During the 1952 Wimbledon, a pregnant tennis enthusiast in East St Louis, Illinois, absorbed everything the media had to tell her about two likely lads who had just emerged from Australia.
Their names were Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, both 17-year-olds. Two months later, Gloria Connors had a son. They called him James Scott. In today's men's singles final at Wimbledon, the same Connors will play the same Rosewall, runner-up in 1954, 1956 and 1970, now aged 39, but playing as if he was merely 22 years wiser than he was at that first Wimbledon.
Already Connors' fiancée, Christine Evert, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is women's champion the youngest since the late Maureen Connolly, who was 17 when in 1952 (yes, the year Rosewall turned up) she won the first of three consecutive singles titles. Miss Evert, aged 19, took only 59 minutes to win 6-0 6-4 against Olga Morozova, the first Russian to reach the final. Mrs Morozova had three break points in the first game, which lasted 10 minutes. But she lost it, and that, more or less, was that. Miss Evert won the first seven games, subsequently had to work hard to keep her doubles partner in the back seat, but finally took the successive points for the match. It ended with a double fault and from Russia to the United States a kiss on the cheek.
In the first set Mrs Morozova was all energy. She had a lot of strength and skill to spend, but the shops were closed. Whenever it seemed a good idea, she tested Miss Evert's nerve and ball control by bouncing to the net; but Miss Evert made it look as wide as a motorway (or foxed Mrs Morozova with a lob).
The second set was hotly contested. But Miss Evert's authority never wavered for long. She is already champion of South Africa, Italy, France and Wimbledon. Yet her tennis is still maturing. She volleys and smashes with a readiness and assurance she used to lack. She has become increasingly cute in using subtle variations in the course of a rally, lulling her opponents into a hypnotic rhythm and then unobtrusively disrupting it; perhaps with a suddenly deeper and harder drive followed by a drop shot.
It is not in Miss Evert's nature to illuminate the game with shafts of spectacular daring. She has too much respect for the percentages. Everything is flawlessly calculated. Her tennis a concentrated study in geometry and ballistics, rather than a fireworks display; a nudge and a wink, rather than a slap in the back. She ran into trouble yesterday after leading 6-0 and 4-2. But, in essence, all that followed were the closing addresses for the prosecution and the defence.
Inevitably, this match was as water to wine (and the genuine article, too not cut-price plonk) compared to its predecessor on the Centre Court. Rosewall beat Stanley Smith, 12 years his junior, by 6-8 4-6 9-8 6-1 6-3, in three hours and eight minutes. In the third set Smith led 5-3, served for the match at 5-4, and had a match point (Rosewall was unaware of it) when leading by six points to five in the tie-break. A backhand service return that could have given Smith a straight-sets win went, instead, into the net. They had been playing for two hours and 16 minutes when Smith volleyed long to lose the third set. Rosewall had burgled the house while Smith was dozing.
It was still remarkable that this ageing if agile little man (nine and a half inches shorter than Smith), looking frustrated and careworn, could yet rebound from the most arduous adversity to play his finest tennis of the match and win two sets in 52 minutes. The transformation was astonishing. Having scraped through the first set, in which each had two break points, Smith visibly grew in confidence as he won the second and went to 5-3 in the third.
He was thinking well, moving well, and playing well. He looked awfully big. But although there is a lot of Smith, every ounce earns its keep. He has no more muscles than anyone else. But they cover larger areas. When he extends his limbs to the limit in order to serve, it seems that yards and yards are unfolding. These immense limbs, together with his anticipation and eager mobility, meant that Rosewall had tiresome problems in finding vacant patches of grass at which to aim his arrows. Rosewall kept looking sadly at the ground, like a man who has been presented with a dud cheque after waiting 22 years for a golden handshake. There was a vast silence among the crowd, as if they were helplessly watching a friend's home crumble in an earthquake. Rosewall was not playing particularly well. He kept serving double faults, too. With his service, this was like the driver of a hearse getting fined for speeding. The match assumed the character of a ritual that had to run its course until the victim Rosewall was sacrificed.
When Smith served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, Rosewall suspected that only an exceptional game could save him. He certainly produced the right brand of service return. But two errors from Smith's forehand volley helped him on the way. A backhand volley took Rosewall to five-all; and there was a tumultuous roar from the huge assembly as the seeming corpse, ripe for interment, sat up, blinked and looked around him. In the tie-break Rosewall led 4-0 and 5-3 but then committed that cardinal sin, a double fault. Had he burned his fingers once too often? As Smith reached match point, a dog barked, distantly. Smith put two service returns in the net. Then that errant volley gave Rosewall the set.
Thus began one of the most marvellous recoveries in the history of tennis. That third set affected the morale (and the form) of both players. Rosewall suddenly looked 17 again, except that he was playing even better now than he did then. Smith had already begun to lose his momentum. Perhaps he had felt, deep within him, that the match was over. He looked bewildered.
A few days ago Smith told us that confidence was "the name of the game''. His drained out of him like sand from an hour glass. He became uneasy and tentative. There were vague images of a tank floundering about in some glutinous marsh, a rabbit caught in the headlights of an advancing car. A lively little car it was, too. Rosewall was on his toes. His teasing lobs to Smith's backhand had the big fellow in a frightful tizzy; then came the whiplash of a blazing backhand or the gossamer touch of a stop volley.
Rosewall's tennis was a beautiful sight now. Yet we sympathised with the tormented lion in chains at the other end of the court. Smith scored only 14 points in the fourth set. In the fifth Rosewall broke to 3-1 and then raced for the tape. He reached it with a love game. Incredibly, the little man had turned a nightmare into a dream, a memory into fact. The Centre Court vibrated with joy. And up in the stands, Wilma Rosewall and the boys, Brett and Glenn, applauded politely feeling proud, but trying not to make too much fuss.
Connors beat Rosewall 6-1 6-1 6-4 in the final.
This report appeared originally in The Times on Saturday 6 July 1974Reuse content