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By Raymond Lee | Friday, September 10, 2021

 
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The legendary Rocket Rod Laver produced one of the greatest seasons in history winning the 1969 Grand Slam. Historian Raymond Lee details how Laver did it.

Photo credit: Mark Peterson/Corleve

The world will watch Novak Djokovic play for tennis immortality in New York this weekend.

World No. 1 Djokovic is two wins away from becoming the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the calendar Grand Slam. 

McEnroe: Djokovic Aims to Obliterate Grand Slam Mark

In that sensational 1969 season, the legendary Laver won his second calendar year Grand Slam. However, this was different from the amateur Grand Slam Laver won in 1962. In 1962 while Laver won all the four classic majors, it was against amateur competition and not against the top pros like Pancho Gonzalez, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Andres Gimeno.

With the arrival of Open Tennis in 1969 Laver now had the chance to win the Grand Slam against everyone. Laver was thought to be clearly the best player in the world for years. In 1969 he had the chance to cement that thought by winning every major. It was a time of change in tennis obviously. The top professionals are not the multi-millionaires we have today. The players wanted to enter all the top money tournaments in order to make a substantial living. This was true even for  Rocket Rod Laver.

The first major of the year was the Australian Open on grass in those days.

In the semifinals Laver faced the gifted player Tony Roche, who later became renown as a great tennis coach to players like Lendl and Federer. Roche was a problem for Laver because Roche, like Laver was a lefty. The Rocket was not used to the lefty spin and also because of Roche’s great ability which included perhaps the best backhand volley of all time. Roche was considered the heir apparent to Laver but unfortunately due to a great amount by injury Roche was unable to fulfill his great potential.

In that Australian semifinal, the temperature soared to a scorching 105 degrees and they played five sets. The first two set went to Laver at 7-5 22-20 since there was no tiebreakers in 1969. Roche won the third set at 11-9 and they took a break which was normal in those days.



After the break Roche reeled off the first five games but Laver wanted to hold serve in that sixth game so he could serve first in the fifth set. Laver did hold serve and Roche served out the set at 6-1.

As Laver wrote in his book The Education of a Tennis Player written with Bud Collins “But serving first in the fifth set picked me up a bit. It’s a psychological help to go into the lead every time you win your serve in a close match, and that’s why I tried so hard for a seemingly meaningless game when I was down 0-5 in the fourth. I wanted to serve that leadoff game.”

The games in the fifth stayed on serve to 4-3 in favor of Laver in the fifth. To quote Laver from The Education of a Tennis Player “I was chipping my returns now, trying to squib them onto his feet. With the ball skipping erratically on those courts, the opportunities to hit full out were limited, and the best thing to do was to meet the ball.”

At 15 all Roche missed a volley to 15-30. Roche served and Laver hit a sliced backhand return crosscourt which Roche thought was out. However it was called in and the scored went to 15-40 in favor of Laver, double break point. Roche served at 15-40 and hit a volley crosscourt to Laver’s backhand. Laver drove the ball back loading it heavily with topspin down the line which Roche couldn’t handle as he hit it into the net! Laver served it out easily.

Billie Jean King watched the match in awe in the stands. As she described in World Tennis magazine and Steve Flink also quoted it in his great book The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time, “Laver and Roche displayed every shot in the book, often in the same point. Tony lobbed over Rod’s head; Laver raced back, sliding 15 feet to get to the ball then hit one of his incredible backhand flick winners which Tony even more incredibly, managed to reach. We saw drop volleys, spins, fantastic baseline exchanges, great overheads and superb retrieving. Because of the heat at least half of the 2000 spectators left before the match was over. None of the players who were watching so much as stirred.”

It was a 90 game match. At the time it was the eight longest match of all time. Laver went on to defeat Gimeno in the final in straight sets 6-3 6-4 7-5.

The second major that year was the French Open. Laver was to meet his old nemesis in the final, the eternally young Ken Rosewall who was one of the top clay court players in the world, arguably the best. In the previous year Rosewall defeated the Laver in the French Open final in four sets.

Rosewall was the number one player in the world until Laver took over. In that final Laver wrote that he played one of his best clay court matches ever in defeating Rosewall in straight sets 6-4 6-3 6-4.

The third major that year was Wimbledon. Laver won the first Wimbledon Open in 1968 over Tony Roche in straight sets and was the defending champion. It was not that easy to win the tournament. Laver lost the first two sets in his second-round match against Premjit Lall and was tied at 3 all in the third before the Rocket accelerated to another level to win the last fifteen games of the match. Stan Smith, a future Wimbledon champion took Laver to five sets in the fourth round before Laver won 6-3 in the fifth.



In the semifinals Arthur Ashe played a first set that was viewed in awe by people who were watching as Ashe won the first set 6-2. Laver came back to win the second set by the same score.

Jack Kramer wrote in his book The Game “The greatest two sets of tennis I ever saw in my life were the first two Ashe and Laver played in the Wimbledon semi’s of 1969. Unlike Ashe, Laver had learned how and when to play it safe, but he could also rise to the most brilliant heights, and he believed that the way to achieve the top of your game was to keep hitting out until it all came together. In this match they both started out shooting the works, and you never saw anything like it.”

Eventually Ashe came down to Earth and Laver won the last two sets by 9-7 6-0.

The final was a huge test with the super grass court player John Newcombe in the final. Newcombe was a former Wimbledon champion with at almost perfect serve and volley game. He knew how to play at Wimbledon and on grass. Newcombe had a super overall serve, arguably the best in tennis, a great forehand and solid backhand plus a great volley. Newk would win Wimbledon several more times in 1970 and 1971.

However despite all this Laver was the clear favorite to win Wimbledon and stay on course to win the Grand Slam.

It started out as one would expect, Laver won the first set 6-4 but Newcombe rallied to win the second set 7-5.

Newcombe was worn due to a long five set match in the semi finals against Tony Roche so he devised a plan to chip returns back at Laver instead of hitting out more. He also lobbed a lot. This was working very well as Newk led 4-1 in the third set. Laver held serve to get to 2-4 and Newcombe served to consolidate his break. Laver won the first point and at 0-15 Newcombe hit a sharp crosscourt forehand volley which Laver reached and passed Newk with a great sharp crosscourt backhand slice that just landed in. Laver went on one of his streaks and won the last five games from 1-4 to win the third set 6-4 and won the first two games of the fourth to lead 2-0 for a total of seven straight games. They held serve from there and Laver also won Wimbledon. This was Laver’s fourth consecutive Wimbledon title considering he won in 1961 and 1962, turned pro, was banned from playing Wimbledon and other majors and came back to win again in 1968.

Only one major left to win and that’s the 1969 US Open.

The 1969 US Open was contested at the West Side club in Forest Hills, New York. Laver had not lost any matches after Wimbledon and seemed in great form to win the Grand Slam.

The only opponent Laver had trouble with was against the talented Dennis Ralston who led Laver in the fourth round two sets to one. Laver started to serve better and won the last two sets 6-2 6-3.

The final of the 1969 US Open was played against Tony Roche, who won a five set match over John Newcombe in the semi finals. It was delayed because of rain to another day. They even used helicopters to dry out the court during the final.

In those days playing on grass was tough enough because it’s very hard to rally on grass considering the uneven bounces if the ball even bounced at all. Serves also bounced in all directions. It was not easy to break. It’s unlike the grass courts at Wimbledon today which allows players to hit solid groundstrokes. Players had to volley well to avoid the bad bounces.



Besides Tony Roche, Laver also was concerned that his wife Mary was pregnant and was due at any minute.

Roche won the first set 9-7 with both players slipping all over. Laver asked permission to put on spikes to get better footing and it was allowed. Laver won the last three sets with the loss of only five games and won the first Open Grand Slam 7-9 6-1 6-2 6-2!

So how good was Laver and what was his style of play?

Whenever there are discussions of the greatest in tennis history Laver’s name always comes up and a lot of it is due to his Grand Slam in 1969.

"If you had a champion who accomplished a record that no one else had attained in any sport, you'd have to say that champion was the greatest of all time," the late Hall of Famer Tony Trabert told Tennis Week Magazine. "Rod Laver holds a record that will never be broken: he won the Grand Slam as an amateur and he won the Grand Slam again as a pro."



Well first of all Laver would be still in the consideration for the greatest even if he did not win the Open Grand Slam. He was the best player in the world for years and perhaps the best in the world from 1964 to 1971 if we use the current ATP points system. Laver won over 200 tournaments in his career which included many important tournaments in the old pro tour, the amateurs and the Open Era. That’s a record I’m not sure will ever be broken, especially considering that top players don’t play as many tournaments as Laver and other players did in the past.

We must also take into account Laver was not allowed to play the majors from 1963 to early 1968. Considering how strong Laver was in big tournaments and in five set matches some believe he would have possibly added another Grand Slam in that period and many more majors won. This is also the case with players like Pancho Gonzalez and some others.

Laver was one of the most versatile players in the history of tennis. He could hit great power topspin off both sides but also hit with heavy slice with unusual pace off his backhand especially. Laver had an excellent serve although he was not the tallest player in the world at about 5’8” or 5’9” tall depending on the source.

The thing about Laver is that despite the fact he was not as tall as many on the tour like Newcombe, Ashe and others, Rod could hit with more power and spin off the ground than any player on tour. A lot of this can be attributed to his enormous wrist and forearm which were like King Kong’s arms. They have been described as tree trunk arms.

A writer from the NY Times once measured the forearm and wrist and found them as big or bigger than World Heavyweight Boxing champions like Rocky Marciano or Floyd Patterson. Laver, with a heavy small wooden racquet could flick a shot back with amazing speed and spin. This allowed Laver to hit shots that were beyond the capacity of most top flight players.

To quote Arthur Ashe from his book Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion, “Still, no one can ever feel secure against Rocket. People talk about me being a streaky player, but there is no one who can blow any hotter than Rocket. In 1968 in the finals of the Pacific Southwest, Rosewall beat him 7-5 in the first set and then didn’t win another game---love and love, a double bagel. When Laver goes on one of those tears, it’s just ridiculous. He starts hitting the lines, and then he starts hitting the lines harder---and harder and harder. No one can stop him.”

Laver, as with most greats was also extremely fast and had great court coverage. He also hit the ball very early and sometimes right off the half volley which gave his opponent less time to react to his returns.

Laver had a great overhead in his prime and a tremendous volley, especially off the backhand. Laver also had a very strong and versatile return, often keeping his opponents off balance with his different types of return.

Laver had no weaknesses.

In 1969, Laver won 18 of 32 tournaments with 106 wins out of 122 although some new sources have him at 108 wins out of 124 matches. He of course won the Grand Slam but he also won strong tournaments like the South African Open, the Philadelphia Indoors, the US Pro, Wembley among all the tournaments he won.

The funny thing about this is that some believe that Laver was slightly over the hill at age 31 that year. According to some sources Laver had a wrist injury that he incurred in a fall in 1968 which some believe also affected his elbow. To quote Rex Bellamy from his book Love Thirty, “That mighty left arm was to demand treatment for the rest of his career.”

There have only been two Grand Slams since Laver and that’s Margaret Court the next year in 1970 and Steffi Graf with her Golden Slam in 1988.

Novak Djokovic is two wins from matching Rocket Rod's calendar Grand Slam.

Can Djokovic do it and also pass Nadal and Federer in total majors won? We shall see.

 

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