Imagine that Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon champion, had also won the Australian and French Opens this year and was going to the US Open later this month chasing the pure Grand Slam of all four major titles in the same year. Imagine, then, that he reached the final at Flushing Meadows. On the black market you would be able to name your price for tickets to the final.
Rewind 45 years and Rod Laver was in exactly that situation. In the very first year that all the Grand Slam tournaments were open to every player, including those who had turned professional, Laver faced his fellow Australian, Tony Roche, in the US Open final. Remarkably, however, the stands at Forest Hills were half-empty. Bad weather saw the final delayed until the Monday, as a result of which fewer than 4,000 spectators watched Laver achieve the greatest feat in the history of men’s tennis, winning 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 to secure his Grand Slam.
Laver, who today celebrates his 76th birthday, is one of only two men to have achieved a pure Grand Slam, Don Budge having been the first to do so in 1938. Laver did it twice, having also won all four major trophies as an amateur in 1962.
A few have gone close to achieving the Grand Slam in recent years – most recently Rafael Nadal and Djokovic won three of the four titles in 2010 and 2011 respectively – while Laver is convinced that Roger Federer would have done so had he not been competing in the same era as Nadal. In 2004, 2006 and 2007 the French Open was the only jewel missing from Federer’s Grand Slam crown, the Swiss losing to Nadal in the Roland Garros final on the latter two occasions.
“I definitely think Roger would have done it if Nadal had not been around,” Laver said. “I love Roger’s all-court game, the way he prepares, the way he plays matches. He has all the ground strokes, all the volleying abilities. The way he approaches tennis is different to so many of the players. Even when he’s in the fifth set he looks like he’s just started the match. I think that’s what makes him the player he has been for the last 10 years.”
Laver’s respect for Federer is such that he invited the Swiss to write the foreword to his recently published autobiography, though he also has huge admiration for Nadal. “Every point is important to Nadal, which I think is the one thing that puts him so far apart from the other players,” Laver said. “He doesn’t have a weakness. It used to be the case that he didn’t volley very well, but now he plays just as well at the net as he does on the baseline.”
One of the lessons to take from Laver’s book is the sheer size of the task in achieving the Grand Slam. In 1962 Laver went close to defeat on several occasions. Martin Mulligan, his quarter-final opponent at the French Open, had a match point in the fourth set, only to be surprised when Laver played serve-and-volley on second serve.
“I missed the first serve and wondered what on earth I should do next,” Laver recalled. “I decided I would serve to his backhand, come to the net and cover the line, because he went down the line all the time. He went down the line and I hit a backhand cross-court, which got me out of trouble.”
Because it was achieved against former professionals and amateurs alike, Laver regards his 1969 Grand Slam as his finest hour. He very nearly fell at the first hurdle but held firm to beat Roche 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 in a four-hour Australian Open semi-final played in ferocious heat.
Laver, who comes from Rockhampton in Queensland, was known as the “Rockhampton Rocket” but the nickname was initially ironic. Harry Hopman, the legendary coach who was a mentor to many Australian players, was asked to look at a teenaged Laver and was concerned that he was too slow. Meanwhile Charlie Hollis, Laver’s coach in his schoolboy years, thought that the future champion’s two older brothers might be better prospects.
“My middle brother turned professional and taught a lot of players in Rockhampton,” Laver said. “The eldest was talented, but he just got angry on the court when he wasn’t playing the way he wanted to play. I think I was more prepared to put in the effort and to accept that sometimes you lose and you don’t play well. I guess that I persevered.”
Hollis taught Laver to chase down every ball – advice which stayed with him. “Even when I knew I didn’t have much of a chance of getting to the ball I tried,” Laver said. “Charlie Hollis and Harry Hopman always emphasised that you can get to more balls than you think you can.”
Nobody had a greater influence on Laver’s early career than his parents. His father, who built a court in the family’s back yard out of silt from the Fitzroy River and illuminated it with four 1500-watt light bulbs strung down the middle of the court, used to take him to tournaments that were seven or eight hours’ drive away.
“Almost every small town had a tournament and I think that was one of the reasons why so many of us Australians became pretty good tennis players,” Laver said. “There wasn’t a lot else to do. There was tennis and cricket. A lot of us were too small to get into football or rugby, so tennis was our outlet.”
‘Rod Laver: An Autobiography’ is published by Allen & Unwin (£16.99)