Rocket Remembers: Laver’s ’69 Sweep of the Majors
by Joel Drucker
Though many have tried - including Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer - no man has matched Rod Laver's achievement of a calendar year Grand Slam.
On the 40th anniversary of his Open Era Grand Slam, legendary Aussie Rod Laver looks back on his fateful performances of '69 and a feat that may ultimately stand the test of time.
Forty years ago at the US Open, Rod Laver accomplished the extraordinary. His 1969 victory in New York capped off an incredible sweep of all four of tennis’ majors in one year. Though three men since have won a trio of Grand Slam events in the same year – Jimmy Connors in 1974, Mats Wilander in 1988, Roger Federer in 2004, ’06 and ’07 – none has come close to rivaling Laver’s achievement.
Says Laver, who turned 71 on 10 August, “I’ve thought about other players who came along after my Grand Slam like Becker or Sampras. There was every chance of them being able to do it, and it didn’t happen. Now we’re seeing two players in Nadal and Federer who are in there. But they’re probably going to ruin it for each other.”
Earlier this year, signs were pointing in a positive direction for Rafael Nadal. He’d won the Australian, seemed a lock to win Roland Garros and was defending Wimbledon champion. But odd twists and turns can occur, from red-hot opponents to injuries, scheduling challenges and the simple challenge of winning one tennis match after another. In Paris, Nadal was beaten by a sizzling Swede, Robin Soderling. At Wimbledon he was forced to abandon his title defence without striking a ball due to a knee injury. Says Laver, “Probably one of the most fortunate things for me was that I was healthy all year. It helped, of course, that all of the Slams were played on softer surfaces.”
Laver had also won all four majors in 1962 – itself a feat only equalled by Don Budge in 1938 – but as Laver himself notes, “I was an amateur then. Roy Emerson and I were the best amateurs, but there was a whole world of pros out there who weren’t allowed to compete at places like Wimbledon and Forest Hills. I probably wouldn’t have won those titles against the likes of Rosewall, Hoad and Gonzales.”
But to see how he did take all four in 1969 is to take a trip back to another time and place, where so much has changed – and yet, in many ways, so much of the sport’s competitive struggle remains the same.
It only makes sense that largest stadium at the Australian is named Rod Laver Arena. But long before basing itself in its state-of-the-art facility in Melbourne, the Australian Championships migrated all over the nation, the host site rotating between Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and way back in the ‘20s, Perth.
In 1969 the venue was Brisbane, located in the northeast of Australia in Laver’s home province, Queensland. Tennis only having gone Open in March of 1968, this was the first Australian Open. Milton Tennis Centre at Frew Park was nicely intimate, boasting a 7,000-seat stadium, grass courts – and that year, excessive heat and oppressive humidity.
Just a few ways tennis was different in those days: No tie-breaks. No chairs on changeovers. Players headed to the locker after the third set for a ten-minute break. And while triple-digit temperatures in contemporary tennis compel the Australian Open organisers to consider closing the roof, in 1969 that was unthinkable.
Each of these factors came in place when Laver met his fellow Aussie, Tony Roche in the semis. With a field of only 48 players, this was Laver’s fourth match of the tournament. Let’s just say he got his money’s worth. Laver won the first two sets 7-5, 22-20 (that’s not a misprint). Roche then dug in to take the third, 11-9.
With his head feeling like an exploding oven, Laver took a shower and stuffed cabbage leaves in his hat for a bit of relief. Water then was considered unhelpful.
Returning to the court, Laver was rapidly blitzed, Roche sprinting through the first five games. All Laver wanted to do now was hold serve so that he could start off the fifth serving. That mission accomplished, the match was now levelled. Only at 3-4 in the fifth did Laver at last break. Says Laver, “That was the equivalent of playing nine sets. Fitness had something do with being able to compete that day.”
In the finals he faced a familiar opponent, Andres Gimeno, a formidable Spaniard Laver had known from both his amateur days and the extensive years spent on the pro tour. Having been through the fires of hell versus Roche – a man who would win five of their nine matches that year – Gimeno was a relative walk in the park, Laver winning that match in straight sets.
Though Roland Garros has always been the most physically demanding of tennis’ majors, that did not deter such supremely fit Aussies as Emerson, Fred Stolle, Roche, Ken Rosewall and Laver from asserting themselves on it by playing aggressive tennis. As two-time champion Emerson says, “Clay then just wasn’t just a baseline game like it is very much now. Yes, you had to alter your game a little bit, be a bit more patient, but Rod was great at this. He mixed it up a lot.”
According to Emerson, who won the first two sets from Laver in the ’62 final but lost the match, “Rod sometimes was a bit of a slow starter. He always seemed to finish very well.”
Fittingly, in the second round Laver lost the first two sets against Dick Crealy, a long-limbed, slashing fellow Aussie. Squeaking out a win in the third set, Laver was relieved when the match was suspended due to darkness. Says Laver, “You always have matches you’re not happy with. You have to play your way through those situations.”
The next afternoon, Laver rapidly won the fourth set, but in the fifth, Crealy served at 4-4, 40-30 – and misfired on a very easy forehand volley. Capitalising on the error, Laver broke serve and swiftly closed out the match.
Once through this scare, Laver was superb. His opponent was a man nicknamed “the doomsday stroking machine,” the great Rosewall who had beaten Laver in the ’68 final. But on this day there was little Rosewall could do, Laver taking another Slam final in straight sets.
And then came Wimbledon. A year earlier, the All England Club had been a grand setting, pros and amateurs at last competing together on the biggest stage in tennis. As Laver writes in his soon-to-be-reissued autobiography, The Education of a Tennis Player, “It was a reunion, an amnesty ceremony with all the pros coming out from their holes once again in the sunshine of the All England Club’s forgiving smile.” It was only fitting that the winner that year was Laver.
Naturally, in 1969, with two majors tucked away, Laver was eager to defend his title. While such elements as weather and playing surface threw odd sorts of wrinkles into the mix in Brisbane and Paris, when it came to Wimbledon, Laver was the master of control. Whether driving his MG to the All England Club, whittling his grips in his flat or booking indoor practice courts, Laver adhered to his rituals with the discipline of a monk. “You forget that it’s Wimbledon and just get on with it.”
As in Paris, Laver nearly stumbled in the second round. Curiously assigned to Court 4, Laver lost the first two sets to Indian Premjit Lall and then stood at 3-3 in the third. But as Laver wrote in The Education of a Tennis Player, “You can only lose a tennis match” – a liberating realisation which helped Laver rattle off 15 straight games.
The final was against another Aussie, the man who’d preceded him as Wimbledon champ, big-serving John Newcombe. Six years younger than Laver, Newcombe was eager to take away Laver’s crown. With off-pace returns and lobs, Newcombe split the first two sets with Laver and moved ahead in the third, 4-1. Serving at 4-2, love-15, Newcombe struck a crosscourt forehand deep to Laver’s backhand. Showcasing his exceptional genius, Laver hit a nearly impossible winner, an underspin crosscourt backhand that went virtually parallel to the net. “You need both luck and intelligence,” says Laver. “You can’t just call it luck. You can control luck.” Soon enough, Laver was up two sets to one and a break in the fourth, closing it out with a crisp overhead.
That was the last time any man has left Wimbledon as the winner of the first three Slams. Contemporary fans may not believe this, but in 1974 Connors’ decision to play World Team Tennis compelled the ITF to ban him from Roland Garros. In ’88, Wilander was beaten in the quarters of Wimbledon. Federer’s three-Slam years have all been derailed at Roland Garros. Says Laver, “Maybe Roger just came around at a tough time, when a player like Nadal is around who sucks all the air out of Roger’s game. I think maybe Roger has to flatten out his game more, using less topspin so that Nadal doesn’t have time to run and run all day long.” Of course this year – for the first time in five years – Federer didn’t have to play Nadal in Paris.
One can imagine how glaring the spotlight would be if a player came to the US Open with three Slams in tow. But as Laver recalls, “Coming into the US Open the importance of it all wasn’t that big because tennis itself wasn’t that popular. At most, there were only 10-15 reporters. Everything a player does now is put under a microscope… Tennis is so much more popular, there’s so much more money, attention – everything is bigger.”
The venue, the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, was a far cry from today’s multi-million dollar, massive USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Players often journeyed to the event by subway, walked unobtrusively from the clubhouse to the courts and, as was the case at every major but Roland Garros, competed on grass courts.
Laver was not only seeking a second sweep of the majors, but he was also on the verge of fatherhood. His wife Mary was due to give birth the same day as that year’s US Open final.
But it didn’t quite happen that way. Ricky Laver was born two weeks later. And the finals were pushed back by excessive rain back to Tuesday, where 3,708 fans came to watch Laver take on Roche and endured two more delays lasting 90 and 30 minutes. How has tennis changed? After losing the first set 9-7, Laver donned spikes, covering the court easily to win the last three with the loss of but six games. Each of his Slam final wins had come over a future Hall of Famer. He’d also beaten a trio of Hall of Famers – Emerson, Dennis Ralston and defending US Open champion Arthur Ashe – to make it to the finals.
A bit more enthused than usual after a win, Laver jumped the net and won the biggest check of his year -- $16,000, or $2,000 less than a first-round loser earned at the 2008 US Open (but around $93,000 adjusted for inflation). “The money’s one thing,” says Laver. “But today’s game is much more physical than when we played. The ball is hit so much harder, the players generate so much speed and spin. I’d have to play differently if I was out there today.”
“That was a pretty good effort,” says Emerson with characteristic Australian understatement. “What Rod did in ’69 showed that what he did in ’62 was no fluke. It was tough to do it again. Come to think of it, it’s not easy to win all of four them even once. It’s going to be very difficult for someone to do that.”