Since the inception of “Open Tennis” in 1968, some great seasons have been celebrated by the premier competitors among the men. Roger Federer has thrice secured three majors in a single year, realizing that considerable feat in 2004, 2006 and 2007. Jimmy Connors won three of the four majors in 1974 and lost only four matches in that entire year. John McEnroe’s 1984 ranks right up there among the best, as the left-handed maestro won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and lost only three times across a dazzling season. Mats Wilander was magnificent in 1988, winning every “Big Four” event save Wimbledon. And Rafael Nadal was almost out of this world in 2008, becoming the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to capture Roland Garros and Wimbledon back to back, adding a gold medal at the Olympic Games.
But the greatest year any male tennis player has had in the Open Era was Rod Laver’s exhilarating 1969 season. The electrifying left-hander from Australia swept the four majors for his second Grand Slam, and held back a distinguished cast of top notch rivals including John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall, Andres Gimeno and Roy Emerson in the process of realizing that phenomenal feat. With the 40th Anniversary of Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam just around the corner, I wanted to get his recollections of that brilliant stretch, so I touched base with him at his home in California not long ago. As Laver spoke with me over the phone, I was reminded yet again of his enduring humility and decency.
As the conversation began, I asked him if it was hard to believe four decades have passed since his astounding 1969 achievement. “It is hard to believe it or even to want to accept that it was that long ago,” he answered. “Time flew.”
Indeed it did. I was there to witness Laver’s magic at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open that year, and in the eye of my mind it seems as if it all happened the day before yesterday. Laver’s recollections of that spectacular year remain vivid. He overcame a determined Roche 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 in the semifinals of the Australian Open in Brisbane at the start of that year before ousting the underrated Gimeno in a straight set final. At the French Open, he reversed the result of the 1968 championship match at Roland Garros, taking apart Rosewall in a straight set, final round match. Shifting to the lawns of Wimbledon from the slow clay of Paris, Laver concluded his business with impressive four set triumphs over Ashe and Newcombe. That set the stage for a U.S. Open triumph as Laver toppled Ashe and Roche back to back in impressive semifinal and final round skirmishes.
Reflecting on a number of those shining moments, Laver says, “Facing Rosewall in that French final was some of the best clay court tennis I ever played. Rarely do you beat Rosewall in straight sets. But different things stand out. Roche and I played for over four hours in Brisbane and I won in five sets. It could have all come to a screeching halt for me right there at the start of the year. Against Newk at Wimbledon, it was one set all and he was leading 4-1 in the third before I came back to win in four sets. [Laver won 6-4, 5-7,6-4,6-4].”
I reminded Laver of his admirable comeback against Ashe in the Wimbledon semifinals [2-6, 6-2, 9-7, 6-0] on a day when the American came out blazing in the first set with a cavalcade of devastatingly potent backhand return and passing shot winners. “I was sort of shell shocked in that first set,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even getting a hit. Arthur was just bomb blasting his returns and I just thought, ‘I have to keep plugging away because Arthur is going to come down to earth some time.’ It worked out for me. You just try to keep going at those times. You keep plugging away because you never know what is going to happen. It’s just like the [San Diego] Chargers when they played Kansas City in football on a recent weekend. They were way down, something like 27-10, with 70 seconds left in the game and they won by one point. So, in sports, you just don’t know until you put your best effort in.”
That last remark is an excellent illustration of Laver’s philosophy as a competitor. He always gave it his all until a match was over, and made a habit out of recouping from adverse positions over and over again. Fittingly, Laver rallied to beat Roche (7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2) in a four set U.S. Open final in 1969 after accounting for Ashe in the penultimate round (in straight sets) to complete his mission. He had dealt with the best possible opposition all year long, and somehow did not fall in a major. How does he feel about the great players he confronted then compared to the leading competitors today?
”The game has changed so much,” responds Laver. “There were a lot of good players that I played in my era and time zone. I guess you look at them and that was probably as good a group as is around today. There are more of them around today and they all play differently because of the rackets. Give some of the players of today a wooden racket and they may not be wanting to play the game. You had to put a lot more effort into the game back in the years when we were playing with wood. My coach Charlie Hollis used to say, ‘It is five years for a forehand, five years to get the backhand, five years for smashes and serves and the volley.’ He felt you had to put that much time into it to make it to the top.”
Is Laver saying that there is simply no substitute for hard work? “Well,” he replies, “that was the only way to get there and that has been proven time and again. You saw some wonderful talent that was out there in the game in the past and they said, ‘I am not going to work this hard. This is too tough.’ And you could name a few, but I don’t want to. The same thing happens today with talent gone to waste. But you look at some of the players out there in the qualifiers who are awfully good players and you have to be fortunate to get a good draw where some guy is not playing his best and you beat him, get some confidence, and you are on your way.”
As Laver examines the people residing at and near the top of the sport at the moment, he offers his opinions freely and with quiet conviction. “I still think Federer is the most talented guy playing today. You look at Nadal and he is a road runner and I think unfortunately if his knees are giving him a little trouble now, in another year those knees might get more difficult. If he is going to win his matches with his legs and his knees are giving him trouble, it could be tough for Nadal. For me, I think Federer is going to come back next year for sure and win some Grand Slams. Whether or not he wins more than one depends on whether his drive is still there.”
Returning to Nadal and the Spaniard’s quest to stay at the top, Laver says, “If his knees are fine he will be awfully tough to beat. And maybe his knees will not be that big a problem. Maybe he was just tired by the time he got to the U.S. Open this past year. His court coverage is something everybody marvels at and I don’t think he needs to improve his serve any more. It is not a big serve but he has got a fair bit of spin on the ball and let that be all he needs. He is not going to serve-and-volley so why worry about it? His net play really impressed me this last year, the way he was coming in and volleying and taking it to his opponent rather than always being at the baseline in a recovering situation. He is a great player.”
Laver watched Nadal and Federer produce their masterpiece at Wimbledon in the final last July, observing the stupendous contest on television. He muses, “That was one of the best matches I have ever seen. The tension was there. It was five sets. It was the biggest match of both of their careers in a way and they were really battling it out. I guess I was on Federer’s side to pull it out because he is such a solid all around player and a nice individual. I haven’t met Rafael. But you had to marvel at both of them the way they were competing.”
When I spoke with Laver in the fall of 2007, he was disillusioned by the on court demeanor of Andy Murray, whom he felt was much too negative and prone to unnecessary outbursts. Laver is very impressed with the progress Murray has made. “He is a different player. It was great to see him come through that period he was in when he seemed like he was angry at everybody. He has found that some maturity has come into his game and he has unfolded into a great talent. He could win a major in 2009. He has to have his head screwed on right so that when he is playing tough matches he can pull through them. But he is very capable.”
Laver has discussed today’s leading competitors with typical candor and insight. But I wanted to get more from him on his career. We spoke about his crucial years in pro tennis from 1963-67, a five year stretch when he was barred from the four Grand Slam events. He ended his career with 11 majors and would undoubtedly have won a bundle more, but he does not look back with remorse about what he decided to do.
“I don’t have any regrets about turning pro and playing for five years with the likes of Lew Hoad and Rosewall, Pancho Gonzalez, Gimeno, Butch Buchholz and Barry MacKay. I became a better player when I turned pro. Until then I was certainly able to win matches but I wasn’t a ‘professional’ in how I played. When you turned pro then you noticed that the guys like Rosewall, Hoad and Gonzalez didn’t miss many first serves, never missed a first volley and they always made you play. You had to play hard to win as I found out, so I improved a great deal on all my shots.”
At the outset, the best of the professionals were gaining more than their share of victories over Laver and beating him to the tactical and technical punch, but that all changed. “They were a lot better than me at the beginning,” reflects Laver. “When I played Hoad, it was tough for me because he was my idol. I was just happy to be around him I guess. I think I improved by playing better players. You tend to raise your game because you see what they can do.”
The standout performers Laver took on during that era were unmistakably Hoad, Rosewall and Gonzalez. On any given night, the explosive Hoad was unstoppable. Day in and day out, Rosewall-labeled appropriately “The Little Master”— was an absolute model of consistency and ball control. Gonzalez was as ferocious a competitor as the game has yet seen.
Says Laver, “Lew was probably the best player I had seen. He could play a match as well as anybody could possibly do it. Gonzalez was older with a fiery temper. He was unbelievable with his temperament, his match playing ability and his serve. He was such a fighter.”
Was the imposing Gonzalez intimidating, even for a player of Laver’s stature? “In some ways,” answers Rod. “I finally got over that side of him. I was accused of quick serving him and various things and we had a few verbal battles on the court. Rosewall was forever competitive and I guess he was probably my toughest opponent. He had such great court craft and knowledge of who he was playing, his ground strokes were so good, and his consistency was unbelievable. His volleying was always there. His smash could be weaker but you really couldn’t take much advantage of it.”
As Laver recalls his drive to make it to the top of pro tennis, he says, “It took me about 18 months or so. I won some matches but Rosewall was certainly No. 1 until then, not me. It took some time to get there and, even when I did, every match was a battle. We were called ‘The Dirty Pros’ and there was this talk about fixed matches, but that was far from the truth. I found that out quickly. Everyone played as hard as they could.”
Laver will be flying from California to Melbourne for the second week of the Australian Open. He has been asked to come back to present the trophy to the men’s champion, and will be joined on site by all of the players he beat in the finals of those 1969 majors: Gimeno, Rosewall, Newcombe and Roche. He is looking forward to that.
“I haven’t seen Andres Gimeno in a while, and I am looking forward to seeing Newk, Muscles [Rosewall], and Roche as well. They have got something organized [to celebrate the Laver 1969 Slam] with interviews or whatever. I am very honored to be presenting the winner his trophy.”
As Laver returns to his homeland and has a chance to reflect on a majestic career— which stretched into his late thirties and included some sparkling performances in the early 1970’s— what springs to mind more than anything else? He responds, “Having not had too many injuries, always playing hard, shaking my opponent’s hand win or lose, and wishing him well. I think if you look back at my career, you can say I was fair, I tried hard and played the best I could. That is the way I wanted to leave the sport. I was happy to compete all those years. I believe your record is part of your character and I was very proud of that record and how I portrayed myself.”
As well he should be. Rod Laver not only deserves serious consideration in any discussion about who is the greatest tennis player of all time, but he also should be revered as a singularly gracious champion who did as much as anyone to raise the profile of tennis at a crucial time during the early stages of the Open Era.