Only five players have won the highly coveted Grand Slam, thereby securing the four major championships in a single year. Don Budge did it in 1938, Maureen Connolly realized the feat in 1953, Margaret Smith Court made a successful quest in 1970, and the last person to join the exclusive club was Steffi Graf in 1988. But the one and only champion to capture the Grand Slam twice was Rod Laver—in 1962 as an amateur and again seven years later in the second year of “Open Tennis”. In my view, Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam must be regarded as the most prodigious of all those shining seasons because he faced the sternest opposition and met that challenge as only he could.
As the tennis world sharply focusses on Serena Williams heading to the U.S. Open later this summer in full pursuit of the first Grand Slam in 27 years, I thought it would be an ideal time to touch base with Laver and get his observations on Williams and a wide range of topics in the game. I watched Laver many times at pro tournaments in the mid-1960s at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden and elsewhere, saw him take the first “Open” Wimbledon in 1968, and was present for his Wimbledon and U.S. Open triumphs a year later as he completed that extraordinary Grand Slam. I interviewed him for the first time in 1974 at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
Over the years, I have always found Laver strikingly forthcoming, generous yet candid about others, appealingly understated about himself and his mighty accomplishments, and a fundamentally decent fellow. Speaking with the affable Australian again last week, I realized nothing had changed. He answered my telephone call late in the afternoon at his California home, and our conversation commenced with Williams. What are her chances of winning the Grand Slam this year?
Laver responds, “She seems to gear herself up for the big ones. I was there at Wimbledon and that was no different. She was fortunate to come back in a couple of long matches but Serena seems to be able to pull them out. She is a strong individual. When she is in trouble, she pours on the heavy hitting. She is mentally strong and can come up with aces when she needs them. Her groundstrokes are very strong and she goes for everything on her returns all the time. She has got to win seven matches and that is as far as it goes. If she looks at it that way, she has a total chance of going all the way in New York. If Serena is not available for interviews and she practices somewhere nobody knows about, that would be a smart play on her part. I see her having a darned good chance of coming through at the U.S. Open.”
Novak Djokovic might well have joined Williams in a bid for the Grand Slam had he won the French Open final over Stan Wawrinka in Paris. The Serbian has been in all three major finals this year and has taken two Grand Slam titles. How much better can Djokovic get? Laver answers, “I guess he can get better but I don’t know that he needs to get any better. His groundstrokes are always very deep and that is what beat Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final. Novak was keeping those groundstrokes so deep and he didn’t miss, so Roger had to start going for winners off almost half-volleys, so you miss-time those. Djokovic serves well, moves well and volleys well, but he doesn’t have to go to the net that much. He can stay back as long as he likes. I didn’t say anything at the time to very many people other than my close friends, but I felt there was a good chance that if Djokovic won that final of the French Open he would probably go all the way to a Grand Slam. I was surprised Wawrinka could play as well as he did in that final. I was expecting a lot more mistakes from him but he held up so well and played a great final. Djokovic was truly beaten that day by someone he didn’t think could play that well.”
Laver was 31 when he completed his second Grand Slam forty-six years ago. He recollects with ease how much more difficult it became to perform at peak efficiency as he moved deeper into his thirties. How does he feel now about Federer as the Swiss approaches 34? Is Federer at this age comparable to Laver when the left-handed Australian was a few years younger?
“Against Andy Murray at Wimbledon,” says Laver, “I am not sure Roger could have played any better. He served 20 aces in three sets, hit every line in the book and was playing beautifully. His groundstrokes were great and he did everything he could that day. My own thought was that he was going to beat Djokovic in the final because he was playing so well and he had done that for two weeks. He had won over in Halle before Wimbledon. I saw him during Wimbledon a couple of times and joked that maybe I should put a dollar or two on him [to win the tournament] and he said, ‘You would have a good chance.’ He comes up with those sorts of statements and you know he feels he is playing well. He knows how capable he still is. At 31, I was strong in my own mind and I felt as fit as I had been in my whole life. I didn’t need to think about how long it might take me to win a match. That didn’t even enter my head. So I think Roger is in the same position now [as I was then].”
Seeking clarification of that point, I asked Laver to elaborate. He went on, “Roger is keen to play and he is eager. It is a mental thing. He could still be playing well and all of a sudden, he might say, ‘Where is my form? It has been perfect but today it is only so-so.’ That is what I found when I was coming to the end of my career. You feel there is no reason at all that you are not playing well but, for some reason, mentally you are not up for the match. That seems to be the thing that got me. This was not at 31 or 32, but on down the line a bit. But Roger is very determined and enthusiastic about playing now.”
We shifted in the conversation to the one man who has always haunted Federer across their careers, to the player who has perennially given the Swiss fits, to the left-handed dynamo from Spain named Rafael Nadal. Nadal, of course, has had his own inner struggle over the last year, and he finds himself currently located at the unthinkable position of No. 10 in the world. He has a chance to jumpstart his year if he can win on the clay in Hamburg, but how does Laver assess the plight of this inimitable character with the large heart, high intensity and a currently muddled mind?
“Most of it,” affirms Laver, “is that Nadal is mentally drained. Yes, he has slowed down a bit on just totally getting to a ball and getting back into position, which he did unbelievably when he was confident. But now I look at some of the errors or mental mistakes he is making and you think, ‘How did you do that, Rafa? You were ready to hit a winner and you miss-hit that shot.’ To me that is a sign of just not being confident enough. His game is so unique and I am wondering sometimes if he really knew how he did it three or four years ago? The magic that he came up with when he was running wide on the forehand side and then whipping the ball down the line and it would curve right into the corner at the last second—he hasn’t done that much recently. He is not timing the ball as well as he would like. Nadal has to get into a tough match and come out of it to renew his confidence. I like Rafa. He has been great for the game. He plays so hard. But then you see him lose that match [to Dustin Brown] at Wimbledon. It was a crazy match and I watched about a set of it before I had to go do something else. I thought when I left that he would come good. It has got to be worrying to him.”
Few know the nuances of tennis better than Rod Laver. What is his analysis of Andy Murray? Here is a player solidly stationed at No. 3 in the world, a man who won the Olympics, U.S. Open and Wimbledon in the span of less than a year from the summer of 2012 into the following summer. Can Murray recapture that status?
“I would think so,” answers Laver. “He played a fairly good match against Roger at Wimbledon but Roger played brilliantly to beat Andy. He had a good season on the clay this year and he could be a force at the U.S. Open when he gets there.”
Laver was concerned at one time about Murray’s fragile temperament. Does he believe that the British competitor has grown up over the last few years? “Yes, it looks like it. He has improved that. He didn’t act strange at Wimbledon and he didn’t want to embarrass himself. Yet he still talks to himself and his box and I don’t understand why. You can’t really gain that much confidence from someone up there saying, ‘You can do it’, or clapping. That is encouragement but it is very limited. I would like to see him cut that out and just keep his head in the game.”
But, above all else, Laver is convinced Murray needs to shore up a major weakness in his game. “He has got to learn to hit a second serve,” he asserts. “That is one of his downfalls. Roger was prepared to run around it and no matter where Andy tried to serve it, Roger was pretty much standing up there and cracking winners off that second serve as he wished. I would take that second serve and make a slice out of it. Andy is 6’3” so he has got the height he needs. It is not like me [at five feet eight-and-a-half]. I had to get some topspin on my second serve to bring it up and then back down. Andy has to get away from having these guys attack his second serve. Djokovic just loves to do that. He belts those returns no matter where they are, forehand or backhand. It is all the same for Djokovic.”
Earlier in our discussion, Laver had lauded Stan Wawrinka for his sterling performance against Djokovic in the French Open final as the Swiss secured his second major title in as many years. Wawrinka has made a substantial move since the start of 2014. What is in store for him now?
“He is just a late bloomer,” Laver points out. “He looks like a different player now. Certainly he always had that backhand which he can blast all day long and get it in, but now he has got that forehand that has a lot of power and much more consistency. And, of course, his serve is always good, so he is going to be a danger. If he is in Djokovic’s corner he is pretty confident against him. He just feels he can go toe to toe against Djokovic with ground stokes and he is about the only one that can do that. Wawrinka has been waiting for this moment. He is ready. Because he is a late bloomer he will still be very good at 32 and 33, and that is good for the game. Wawrinka is such an attractive player to watch.”
Now the interview turns in another direction, shifting inevitably to the question of who deserves to be considered the best player of all time. I brought up to Laver that many authorities believe Federer has earned that distinction, how some experts believed Nadal might be on his way to overtaking Federer for all time supremacy, the way Djokovic is maximizing his potential these days, the high regard so many of us have for Pete Sampras and his dominance of the 1990’s, and, of course, the number of astute observers standing by “The Rocket” himself, who holds the singularly high honor of those two Grand Slams. How does he look at it?
Typically self-effacing, he starts by saying, “Let’s take me out of the equation. For me, I have to stick with Roger. He has won seven Wimbledon’s and won all the majors a bunch of times except the French, which he won once. He is the guy who has his name on the trophy in Cincinnati and everywhere else. You just have to marvel at his consistency he has got in his game and the following he has. He goes down to Australia and if he was playing Lleyton Hewitt they would be on Roger’s side. At Wimbledon, it was hard to believe the cheers he got when he walked off the court after his match with Murray, more than anybody I have heard of or seen before.”
Pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts, Laver adds, “If you are the best in your era, that is all you can expect. Pete Sampras was brilliant and he was playing Agassi, so you can’t take much away from Agassi as good as he was. It was unfortunate for Roger that Nadal came along when he did. Nadal was just so brilliant on the clay courts that it was always a problem for Roger to win the French, which he did once [in 2009] when Nadal had already lost. Those sorts of things happen. Certainly with his record, you have got to look at Nadal [among the greatest]. It seems like his career is waning a little bit, but maybe not. He is just having a tough time right now.”
Having heard Laver pay tribute to so many all-time greats—including Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and others he competed against—I asked him if in his gut he feels Federer must be the best ever?
“Yes. I do feel that way,” he responds. “I have certainly seen him play a lot of matches and a lot of great tennis. Roger is secure in his confidence and has got every shot in the book. As you get older there are more mistakes and that happens. But having seen him for so long, you think, ‘God, how does he keep doing this?’”
At that point, I interjected, “They used to say exactly the same thing about you.”
He laughed, and then said, “I was pretty proud of my career certainly. I look back and am happy the way I played. You can’t do much better than when you have a wooden racket in your hand as I did. It is amazing some of the matches you remember.”
I vividly recall watching Laver win so many of his skirmishes at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1969, including his four set, final round triumphs over the tenacious John Newcombe and Tony Roche respectively. Earlier that year, he knocked out a cluster of eminent players to capture the Australian Open in Brisbane, and then produced the finest sustained clay court tennis of his career to reverse the result of the 1968 French Open final and topple the evergreen Rosewall. But perhaps his most remarkable display of poise under pressure was when he overcame an explosive and inspired Arthur Ashe in the semifinals of Wimbledon, coming from behind to win in four sets after Ashe commenced the contest with a flurry of spectacular backhand winners.
“That is right,” Laver tells me jovially. “Don’t remind me. I was not thinking in the beginning of 1969 about winning a Grand Slam. You are out there playing one match at a time. But I remember at the Australian Open playing Roy Emerson, then Fred Stolle in the quarterfinals and Roche in a long semifinal [7-5 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3]. Then I beat Andres Gimeno in the final after he had beaten Rosewall. That was some group. You just go from there.”
Rod Laver will turn 77 in August, but his outlook is much younger than that. He loves attending the majors whenever he can, and even managed to go to the British Open golf after Wimbledon as part of his professional association with Rolex. Laver says, “I enjoy watching the players today. It is amazing to see the sizes. They are 6’3” to 6’6” and they are brilliant individuals and great athletes. Generally when you get someone that big on a tennis court, they can’t get around and they just don’t seem to make it, but nowadays these players are so fit and fast, and they are timing the ball so well. And, of course, now that the serving is the way it is and with the next generation getting to 6’8” or 6’9”, maybe you will have to change the game and say, ‘Hey, you only get one serve now.’”
I wondered if Laver believes we will see some faster versions of John Isner, standing 6’10” or thereabouts. “They don’t have to be 6’8”, 6’9” or 6, 10” necessarily, but 6’6” seems like a good height. You look at a lot of the players out of Serbia and some of the other countries and they have been battling through wars and poverty and all sorts of things. They are prepared to do bloody anything to get out on the tour and play well. I imagine Isner serving to me out wide in the ad court and I can’t play. The ball is over my head by three or four feet. I have to go back to the backstop to get the serve back. It is amazing the amount of talent there is out there.”
Laver is delighted to have the opportunity to watch how the game has evolved over the years, to see each new generation emerging, to observe it all from the standpoint of an iconic champion who played a singularly inventive and dazzling brand of tennis. He concludes, “Tennis has come through some tough times. It was a smaller game when the Four Musketeers from France were around in the 1920’s, and when Bromwich, Quist, Crawford and Hopman came along in Australia. We had the era with the Sedgman’s and the Hoad’s and Rosewall’s coming through, and then Emmo and myself and Neale Fraser. You keep going down the line of history and the top players seemed to come in groups. Look at Federer, Nadal, Murray and Djokovic, and you think, ‘Boy, it is just amazing that those four came together in the same era.’ With this group you have to beat two world champions to win one big tournament. How great is that?”
Talking tennis with Rod Laver for 43 minutes is not so bad either. The two-time winner of the Grand Slam is one of a kind.