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By Raymond Lee | Wednesday, September 15, 2021

 
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Tennis historian Raymond Lee traces the history of tennis' holy grail, the Grand Slam, and illustrates why winning it is the toughest task in sport.

Photo credit: Andrew Ong/USTA/US Open

I am a big fan of watching tennis history unfold before our eyes.

That’s why I was rooting for Novak Djokovic to win the US Open final against Daniil Medvedev, complete the calendar Grand Slam and become the second male player in the Open Era to accomplish this amazing feat.

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As we all know, it was not to be.

World No. 2 Medvedev played a fantastic match. He served out of his mind neutralizing the super return game of Djokovic in defeating him in straight sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 in a match that was not as close as the score indicated.

The tennis term Grand Slam dates back nearly a century ago when Jack Crawford won the Australian, French and Wimbledon going into the US Championships. Crawford led Fred Perry two sets to one in the final but unfortunately for Crawford, Perry won the last two sets and the US Championship. I don’t believe Crawford set out with the intent of winning the Grand Slam simply because there was no such thing at the time.

Perhaps the first time Grand Slam was mentioned for tennis was in the Fresno Bee Republican by writer Alan Gould. Later it was popularized by the famous tennis writer Allison Danzig when Don Budge won the first Grand Slam in 1938. Budge’s Grand Slam is a primary reason he has consistently been named among the top players in history if not the top.

Perhaps the most important reason why the calendar Grand Slam is so prestigious is because the winner is supposed to have won the four most important and prestigious tournaments. They are the countries that have been historically the most significant in tennis history in Australia, France, England and the United States. If you win the calendar Grand Slam it shows the greatness of the tennis player that he or she can defeat all the best players in the four strongest tournaments.

The problem with this theory is that historically the four Grand Slam tournaments were not always regarded as the top four tournaments in strength and prestige. For example, the WCT Championships in the 1970s were often considered up there with Wimbledon and the US Open as a major tournament. The winner of the WCT Championship was called the World Champion of Tennis!

So it really wouldn’t be a Grand Slam in some of those years if the player was missing the WCT Championship which clearly was more important than the Australian Open in many of those years.

To quote John Newcombe from his book Newk—Life On and Off the court—“The year 1974 was one of World Championship Tennis’ big ones. Although I was no longer contracted to WCT, I continued to play in many of its tournaments. The glittering event in the pro calendar in ’74 was the WCT finals in Dallas in May, the winner of which would be deemed the best professional player in the world, and therefore the best player in the world period.” As you can see from this paragraph, the WCT finals were considered more important than the Australian Open (which Jimmy Connors won in 1974 by the way), at least in Newcombe’s mind. But I think it was the general feeling by most of the pro players also.



The other problem with possibly winning the Grand Slam in the early days of Open Tennis was all the boycotts and bans by various Federations which prevented many greats from playing in the majors. There were boycotts in 1970, 1972, 1973. In 1974 the French Federation banned players who signed contracts to play World Team Tennis from playing in the French Open. This prevented Jimmy Connors and Evonne Goolagong from going for the Grand Slam since both had won the Australian Open earlier in the year. Connors went on to win Wimbledon and the US Open in awesome fashion.

This is one of the great what if questions in tennis history. Would Connors have won Roland Garros in 1974 if he was allowed to play? Who knows? Would Jimmy Connors have gone on to the calendar Grand Slam?

Another problem was that players in the 1970s often did not care to even play the Australian Open. It had lost prestige and it was at a time of year that players preferred to be elsewhere instead of playing tennis. One of the reasons for some was that it conflicted with the holidays. So in many of those years you had players winning the Australian that would have no chance if all the top players attended. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that this changed. Jimmy Connors played the Australian only twice, winning it once in 1974 and losing to John Newcombe in 1975 in the final. Connors never played it again. Bjorn Borg played the Australian only once in 1973, losing in the second round. The probability of these two players winning a number of Australian Opens would have been extremely high if they played it every year.

Going further back in tennis history going for the Grand Slam would have been even tougher than today. The reason is that players in the 1920s and 1930s often had to travel by boat to places like Australian and Europe to compete in the Grand Slam tournament as we know them today. It would take weeks for players to get to the location! By then the players would be out of shape and out of practice. Bill Tilden, during his peak when he lost only one match a year would have had an excellent chance to win the Grand Slam if the conditions for travel were like the present.

Nowadays, due to the new rules and points applied for majors, virtually all the top players play the majors.





Now the first Grand Slam was in 1938 by Don Budge. This is how Budge describes how he decided to try to win the Grand Slam in his autobiography Don Budge-A Tennis Memoir; The Grand Slam (or what has become known as the Grand Slam) entails winning the national singles championships of Australia, France, Great Britain and the United States, the four major titles in the world, in one year. This designation was not arrived at arbitrarily, for these four nations were in 1938, and still are, the only countries to have won the Davis Cup.

Later in the book Budge writes; By 1938, however, no one had thought to lump the four titles together as a Grand Slam, or as anything for that matter. In those prewar days of primitive air travel, no one could quite conceive of a cluster of championships that had to stretch more than 10,000 miles to find all its members.

A little further in the book Budge writes; Conceivably, the fact that there was no such acknowledged entity as the “Grand Slam” made it somewhat easier for me. I was certainly not faced with the cumulative pressure of the press and the fans that Rod Laver had forced upon him when he took the Grand Slam in 1962, or that Lew Hoad faced when he came within a set of winning the four titles in 1958. For the athlete, however, pressure more truly comes from within, and so I doubt that my feelings and fears were any less intense than Laver’s or Hoad’s were a quarter of a century later when the full glare of world-wide publicity was upon them.

A couple of minor notes, Hoad almost won the Grand Slam in 1956, not 1958 as Budge wrote. Hoad also only won one set against Rosewall in the final so he was not within a set of winning the Grand Slam but two sets away.

Despite what Budge wrote about pressure coming from within, I don’t think he faced nearly the pressure Novak Djokovic just faced in winning one match for the Grand Slam. The eyes of the tennis world were on Novak. It also was a chance that almost never comes and Djokovic clearly was aware of that. If Budge lost the final of the 1938 US Championship it would have been tough for Budge of course but people wouldn’t necessarily be thinking he lost the chance for the calendar Grand Slam because there was no such thing.



Another problem with Budge’s Grand Slam in 1938 was that the best players in the world were not there to face him in the majors. Ellsworth Vines was possibly the best player in the world and would have had a great chance to defeat Budge at any of the majors. Fred Perry was a pro and didn’t faced Budge in the majors. Perry had defeated Budge in the majors twice in 1936 at Wimbledon and the US Championships. He would have been very dangerous in 1938. There were others like Von Cramm who would have been very tough on clay or any other surface. Hans Nusslein was in the pros so he could not enter the majors. Nusslein was a great player on all surfaces but especially on clay. Nusslein would have been dangerous as well as an old Bill Tilden. IMO if these players were all competing in the majors in 1938 it’s probable Budge would not have won the Grand Slam. You could also say the same about Laver’s Grand Slam in 1962 against an amateur only field. Budge’s Grand Slam was a great accomplishment but not as great as Laver’s 1969 Grand Slam, in my view.

I will comment that of Budge played Open Tennis from the beginning perhaps he would have won an Open Grand Slam. We do know Laver did accomplish the Open Grand Slam in 1969.

So ironically in the first full year of Open Tennis Rod Laver won all four majors in 1969, winning his second Grand Slam and the first Open Grand Slam. If you go by this small sample size you would think it would happen many more times over the last half century or so but 52 years later it still has not been accomplished for the calendar year.

I would like to state however that when Novak Djokovic held all four majors at the same time in 2016 after winning Roland Garros that to my mind it is the equivalent of the Grand Slam although it was not done in the same year. I suppose that Djokovic can console himself with that thought.

Martina Navratilova won an extraordinary six majors in a row but she did not win the calendar Grand Slam losing in the Australian Open to end her streak of majors in a row. Maureen Connolly won the Grand Slam in 1953. Little Mo won a mind-blowing 9 majors in a row that she entered.

Since Laver’s Grand Slam in 1969, two women have accomplished the feat, Margaret Court in 1970 and Steffi Graf in 1988. Graf won the Olympic gold medal after the US Open completing the first and only Golden Slam in tennis history.



While Djokovic did not win the calendar Grand Slam he had another one of his super years which is seemingly the norm for him.

jokovic accomplished a great deal this year. He tied Nadal and Federer for the most majors with 20. He will be number one again which will break his tie with Pete Sampras for most times at number one at the end of the year.

It just shows the great difficulty in winning the calendar Grand Slam.

Raymond Lee is a Tennis Now contributing writer and tennis historian who lives in New York. He has written about tennis for decades serving as a contributing writer for Tennis Week Magazine and TennisWeek.com.

 

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