The consensus among most observers is that a pure Grand Slam – winning Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens in the same year – is beyond the reach of modern-day players. Rod Laver, the last man to have performed the feat, does not agree – and believes that Rafael Nadal could be the one to join himself and Don Budge in the history books.
“I don’t own this title,” Laver told me at the Shanghai Rolex Masters this week. “It was something that I was thrilled to have been able to accomplish. I think it could be done again. When I look at the way Nadal plays on grass, clay and hard courts, especially this year, he’s obviously one that can do it.”
The true Grand Slam has been performed only three times, by Budge in 1938 and by Laver in both 1962 and 1969, when three of the four tournaments were played on grass and the French Open on clay. Today players have to compete on three different surfaces, the Australian and US Opens having switched to hard courts. With the depth of competition also much greater than in Laver’s day and the modern game more demanding physically, the challenge of achieving the “Calendar Slam” is all the more difficult.
Laver, who is making his first visit to China at the age of 75, had thought Boris Becker and Pete Sampras capable of the feat, but both came unstuck on clay. The “Rockhampton Rocket” also pointed out that Roger Federer had gone close but was twice denied when he lost to Nadal in the French Open final, while he recalled watching Lew Hoad lose in the 1956 US Open final, having won the three other Grand Slam titles that year.
“To do the Grand Slam you’ve got to have Lady Luck riding on your shoulder to come through, because you can’t have any injuries, sickness or colds,” Laver says. “And maybe some of the players you don’t like to play are in the bottom half of the draw and don’t get through to the semi-finals or finals.
“I think it’s probably much more difficult for today’s players because of the competition. There are 30 or 40 players here who could win this tournament. They’re just so talented. They’re hungry. We saw that at Wimbledon this year when Nadal and Federer lost in the early rounds.”
Although their game styles are very different, Laver can see similarities between himself and Nadal, a fellow left-hander. Laver used heavy topspin on both flanks and, like the current world No 1, benefited from a huge left arm. Laver’s left wrist measured 7in around (an inch more than his right) and his left forearm, which at 12in is an inch and a half longer than his right, is the same size as Rocky Marciano’s.
“I think left-handers have an advantage,” Laver adds. “Lefties generally seem to have more spin ability than a right-hander. When they serve, they have a little bit more activity on the ball. And when you’re down 30-40 on serve, where does your best serve go? It can go way out wide, most times to a right-hander’s weaker side.
“That’s probably a potential way lefties seem to work. I think [John] McEnroe always had that ability. You’re saving a match point on the advantage court, which is your best shot.”
Laver, who has generally kept a low profile in his later years, is in good shape considering that he had a major stroke in 1998. He looks a little frail but is sharp mentally and clearly keeps his eye on the ball.
As he sat back in a chair in a room beneath the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre, looking relaxed in an open-necked shirt and sandals, the 11-times Grand Slam champion considered the question as to who might be rated the greatest player of all time. Laver himself was long regarded as the best – and would no doubt have won many more Grand Slam titles had he not spent five of his prime years competing as a professional before the start of the Open era.
While he can see Nadal going on to even greater heights (at 27 the Spaniard has already won 13 Grand Slam titles, which leaves him just four off the record), for the moment Laver regards Federer as the greatest player of all time. “When I look at Federer, with what he’s accomplished, against the competition that he’s accomplished it with, I’d have to say I would think that Roger is the greatest player, just because his record, the consistency over a span of six or eight years, has been pretty amazing,” Laver says.
The Australian says he would reserve judgement on Nadal and Novak Djokovic until the end of their careers. “Federer is not at the end of his career, but he’s now finding it difficult to compete week in and week out, where before he had no trouble competing,” Laver says. “I think he’s certainly capable of winning maybe the Australian Open and of course Wimbledon. I think he likes those two types of game. Unfortunately, someone like Nadal is always going to knock him off on the clay.”
Federer has slipped to No 7 in the world rankings and may even fail to qualify for the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Laver, who played his final Grand Slam tournament in 1977, eight years after winning his last Grand Slam title, remembers what it was like to struggle in his latter years.
“Sometimes in my thirties I could play a match one day at 100 per cent, as well as I did when I was 21, but the next day I would go out and there was nothing there,” he said. “Is it the desire? Is it the emotion? Is your adrenalin not flowing as well as it normally does in a match? That’s the times I found a problem.
“I don’t know whether Roger’s feeling anything of that nature, but sometimes I notice him and he just doesn’t have it that day, whereas the day before he was magnificent. It’s not a question of training or fitness. It’s nothing to do with his body. You just wonder, is it adrenalin that gets you up for matches?”
Laver admires Federer’s charity work, approves of the camaraderie among the leading men – “the top players seem to get along well together” – and believes the standard of play today is “unbelievably good”. He does not go along with the criticisms of some players of his generation, who say there is not enough variety in today’s baseline-dominated game.
“I think the game is terrific to watch,” Laver says. “I like it because there’s volleying, there’s the groundstroke ability, there’s long rallies. I think the public enjoy the long rallies.”