for forty years, I’m not sure I’d agree with Gene. I even feel Kenny and I had played some that were better. But, did anyone else but Kenny and I know?

The occasion, in assigning greatness, is all-important. Don Budge probably played better matches than his five-set epic triumph over Gottfried von Cramm in the Davis Cup semifinal of 1937, but the situation and the stakes, the attention paid by the press and public, set that one above the others. You couldn’t beat the setting: Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

Well, Kenny and I had never played for so many people. There were 8,500 filling chummy Moody Coliseum at Dallas, but there were countless millions of living-room types freeloading at their screens. On that Sunday afternoon, May 14, somebody who did try to count the watchers (a TV ratings maker) stated that our match outdrew the pro basketball playoffs on another channel and the pro hockey playoffs on yet another. The estimate was 21.3 million viewers for “The R& K Show,” which ran well over its allotted time on 170 NBC stations and yet they almost missed the climax.

Rod Laver

Rod Laver

As the match wound through the tense fifth set, hotter and tighter, Jim Simpson and Bud, the babblers in the NBC-TV booth, got a discouraging message from director Ted Nathanson. Orders from network headquarters in New York. They were to be prepared to apologize to viewers just before the broadcast was cut off at 6 PM eastern time. It was clearly going to run into the 6 o’clock news, and the Sunday 6 o’clock news was sancrosanct at NBC. Untouchable. How could they do that to Kenny and me – and the audience? Easily.

Jim and Bud, working their first season as NBC’s tennis commentary team, were dismayed at the thought of deserting this lalapalooza. But the next time they heard from Nathanson through their headphones, at 5:55, his voice had gone from sour to sprightly. ‘Keep going fellows – we’re on to the end. No apology necessary.”

Whoever the genius-in-charge was at 30 Rock that evening, he wasn’t going to abandon something this good and compelling. Kenny and I not only beat up on each other but also the mighty 6 o’clock news. Close call, but to hell with the news and the sponsors — our show went on.

The greatness of this match was that it had everything: a huge title, comebacks by both of us, spectacular shotmaking, tension, heavy mon­ey, a steady buildup to an unbelievable finish. I had to save a match point to take myself to a winning position . . . and when the match was on my racket, Kenny snatched it off. Dead on his feet, he somehow won the last four points to take the second tie-breaker, the title, the $50,000 and the other baubles again, 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7 (3-7), 7-6 (7-5)

It was as competitive as a sporting contest can be as we ran miles and hit thousands of shots, and I guess that’s what held hordes of viewers who knew nothing about tennis.

I think if one match can be said to have made tennis in the United States, this was it. I know it made me more well known than I could imagine, and I don’t think the full impact in promoting the game has been felt. It was a chunk of sporting history, and I was part of it, helped make it. That much makes me glow when I think about it. Then I have to think about those two supernatural Rosewall backhands that beat me—made me a loser by just two points—and I know it was The Disap­pointment of my career.

In talking to the networks, Barry Frank, the TV agent for WCT, con­firmed what he suspected: the pros would have to alter their year to get on camera. The 1971 final had been televised on a limited scale but was lost in November football coverage, just as the U.S. Open is swamped by baseball and football in September. If WCT could conclude its year in May, the networks would take a chance. NBC took a package deal of eight live tournaments, and CBS put on a taped series of fifteen tourna­ments called the CBS Classic, which ran in the spring and summer.

In order to stage a WC of T for 1972, Mike Davies made up a winter-spring schedule of ten tournaments plus the $100,000 playoffs in May. Eight of those were televised. Davies wanted a twenty-tournament basis for deciding which eight would play for the most serious money, as in 1971. To arrange that, he stipulated that points for the last ten tourna­ments of 1971 would count in a 1971–72 season. When we resumed play­ing in February 1972 we already had a half season on our records. From 1973 on, the WCT season is to be only eleven tournaments in length, from January through May, but there would be two groups of 32, with four to qualify from each group for the playoffs.

I was off to a fine start, winning the first three tournaments, five of the ten, and finishing on top of the points standings once more. Next came Rosewall, Okker, Drysdale, Riessen, Ashe, Lutz and Newcombe – the same faces as 1971 though in different order. After I beat Newc and Riessen, and Kenny took Lutz and Ashe, it was our show once more.

All I can say about that incredible final was it took so many twists that I still can’t understand how I lost. Two points. I never came so close and lost. But I had my chances and that’s all you can ask. I had the serve at 5 points to 4 in the decisive tie-breaker. The odds had switched dramati­cally to me. I had to win it. I looked at him and he couldn’t stand up. Nobody was going to beat me now, after I’d been down 0-3 in the fifth, after I’d saved four break points in the next game to avoid 0-4, and after I’d zinged an ace on match point against me at 4-5. I couldn’t lose it now. I wouldn’t.

And I did. Or, rather, he beat me, that bloody thief Rosewall.

It had been a shotmaking feast throughout, for more than three and a half hours, but after all the sprints and swings and skids I had him. I can tell you the three swings of mine I regret the most. They came in the tie-breaker with me ahead, 3-1. I jerked him out of position and whacked a forehand down the line that nobody could have touched. The tape inter­fered, and the ball dropped back on my side. Just a fraction higher, and it’d been 4-1. Then I double-faulted. Instead of maybe 5-1, it was 3-3.

Never mind, I told myself, and I got two of the next three to 5-4 with serve. Two points to the championship—and my serve. Great. Concen­trate. I was going to go for his backhand corner. Yes, don’t tell me—I know all about that backhand. But this time I’d slice it wide and clean him out of the court. He just couldn’t move anymore to get back in position.

Surprise. He didn’t have to move. Terrific serve . . . only the return was even terrificker, a cross-court angle that I’d never seen even from Kenny. I probed to make the half-volley, reached the ball but couldn’t control it. Anything over the net would have got me the point with him sagging so badly, but my half-volley went long. It’s 5-5.

One more serve, and I still knew I could outlast him, even if he could carry me to 6-6. He was absolutely dead, and I felt great. Another serve to the backhand corner, and this was Kenny’s last stab. Zoom, the ball went down the line and I was passed with plenty to spare. My edge was gone, just like that.

His serve at 6-5—match point. Could he lift the ball to serve it? Didn’t much matter. I was glassy over those backhands, and I hardly noticed that he floated a serve over the net. I waved at it with a backhand and tapped it into the net. “I can’t lose,” registered in my mind. “How . . .”

Kenny was so bushed he didn’t make sense in the TV interview. Not so bushed that he didn’t make sure the check for fifty grand was signed by Lamar.

They say he was cold and emotionless, but in the dressing room, Ken­ny broke down and cried. I wanted to, but I still couldn’t believe it. A reporter asked him to think back to 1962 and try to imagine what he thought then that he’d be doing in 1972. “Selling insurance in Sydney,

I guess,” said Kenny. “Certainly not playing tennis. Certainly not for $50,000 in one afternoon.”

Was there any place I could buy a policy insuring me against Kenny Rosewall?

It’s our match forever—his win, but our match—and I feel people will keep talking about it. I won’t discourage them.

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  1. Phil Payne April 9, 2013

    I was there with my whole family and before the match started all the young tennis players were invited to come down and hit a few tennis balls with the tournament players. I remember hitting ground strokes with Arthur Ashe returning vollies to me. At the time I really did not know how famous Arthur would become. The highlight of the tournament was definately the long rallies and Ken Rosewall’s backhand and John Newcomb’s first serve which was a big one.