Tennis: What is it like to play with a legend?

Ian Stafford finds out by taking the court alongside Ken Rosewall
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The Independent Online
Ken Rosewall, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, has enjoyed memorable doubles partnerships over the years with the likes of Lew Hoad, Fred Stolle and Neal Fraser. Now he can add another name to this remarkable list - me.

Yes, the man who won eight singles and nine Grand Slam doubles tournaments, over a span of 19 years through three decades, spent one morning this week flinging himself around a court at the Hurlingham Club in the company of an awestruck hack who attempted to act unfazed by the rather ridiculous situation he found himself in.

Rosewall and Stafford (or Stafford and Rosewall) found themselves in a round-robin tournament against similarly star-struck businessmen with partners such as the Americans Tim Mayotte and Sandy Mayer, and the Australian doubles maestro, Paul McNamee.

Worried that Rosewall might be nervous playing with such an illustrious partner, I reasoned with my Australian legend - at least our tennis careers had one thing in common. Neither of us had ever won Wimbledon.

The day was part of the Hurlingham Seniors tournament, which finishes today and is part of the ATP Seniors tennis championship formed in 1991. This explained why other court favourites, such as Ilie Nastase, Roscoe Tanner, Stan Smith and Fred Stolle turned up to watch.

All of them are younger than the evergreen Rosewall, turned 60 now but still running, stretching and leaping like a youth, chastising himself for a missed volley, and whooping with delight at each passing winner.

Even better still, he makes a point of congratulating you if you happen to conjure up a peach of a pass which, amazingly, I produced from time to time.

It almost made me stop in my tracks. Did Ken Rosewall really say "nice shot, partner" to little me? By my reckoning, a "nice shot" from Ken Rosewall is worth a hundred "You're brilliant" compliments from Jeremy Bates.

After a narrow defeat to the exuberant McNamee, which we put down to getting used to each other's style, we stormed back to hold Mayotte and Co to a credible draw.

It was not long before I found myself talking back to Rosewall. "Yep, that's a nice one Ken," was soon followed by an "unlucky Ken." Only a severe bite of the bottom lip prevented the craziest statement of the day, after my partner missed an "easy" volley. "Come on Ken, don't rush your shots" might have sounded and looked a little absurd.

By the last game of the morning, against Sandy Mayer and friend, the new-found doubles partnership the world of tennis are talking about was flying. To say that we were ruthless in our 5-1 victory would be an understatement.

A combination of Ken's back-court passes, Ken's close-in volleys, Ken's sliced backhands and Ken's lobs proved too much for our beleaguered opponents.

End result? Stafford and Rosewall finished runners-up in the tournament and one half of the partnership felt rather pleased with himself. I found I was not alone. "It doesn't matter what I've achieved in the game, to play with a man like Ken Rosewall is a fantastic honour," was McNamee's verdict.

So what is the great man up to these days? "I play on the senior circuit and in corporate days around the world for five months of the year, and spend the rest of the time back home in Sydney," he replies. "I class myself as retired, but I have a couple of investments and interests in two tennis clubs to keep myself busy." The next question is one he must have heard a thousand times. Does it stick in your gut that you never won Wimbledon? "It's every player's dream to do so, and I would have happily swapped two or three of my other grand slam titles for the privilege. But my decision to turn professional lost me 10 years when I was playing at my best, so who knows what might have happened?"

In reading this, you must be wondering what is it like to play with a legend? I put the question to Ken. "I enjoyed playing with you partner," he replied. "It's just a pity we didn't discover each other 30 years' ago, eh?" Gosh, thanks Ken.

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