Commentary

Laver's season Slam stands test of time

Updated: September 7, 2009, 1:38 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

He turned 71 last month, but Rod Laver isn't aging without a fight. He's multitasking on this bright August day, simultaneously working out and patiently walking a reporter through his taut 1969 Wimbledon final against John Newcombe.

You can hear him straining on the Lifecycle in the fitness room at the picturesque La Costa resort, not far from his home in Carlsbad, Calif.

"Wait a minute," Laver says in his wonderfully precise Australian accent, mellowed ever so slightly by many years in Southern California. "Let me go outside. There's a lot going on in here."

A minute later, he picks up the thread precisely where he left off: "Now, Newcombe was quite a test for me. He's the thinking man's champion. He started slow-balling me, lobbing me. I knew that would happen."

In this day of the perpetually shrinking attention span, it is fashionable to say Roger Federer is the greatest male tennis player of all time. This may or may not be true. Certainly, Laver -- along with Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras -- is a valid entry in that conversation.

For the record, though, Federer, Borg and Sampras never won all four major titles -- the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open -- in a single year. Laver did it twice, as an amateur in 1962 and again in 1969 as a professional in the dawning Open era. He might have done it again if he'd been allowed to play the Grand Slam events from 1963 to 1967; because he was a professional, he was banned. It's been 40 years since man walked on the moon, since a generation came together in Woodstock, N.Y. Four decades since the Mets miraculously won their first World Series and Laver, at the age of 31, completed the calendar Grand Slam with a four-set victory over fellow Aussie Tony Roche at Forest Hills.

No man has done it since.

The player's player

"When you go to some of the locations, Wimbledon or the Australian Open, it seems like a long time ago because of all the new players and stadiums," said Laver, who is terminally freckle-faced and still sports his trademark rust-colored hair. "But then you see some fellow competitors, and get to talking and it only seems like a few years."

Laver, a lefty, stood only 5-foot-8, but he was strong and exceptionally fit, even among his professional peers. His left forearm was so big it bordered on cartoonish. Like the rest of the Aussies of that day, Laver played a classic serve-and-volley game. He had powerful wrists, which allowed him to play heavy topspin from both sides, then a relatively new phenomenon -- a difficult enterprise with the wooden rackets and strings of the day. His running backhand was a thing of beauty. Early in his career, Laver was so enamored of his shot-making ability that he sometimes forgot to play the percentages. In his prime, though, he evolved into a technician and adapted to changing conditions better than any of his peers.

Darren Cahill was only 3 years old when Laver ran the table in 1969. Growing up in the Australian junior system, Cahill learned very quickly what Laver had meant to his country and the sport of tennis. He and his other contemporaries, Pat Cash and John Fitzgerald among them, would jockey for position in hotel restaurants for the opportunity to eat breakfast with the legend.

[+] EnlargeRod Laver
Getty ImagesDiminutive by today's standards, Rod Laver was one of the most tenacious players to ever set foot on a tennis court.

"From a physical point of view, he's not overly imposing, but his presence is enormous," said Cahill, an ESPN analyst. "He was somebody we all looked up to. To be honest, the butterflies come to your stomach when you have a chance to visit with him.

"What he did still stands the test of time."

Laver's achievement is detailed in "The Education of a Tennis Player," a book written by Laver and Bud Collins in 1971 and reissued this year to commemorate the anniversary. The Slam made little initial impact outside of the cloistered world of tennis, but over the years it gradually has grown in stature.

Laver had just turned 18 when fellow Aussie Lew Hoad found himself playing for history at the U.S. Championships at Forest Hills in 1956.

Hoad and another 21-year-old amateur from Down Under, Ken Rosewall, battled in the final. Hoad, who had beaten Rosewall in both the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals, was looking to win the first men's Grand Slam since Don Budge in 1938 -- and he very nearly did it. But after winning the first set, Hoad succumbed to Rosewall.

Six years later, Laver pulled off the rare quadruple. At the top of his muscular game, Laver won 22 of 27 tournaments -- including all four major championships, three of them on grass -- and, including Davis Cup and other events, produced a ludicrous match record of 167-15.

"We didn't get big prize money back then," Laver said, laughing. "You had to play a lot of matches."

Cliff Drysdale -- one of Laver's many victims during his Grand Slam sweep in 1969, falling to the Aussie in the fourth round at Wimbledon -- was the last man to beat Laver in a major before the epic streak.

"He had the kind of variety of stroke and game that Roger Federer has," Drysdale said. "And he was the player's player. When the Rocket went out to play, the player's box was always full. That to me was the greatest compliment to a player. Sort of like Federer now."

In 1963, Laver turned professional, joining Hoad and Rosewall in exile from the major championships.

Dobbs From a physical point of view, he's not overly imposing, but his presence is enormous.

-- ESPN analyst Darren Cahill

"I think the amateur-professional era is the most, probably the biggest issue that people under 50 don't understand -- they have no clue," said John Fitzgerald, the Australian Davis Cup captain. "Even 30-year-olds in the game, 20-year-olds playing today, it's a foreign thought to them. It's a great part of the game's history people don't comprehend."

Five years later, the Grand Slam events, conceding that the best players weren't participating, began the Open era by allowing professionals to compete for major titles. Laver, who reached the 1968 final at Roland Garros, won only one that year (Wimbledon). In 1969, he would be perfect on the grand stage.

Asked to provide some brief thoughts on each of those majors, Laver politely laughed.

"It's 40 years ago," he said.

And then he launched into a narrative chillingly exact in its detail.

A perfect run

Perhaps the most difficult match of the 26 required to complete the Slam came relatively early, on the grass at the Australian Open. It was 105 degrees in Brisbane on the day of his semifinal with Tony Roche. Laver won the first set 7-5, but he needed 42 games to win the second 22-20. Roche came back to win the third and fourth sets 11-9 and 6-1, but Laver rallied to win the 4½-hour match 6-3 in the fifth.

"We had been pros together for five years, so I knew his game," Laver said of Roche. "That was a long, hard match. I have to say I played well in that event."

He beat Andres Gimeno of Spain in the final, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5.

In the second round on the slow, red clay at Roland Garros, Laver ran into another Australian. Dick Crealy, of all people, stunned Laver by winning the first two sets. And then Laver found equilibrium, taking the last three sets easily. After beating Roche in the semifinals, Laver's opponent in the French Open final was Rosewall.

"He beat me the year before at French, so I was pretty much geared for a tough match," Laver said. "I played some of my best tennis, not making errors. To win in straight sets was a little bit of a surprise."

Laver won with deceptive ease 6-4, 6-3, 6-4.

Wimbledon provided another second-round scare, when Premjit Lall ran off with the first two sets; Laver allowed him only three games over the last three sets. Stan Smith, Drysdale and Arthur Ashe fell in succession. But when Newcombe surprised Laver in the final with a steady variety of junk, he didn't panic.

"Fortunately," Laver said, "I maintained my calm and kept my percentages up. He had to keep doing what he was doing to beat me. That was one of the best moments, at Wimbledon."

Laver was a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 winner.

Roche, for many reasons, was one of Laver's most difficult opponents. He was mentally tough, and he had remained an amateur when Laver turned pro, so for five years, Laver said, he never saw a left-handed player. In 1969, Roche had beaten Laver three previous times, in Sydney, Auckland and Boston and would wind up with the only winning record over Laver that year. With the Grand Slam on the line, Roche fittingly would be the opponent in the U.S. Open.

Fortunately, Laver said, rain intervened. After waiting two days for a break in the weather, they finally took to the soggy, rutted grass court on a Tuesday. After he dropped the first set 9-7, Laver asked the referee if he could switch to spiked shoes.

"He said it was fine," Laver said. "Tony didn't have spikes and wouldn't have worn them, even if he did. I was used to playing with spikes; they were short, 3/8-inch flat spikes. I was more at ease getting around the court, and it panned out."

The match was visited by two lengthy rain delays, but Laver, moving easily through the muck, ran off the last three sets, 6-1, 6-3, 6-2.

Laver and his fellow pros knew what he had accomplished, but there was little public fanfare after his victory.

"We didn't keep a tally in those days," Drysdale explained. "Even in the tennis world it was sort of ho-hum. You have to understand how different those days were. I took the subway to play the Forest Hills final in 1965 -- with the spectators. That's just the way it was."

A different time

The kid from Rockhampton, Queensland, that Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman dubbed "Rocket" is into his eighth decade now.

He suffered a stroke in 1998, but has worked hard to come back. He plays a little golf now and then, but tennis is difficult.

"The arthritis in my left wrist," Laver said. "I can't hold the racket."

[+] EnlargeRod Laver
Lucas Dawson/Getty ImagesHow many more major titles would Rod Laver have won if he didn't miss five years of Grand Slam play?

Nevertheless, he manages to rally occasionally with his son, Rick Rodney, who was born in that Grand Slam season of 1969. Several times a week, Laver works out at the La Costa resort.

"The instructor lady helps me get motivated," he said. "For awhile, I was a little tardy on exercise. I'm doing better now."

Forty years after his second Grand Slam, Laver has enjoyed something of a victory lap. In Australia, where the center court at Melbourne Park bears his name, Laver handed the championship trophy to Rafael Nadal in February. Tournament officials brought together Laver and the four men he beat in the major finals -- Gimeno (who flew in from Barcelona), Rosewall, Newcombe and Roche.

John Fitzgerald and Darren Cahill were masters of ceremonies.

"To be honest, it was a bit nerve-racking," Fitzgerald said. "We didn't want to stuff it up.

"At the end of the luncheon, Rod said he was glad they all came together again. These were the days when you trained together, drank beer at night together -- and then played guys one-on-one, gladiator style. Rod said, 'Some of these guys were my best friends, even though we were adversaries on the court.'

"Obviously, it's a little different today."

This summer, the International Tennis Hall of Fame threw him a party, too.

Laver never won another major title after 1969; he played in only eight more Grand Slam events over the last eight years of his career. His five-year exclusion from the majors leaves one wondering what might have been. If Laver, who won 11 major singles titles, had been allowed to play those 20 majors, well, how many more would he have?

Laver sighed into the phone. He has heard this sort of dangerous, hypothetical calculus before.

"That's under the bridge," he said. "It's a different time."

There is another side to the discussion. Would Laver have won that first Slam in 1962 if professionals like Hoad, Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez had been allowed to play? No, said Laver, and his early professional results, in 1963, support that argument. Three of the four majors in 1969 were played on grass, a surface on which Laver excelled. Which leads to another question: Would he have completed the two Slams if only one major event had been played on grass, as it is today?

"I came along at a good time," Laver said. "The grass was a tricky surface, but I was comfortable on it. You learned to serve and volley. You didn't want to let the ball bounce [on the uneven surface]. I mean, today Wimbledon's grass looks like a billiard table."

Did Laver ever think 40 years would pass without someone equaling his Grand Slam?

"No," he said. "I wouldn't have thought so. Coming up, Boris Becker had a chance. He was a big, strong kid, but that didn't happen. Pete [Sampras] had problems with the clay. Rafa Nadal -- it's uncanny how great he is on clay courts -- but he hasn't sustained it through an entire season."

Laver, one of the most humble, unfailingly polite champions you will ever meet, achieved perhaps the greatest, most muscular feats in the history of his sport. And yet, at the time, he said, it was no big deal.

"Back then, they didn't call it a Grand Slam event," Laver remembered. "It was Forest Hills or the U.S. Open. After the final, there were probably 10 people in the press. When it came to the tennis world, it was an amateur world.

"Oh, no, there was nothing made of it at all. It was great achievement -- as far as it went."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.