It is not hard to find material when the subject is all-time great Australian tennis players. The difficulty lies in deciding upon which one of the many to examine.
We have looked at many, both men and women, including Laver, Rosewall, Newcombe, Goolagong and Court, so it is with a sense of finally having time to give this legend his due that we arrive at the name of Anthony “Tony” Dalton Roche AO MBE (17 May 1945).
Roche was born in the New South Wales town of Tarcutta. He played junior tennis in Wagga Wagga, where the so-called Wagga effect, perhaps the consequence of a high level of salinity in the water, has produced a disproportionate number of world-class athletes in cricket, footy, rugby, soccer, horseracing, golf and athletics.
During the course of his career, when he joined the ranks of the amateurs in 1963, when professional tennis almost had a stigma that found many of the top players staying away and when he retired in 1979 after 11 years as a professional, he had 26 titles, with a career record of 235 – 114 in singles. His lone Grand Slam Singles title was the 1966 French Open where he defeated Istvan Gulyas of Hungary in straight sets in a best of five final. He was runner up to another Australian, Fred Stolle in 1965 and again in 1967, this time to Roy Emerson. He was runner up to Rod Lave in the 1968 Wimbledon championships, to Laver again in the 1969 U.S. Open, and yet one final time to Ken Rosewall in the 1970 U.S. Open. To which we say, Mr. Roche, if you have to lose, at least keep it in the country.
Somewhat interestingly, Roche never made it beyond the semifinals in the Australian Open. He lost to Stolle in 1965, Emerson in 1967, Laver in 1969, and eventual champion John Newcombe in 1975.
Roche ascended as high as number two in the world ranking system of Lance Tingay in 1969, when Laver was in the next-to-last of his seven years atop the world rankings. This was the second year of the Open Era, which signified the end of the distinction betwixt amateurs and professionals.
Roche was a left-hander, which as people who play the game know, is a bit of an advantage, since serving across the body is easier, and for a left-hander, that serve goes into the ad court, where games can be won at love-40, 30 – 40 and advantage, whereas in the deuce court, games can only be won at 40 – 15. Rod Laver made superb use of this advantage. Roche hit his backhand with one hand, like a man.
Of his non-Grand Slam victories, many of them came at the expense of Rod Laver, but later in his career, beginning in 1978, he turned his attention to the Americans, Including Vitas Gerulaitis, Dick Stockton and Bad Boy John McEnroe, the player who made Nasty Ilie Nastase seem like the model of decorum.
It was as a doubles player where Tony Roche left his mark. Those were the days when tennis players had a doubles match immediately after they finished a singles match, instead of heading to the trainer’s table for a massage.
For the Open Era alone, he and his partners compiled a record of 208 – 94, earning 18 titles and ranking number one in the world in 1965. He won the Grand Slam of the Grand Slams for his career, with five victories in the Australian Open, two at the French Open, and five at Wimbledon and one in the U.S. Open. The first of these 13 came in 1965 and the last in 1977. He also had two runner-up finishes. John Newcombe was his partner for 12 of the 13 titles. The last one saw him team with Arthur Ashe to win the 1977 Australian Open. Rosewall, Laver, Stolle and Emerson, in various combinations, were often the victims of Roche and Newcombe’s prowess.
Roche also played some mixed doubles, winning one Wimbledon and one Australian, and finishing runner up twice at Wimbledon and one in the Australian.
In the final three years before the Open Era, Roche was a member of three Davis Cup winning Australian teams. The Aussies beat Spain in Sydney in 1965, India in Melbourne in 1966, and Spain again in Brisbane in 1967.
For lovers of a good drama, however, it was probably his play in the singles final of the 1977 Davis Cup that was the crowning moment in his Davis Cup Career. After not having taken part in Davis Cup for 10 years, he was trotted out for one final moment against Italy and Adriano Panatta, who Roche beat in straight sets to lead Australia to the victory.
Injuries began to catch up with Roche in 1977 at the age of 32. He concluded having been ranked in the top 10 for six consecutive years.
Roche was a coach of the now-defunct World Team Tennis League in 1974, coaching the Denver Racquets to the first championship of the league. He also worked as a coach for Ivan Lendl to help the German win Wimbledon. He also coached Patrick Rafter for 1997 until the end of Rafter’s career in 2002. Roger Federer sought his aid to increase his results on clay. He coached Lleyton Hewitt when that player was struggling, enjoying seeing his protégé winning two Grand Slam singles titles.
Roche was the recipient of many honours, all completely deserved. In 1981, he was made MBE and Australia conferred a similar distinction, AO, in 2001. He and John Newcombe entered the International Tennis Hall of Fame together in 1986. Induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame came along in 1990, followed by an Australian Sports Medal in 2000 and last but not least, a Centenary Medal in 2001.
As of this writing, the 70-year-old lives in the Sydney suburb of Turramurra where, still fit and hale, he coaches junior players preparing to pursue qualification pro tours on the ATP.