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Open Era Generations, Part Three: Gen 1 (1934-38) – Dominance from Down Under

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The Great Australians

The generation of players born between 1934 and 1938 was, in a way, more accurately the last generation before the Open Era as it peaked in the 1960s. Yet it was also the generation that was “in power” when the Open Era began, so I am considering it the first of the Open Era.

When the Open Era began in 1968, the youngest players of this generation were turning 30 years old. The generation still dominated for the first few years, winning six of the first seven Slams (two to Rosewall, four to Laver) through 1969, but then the decline really started with the new decade in 1970. While Laver remained a strong player for several more years (top 10 through 1975),  he never won another Slam. Rosewall won three more, one in each year during 1970-72, and was in or near the top 10 through 1977, which he finished at #12 at the ripe age of 43, but clearly the baton had been passed in the 70s.

This first generation was dominated by the Australians, with 66 of the 76 Slams won by the men from Down Under. In tennis history the late 50s and 60s is possibly the greatest period of dominance by a country, perhaps only revivaled by the last and greatest period of American dominance in the 1990s.

Best Players by Birth Year (with Slam total):
1934: Ken Rosewall 23 (AUS), Lew Hoad 5 (AUS)
1935: Mal Anderson 2 (AUS)
1936: Roy Emerson 12 (AUS), Ashley Cooper 4 (AUS), Alex Olmedo 3 (USA)
1937: Andres Gimeno 1 (ESP)
1938: Rod Laver 19 (AUS), Manuel Santana 4 (ESP), Fred Stolle 2 (AUS), Rafael Osuna 1 (MEX)

Total Slams: 76 (best of the 13 Gens and all-time), including 50 Grand Slams and 26 Pro Slams.

File:Hoad Rosewall Wimbledon.jpg

Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall playing doubles at the Wimbledon Championships in 1954 or 1955. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons: State Library of Victoria).

Discussion
It would be hard to argue that this is not the “GGOAT” – greatest generation of all time, in 139 years of tennis history from 1877 to 2015. Rosewall and Laver alone would make it a contender with any generation, but adding in Hoad, Emerson, not to mention Santana, Cooper, Stolle and Olmedo, and it is head and shoulders above every other generation in terms of Slam count. Of course part of this is due to the “doubling up” of Amateur and Pro Slams during the 50s and 60s, but regardless, 76 majors is a lot -  more than double that of any generation of the Open Era.

Rosewall and Laver are on the very short list of greatest players. Laver had a higher peak, being the dominant player of the 1960s, bookended by Calendar Slams in 1962 (as an Amateur) and 1969 (the first full year of the Open Era), but Rosewall had greater longevity, with an incredible span of 20 years between his first Slam title in 1953 and his last in 1972 – four years longer than the second longest record of Bill Tilden’s sixteen years (1920-35), twice that of contemporary Rod Laver’s ten years (1960-69) and far more than the longest of the Open Era, Pete Sampras’ thirteen years (1990-2002). To put it another way, Rosewall’s first Slam title came seven years before Laver’s first, and his last came three years after Laver’s last. During those 20 years he won 23 majors in all, eclipsing Laver’s 19. Yet at their best, Laver was more dominant, not only over Rosewall but the rest of the sport. Laver won a record 200 titles, well surpassing Rosewall’s 133.

Roy Emerson is both over and under-rated, depending upon who you ask. All 12 of his Slam titles came before the Open Era, and most when the best players in the sport—including his contemporaries Rosewall and Laver—were on the pro tour. Yet Emerson held his own against the young Laver, and still dominated the amateur tour for a few years. Yet in terms of career greatness he is perhaps more comparable to players with half his Slam count.

Underachievers and Forgotten Players
Many who saw Lew Hoad play, or played against him, claim that he is the most talented player in tennis history. For instance, Pancho Gonzales claimed that Hoad’s “game was the best game ever. Better than mine. He was capable of making more shots than anybody. His two volleys were great. His overhead was enormous. He had the most natural tennis mind with the most natural tennis physique.” Gonzales also said that Hoad “was the only guy who, if I was playing my best tennis, could still beat me.”[1]

Hoad was plagued by injury and, according to Jack Kramer, laziness and lack of interest [1]. Kramer also claimed that despite the mystique around Hoad, saying “when you sum Hoad up, you have to say that he was overrated. He might have been the best, but day-to-day, week-to-week, he was the most inconsistent of all the top players” [1]. In other words, if we read between the lines a bit, it would seem that while Hoad was one of the most talented players of his generation, with his best level being as good or better than anyone, he did not have the consistency and focus to make him a truly great player, which is why he is less remembered than players with higher Slam counts.

While a career that included five Slams can hardly be considered disappointing, we can easily see a player in Hoad that was as talented as his more successful contemporaries in Gonzales, Rosewall and Laver, yet without the career achievements.

Did You Know?:  Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall played each other 144 times in all, including 46 times in 1963. Laver won the head-to-head 80-64. Rosewall led 34-12 their first year of playing each other in 1963, with Laver dominating most years after. However, Rosewall won their last two matches in 1976. For some of the only available footage of this great rivalry, check out this video here.

File:Rod Laver 1976.jpg

Rod Laver at the 1976 ABN World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam (courtesy Wikimedia Commons: Rob Bogaerts, Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo)

Top Ten Players of Generation One

1. Rod Laver (AUS)
2. Ken Rosewall (AUS)
3. Lew Hoad (AUS)
4. Roy Emerson (AUS)
5. Manuel Santana (ESP)
6. Ashley Cooper (AUS)
7. Alex Olmedo (USA)
8. Fred Stolle (AUS)
9. Mal Anderson (AUS)
10. Andres Gimeno (MEX)

Honorable Mention: Rafael Osuna (Mex).

Due to limited records it is difficult to give accurate rankings before the Open Era. But it is relatively easy to see the above players in groups. The first group is comprised of Laver and Rosewall; the two are very close, with Rosewall having superior longevity but Laver having a higher peak. Actually, Rosewall—along with Pancho Gonzales–is perhaps the least mentioned inner circle great, but by any reasonable way of accounting he is certainingly one of the five or so greatest players of all time – this despite the Tennis Channel’s egregious ranking of him as only the 13th greatest male tennis player of all time in their “100 Greatest of All Time” in 2012, behind the likes of Roy Emerson and Andre Agassi, among others [2].

The next group is another pair, Hoad and Emerson. Many would rank Emerson over Hoad, but Hoad was a much better player. Then we have another pair, “Manolo” Santana and Ashley Cooper, both with four amateur Slams, both very strong players but not the very best of the generation, the Andy Murrays and Guillermo Vilases of their time.

The final group includes Olmedo, Stolle, Anderson and Gimeno. Olmedo has the edge in Slam totals with three, Stolle and Anderson with two each, and Gimeno with only one – that one being the 1972 French Open which he won at 34 years of age. Actually, Gimeno is the only player other than Rosewall who who won a Slam after the age of 32 during the Open Era. Anderson had a long and storied career. He won only two Slams – the 1957 US Open and the 1959 Wembley Pro, but made a Slam final as late as 1972 at age 36, losing to the 37-year old Ken Rosewall in the Australian Open.

Regardless of the exact ranking, it is a very strong group – dominating tennis from the late 50s into the 70s, perhaps partially due to the weakness of the following generation, which we will look at in the next installment.

Works Cited:
[1] Quote from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lew_Hoad
[2] http://admin.tennischannel.com/goat/71.aspx

Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): State Library Victoria Collections

Hoad/Rosewall and Rod Laver photos: Wikimedia Commons

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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