40 years on since 'Rocket' Rod's 2nd Grand Slam
The Associated Press
Published: January 19, 2009
CARLSBAD, Calif.: It was the final year of a turbulent decade, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Beatles were about to release "Abbey Road," and Neil Armstrong had just taken man's first steps on the moon.
There was another rocket launch in 1969, one that still resonates in the sports world today — Rod Laver wrapped up his second career Grand Slam of tennis.
"That was sort of a different time," Laver mused recently after his usual Tuesday night match with his son, Rick, and a handful of mates at La Costa. "There were some interesting things that went on."
Hard to believe, but it's been four decades since the slightly built, red-haired Australian known as "Rocket" won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year.
Now 70, Laver is heading Down Under next week to be honored at the Australian Open for the 40th anniversary of his second Grand Slam. He also won tennis' four biggest tournaments as an amateur in 1962.
The four men he beat with his powerful left arm in his 1969 Grand Slam, Spaniard Andres Gimeno and fellow Aussies Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, are scheduled to join Laver at a legends lunch.
Laver also is set to present the trophy following the men's final at Rod Laver Arena.
"I'm very honored. Plus, having the name on the stadium is quite a coup," Laver said. "That's sort of really the crowning achievement of my whole career is having my name on it."
He also has his name on the back of his green-and-white Adidas.
"Of course I do," he laughs, cheery as ever.
You know, the Rod Laver tennis shoe.
Laver enjoys talking about his Grand Slams — if asked. He's not like the 1972 Miami Dolphins, popping a bottle of champagne when the last team with a chance to match their undefeated season is beaten. Besides, beer is Laver's drink of choice — "steak in a bottle, mate," is how he describes it, as only an Aussie could.
"I guess my makeup's not one to be flamboyant," said Rocket, given the sarcastic nickname by Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, who felt the 17-year-old Laver was a bit lackadaisical. "I just enjoyed playing and competing."
The years go by, and no one's joined American Don Budge (1938) and the unassuming Laver as the only men to win the Grand Slam.
"One of the greatest athletes of a whole lifetime," said Carlos Moya, the 1998 French Open winner. "Nobody since has been able to achieve that. It shows how difficult it is in tennis to win the four slams in one year, or even to win the four slams in more than one year."
Laver won Wimbledon four times, the Australian Open three times and the U.S. and French championships twice each. He added six Grand Slam titles in men's doubles and three in mixed doubles.
Laver likely would have won many more majors but was banned from the Grand Slam events in his prime after he turned pro in 1963. He did not return to the majors until the Open era in 1968, then promptly won Wimbledon for the third time.
"The nicest thing to begin with was that I was even allowed back at the stadiums, because we were pros," Laver said. "I won the Grand Slam as an amateur in '62 but then I just accepted that that's the end of Wimbledon and Forest Hills and all those places because I turned pro."
Laver ushered in the 1969 season, the first full year of the Open era, by beating Gimeno in straight sets to win the Australian Open.
To get there, he outlasted Roche in a 4 1/2-hour, five-set semifinal that included a 22-20 second set.
Roche, also a lefty, threw a bit of a twist at Rocket.
"I spent five years in the pro ranks and there were no left-handers in there, so he was totally new to me to play," Laver said. "For me it was hard because the ball's coming the reverse way. You get used to seeing a right-hander and the ball's coming this way, so you're chasing. Now all of a sudden it's coming this way, and you've got to get away from the ball to make returns of serve."
Laver won the French Open with another straight-set final, against Rosewall.
"It's a great tournament, but it's a tough tournament to win, because all the European players, they're used to playing on clay," Laver said. "I enjoyed the clay, but you're just one of the pack. As it turned out, I played probably some of my best tennis. It's pretty hard to beat Rosewall three straight sets. Everything clicked."
He was halfway there.
"I guess I'm thinking it's possible now. I've won three Wimbledons prior. It's possible to win Wimbledon. You're starting to feel pretty good about yourself. Certainly at no time am I thinking I'm going to win a Grand Slam."
Laver beat Newcombe in a four-set final. In the semis, Laver had to rally against Arthur Ashe after losing the first set 6-2.
"He started out like a house on fire, and I'm thinking, 'What is going on here?'" Laver said. "Then he's up a break in the second set. I said, 'Well, he can't keep this up, surely.' He's bombing my big serves with return serves, serving aces, everything's clicking, and finally, he did, he came down to earth. Those matches are ones that you remember."
Wimbledon was his favorite tournament.
"Everybody who's anybody wants to play at Wimbledon. So that atmosphere is just unbelievable. The adrenaline flows and your concentration is better."
A month after turning 31, Laver completed the Grand Slam by defeating Roche in four sets in a rain-delayed Monday final at the U.S. Open.
Laver remembers the helicopter that was brought in to try to dry the court and switching to spiked shoes after losing the first set.
"It made a mess of the ... court," he said.
Having spent his off-court time hidden away in friend Charlton Heston's Manhattan apartment, Rocket said he didn't feel any pressure.
"I felt keyed up, but I didn't feel like nerves had got to me. I was pretty thrilled I was able to go through the whole year, nine months, from January to September, you know, getting fit, staying healthy, because you've got to be fortunate not to have any injuries, no colds, no flu, nothing to put you down. It's not only your tennis, it's the good fortune of a staying healthy."
Laver always thought Boris Becker and Pete Sampras would win the Grand Slam, but neither even made it to the final of the French Open.
"Roger Federer is very capable of winning all of them," said Laver, who's lived with wife, Mary, in northern San Diego County for several years. "His only nemesis is the French, and along comes Nadal. It seems like it's going to be more and more difficult because there's so much talent on the world circuit."
Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Jim Courier each won the first two majors in the same year, but no man since Laver has won the first three majors. Jimmy Connors, Wilander and Federer (three times) are the only men to win three majors in a year since Laver.
Federer, seeking to tie Sampras' mark of 14 Grand Slam singles championships, thinks it's realistic to win all four majors in the same year, "if you are on top of things."
He also gives a nod to Laver's legacy.
"What he has achieved is remarkable, you know, so it's kind of nice to be part of such an elite group as those players, and I'm always happy when I see him again," Federer said.
Federer rates Laver's place in tennis history "very high up. I mean, they didn't name the Centre Court at the Australian Open after him for nothing. Australia had some all-time greats ... so they had an incredible era. Then Open tennis came and they are still very strong because of Rod Laver."
AP Sports Writer John Pye in Melbourne, Australia, and AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.