Rosalind Rowe: Table tennis player who became a multiple world champion before retiring at the age of 22 to get married

Rowe and her twin sister Diane became doubles world champions, and attained worldwide celebrity

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The Independent Online

Rosalind Rowe and her twin sister Diane were trailblazers for women in sport. They became doubles world champions in table tennis, reaching five consecutive finals between 1951 and 1955, a record that still stands, and attained worldwide celebrity: when they toured New Zealand, newspapers reported that fans were "clinging to windowsills" to get a glimpse of them.

With their chic dress sense, athletic physiques and impeccable manners, they became household names; some attributed their popularity to their femininity and the fact that they were twins. Their coach, however, the legendary Hungarian player, Viktor Barna, insisted: "They are popular because they have great talent, fighting spirit, personality and charm. They dress neatly and their behaviour on the table is exemplary. They never gasp or yell if they miss a shot and never play to the gallery."

In a short career, Rosalind also won a clutch of medals in the women's team events and the singles before retiring at the peak of her powers in 1956, aged 22, to marry a physician and raise a family. She never regretted her decision.

Born in Marylebone, London in 1933, Rosalind was born 20 minutes ahead of Diane and was the fourth of five sisters. Their father Ronald was a former footballer who had played for Brentford and Wimbledon in the 1920s.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the twins were separated for the first time when they were evacuated to south Wales. A month later, Ronald cycled from London to see them and found they were unhappy. He arranged for his wife to collect them by train and return them to London.

Ronald had remained a keen sportsman, and wanted to introduce his daughters to sport. He cleared the dining-room table and used some books as a make-shift net. They took to table tennis immediately. Diane recalled, "Our father was not very good at the game but once he encouraged us, we never stopped."

In 1947, for their 14th birthday, the twins had asked for bicycles but instead received a table tennis set. Although disappointed, the pair started playing intensely on the dining room table. They joined West Ealing Table Tennis Club, where they were coached by Ken Craigie and practised up to three hours a night and from 2-10pm every Sunday.

The twins improved quickly, especially Rosalind. There are no records of Diane ever beating Rosalind in an official tournament. After only 18 months or so, Rosalind played in her first senior tournament, the Surrey Open in 1949, and won the women's singles title; a year later in Cheltenham the pair won their first notable doubles crown.

At 16, Rosalind was selected for England, and Diane shortly afterwards. Over the next six years, with their instinctive understanding of each other's game – and the ideal combination of a left-hander and right-hander – they complemented each other perfectly, and titles and medals abounded. "We had an innate understanding of the other," Diane said, "like a machine, in automatic harmony."

Soon their coaching was passed to the five-times world champion, Viktor Barna, who had left Hungary during the Second World War to join the British Army. Their game changed immeasurably. They began to tour, and as they approached their 18th birthdays, Rosalind rose to No 4 in the world, Diane to No 9.

They made their world championship debut in 1951 in Vienna, incredibly taking the women's doubles title, cheered on by British servicemen stationed in the capital as they beat the Romanian pair, Angelica Rozeanu and Sari Szasz, in the final.

They were runners-up in the next two world championships, in Bombay and Bucharest, then in April 1954, on their 21st birthday, in front of a 10,000-strong full house at Wembley Arena, they regained their title, winning a thrilling all-English final against Ann Haydon and Kathleen Best. Haydon subsequently turned to lawn tennis and as Ann Jones won the 1969 Wimbledon women's singles title.

The twins embarked on a series of celebrations, first at home with a 21st birthday cake, and then to the England team hotel in London for a party. The following year in Utrecht they reached their fifth successive final but finished were beaten by the Romanians. They were also bronze medallists in the women's team event at the World Championships in 1951, 1952, 1954 and 1955, and in 1953 won silver.

Diane recalled, "We were similar in lots of ways but she [Rosalind] was more determined – not just determined, extra-determined."

Rosalind also enjoyed some success in the singles, reaching the world championship quarter-finals in 1951, 1954 and 1955 and the semis in 1952 and 1953. She also won mixed doubles bronze with Barna in 1952 and 1954,

The twins attracted considerable publicity wherever they went. Interviewed about every aspect of their lives, they were once asked about their controversially brief shorts and bright-coloured jerseys. They replied, "We like playing in shorts – we feel comfortable in them. They look nice… Long skirts are impractical for [the] speedy movements so necessary when going in to attack."

In 1951 they were invited to Sweden and played against Queen Louise, sister of Lord Mountbatten, at the Royal Palace with Prince Carl Gustaf, the present king, acting as ball boy. The following year the twins toured New Zealand for 36 days and, it was reported, "smiled and played their way into the hearts" of hundreds of people.

They made regular appearances in newspapers and magazine, particularly in the Eagle Sports Annual, which always had at least a page dedicated to their sport. In 1955 they published a book, The Twins on Table Tennis.

En route to New Zealand Rosalind had fallen ill and was cared for by the ship's doctor, John Cornett. After the 1955 World Championships in Utrecht she made the extraordinary decision to retire the following year, and never played competitively again.

The couple married and moved to Sittingbourne in Kent, where she raised four children and turned to golf, eventually playing off a single figure handicap and becoming captain of the Sittingbourne ladies' golf team. Diane continued to play over the next 20 years and, in 1966, married her mixed doubles partner, Eberhard Schöler, before moving to Germany.

MARTIN CHILDS

Rosalind Rowe, table tennis player: born Marylebone, London 4 April 1933; married 1955 John Cornett (died 1979; four children); died Sittingbourne, Kent 15 June 2015.

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