It was in 1933 that John Kieran, a columnist on the New York Times, used a phrase that was to become central to the lexicon of tennis. Jack Crawford, an Australian, had won the Australian, French and Wimbledon championships and was aiming to complete the set of the sport's most prestigious titles by claiming the US crown in New York. "If Crawford wins," Kieran wrote, "it would be something like scoring a grand slam on the courts."
The term "grand slam", which was first coined to describe the feat of winning all 13 tricks in bridge, had also been used to acclaim Bobby Jones' triumph in winning golf's four biggest tournaments in 1930. When Crawford failed in his quest, losing to Fred Perry in the final at Forest Hills, the phrase was all but forgotten within tennis, but another New York Times journalist, Allison Danzig, revived it five years later to describe the achievement of the American Don Budge, who succeeded where his Australian predecessor had fallen just short.
Over the next fortnight the term will again be on everyone's lips. Rafael Nadal, having won the French, Wimbledon and US crowns last year, will become only the third man in history to hold all four titles if he wins the Australian Open, which begins here on Monday. Like Budge, Rod Laver won all four major titles in the same year, performing the feat in 1962 and again in 1969, when he became the first and only man to do it in the Open era, competing against amateurs and professionals alike.
Most traditionalists insist that the "Grand Slam" should refer only to winning all four titles in a calendar year, although the constitution of the International Tennis Federation, the sport's governing body, spells out that "players who hold all four of these titles at the same time achieve the Grand Slam".
The only women to have won the "calendar Grand Slam" – all four majors in the same year – are Maureen Connolly (in 1953), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988), whose achievement was labelled a "Golden Slam" after her victory in the Olympics in the same year. Martina Navratilova won six consecutive majors between 1983 and 1984 and Serena Williams held all four crowns after winning the Australian Open in 2003 – a "Serena Slam" – but neither won all four in a calendar year.
"What happens if Rafa wins the Australian Open?" Ivan Lendl, a winner of eight major titles, asked recently. "I'd call it a Grand Slam. To me you have the career Grand Slam, the Grand Slam that Rafa could win now, then you have the calendar Grand Slam. There's also the Golden Slam that Steffi had. I don't think we will ever see that again, but I would love to see that. I think there deserves to be a distinction. Those are fascinating discussions."
If Nadal were to take possession of the full set of major titles what nobody would dispute would be the enormity of the achievement. The 24-year-old Spaniard is already one of only seven men, alongside Perry, Budge, Laver, Roy Emerson, Andre Agassi and Roger Federer, to have won a "career Grand Slam" – all four majors but not in the same year.
Only Agassi can match Nadal's feat in also winning the Davis Cup and the Olympic singles title, while Agassi and Federer are the only other players to have won majors on three different surfaces. Nadal may have been considered a clay-court specialist in his early years, but four of his last five major triumphs have been on grass or hard courts.
Does Nadal himself think it might be possible to win all four majors in a calendar year? "I don't know whether it would be possible for another player, but I think it would be almost impossible for me," the world No 1 said. "Firstly you have a lot of very good rivals and then you have to be playing really well before tournaments. It's impossible to win a Grand Slam without playing your best tennis. A lot of factors have to come together: you have to be lucky, you have to be playing well, everything. So I think that's almost impossible."
With nine major titles to his name already, Nadal is on schedule to overhaul Federer's current record tally of 16. At 24 years and seven months (Nadal's current age), Federer had won seven major titles. The Spaniard completed his career Grand Slam three and a half years earlier than his great rival. Federer, moreover, enjoyed his early triumphs at a time when his main challengers were not of the calibre of Nadal's.
"What he's achieved is amazing," Federer said. "Obviously to win the career Grand Slam at his age – and to win three [majors] in a row, which he has done now – is a great streak. He's a wonderful player. He's proved that he can play on any surface now. The ones who still call him a clay-court expert don't know much about tennis."
In any talk of comparisons between the two men Nadal, typically, insists that his predecessor as world No 1 should be regarded as the greater player. "Roger is the best player in history," he said. "I think talk about whether I am better or worse than Roger is stupid. The titles say he's much better than me. That's the truth at the moment and I think it will be the truth all my life."
Does he try not to think about the prospect of winning here and holding all four Grand Slam titles at the same time? "What's in my head is trying to be very competitive," he said. "That's what's in my head – and to try to play well in the first round. After that it's difficult to think more when you are playing a very difficult tournament like the Australian Open.
"For sure it's extra motivation, but the motivation is to play well in Australia, not to win the fourth in a row. I'm sure this will be the only one opportunity that I'll have in my life. I won't have more of these opportunities to win all four in a row."
Male winners of the calendar Grand Slam:
Don Budge (1938)
Rod Laver (1962 and 1969)
Male winners of career Grand Slam:
Fred Perry (completed in 1935)
Don Budge (1938)
Rod Laver (1962)
Roy Emerson (1964)
Andre Agassi (1999)
Roger Federer (2009)
Rafael Nadal (2010)
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