2012 marks the 50th anniversary of Rod Laver’s first Grand Slam. For the mammoth achievement it was, it is worth commemorating. It was the year of the Cuban missile crisis, of the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Beatles were starting their musical ascent and the Swinging Sixties were just taking shape.
To put Laver’s achievement into perspective, it had only been achieved on one occasion previously: by pre-WW2 American player Don Budge in 1938. Coincidentally, it was in that year that Laver was born in Rockhampton, Australia – providing a sort of poetic justice to Laver’s own Grand Slam win 24 years later. To draw a comparison with the game of golf, a ‘golf Grand Slam’ involves a player winning all four Majors (but not necessarily in one calendar year). In tennis, by contrast, a player has to do it in one calendar year, that is: winning each of the Australian, the French, Wimbledon and the US Open – no mean achievement given the high state of competition at the top of the men’s game.
Reinforcing his dominance of the men’s game in the 1960’s (during most of which Laver had been a professional in the pre-Open era), Laver won a further Grand Slam in 1969. Despite the succession of huge talents in the game over those 40-plus years, intriguingly there has not been a single example in the men’s game since of someone winning a Grand Slam. The women have done slightly better, Steffi Graf being a case in point. The masters of the game in the last 40 years, Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Lendl, Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Sampras, Federer, Nadal, Djokovic have all failed to match Laver’s achievement – although some have come quite close on occasion.
His 1962 Grand Slam (being his first) was special, cementing the young Laver in his position at the heights of the game and putting him in the same hallowed company as Budge. It was not long after that achievement that Laver turned professional which, in those days, meant being ‘lost’ to the main events at Kooyong, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Forest Hills, as he then began to compete on the professional tour with the likes of Gonzales, Hoad, Trabert, Rosewall and others. Having achieved the ultimate height of a Grand Slam win, the progression to the professional game was a natural transition for Laver. Let’s have a look at the details of Laver’s 1962 achievement.
In the first Grand Slam event of the year in Australia, Laver’s opponent in the final was his compatriot and doubles partner, Roy Emerson whom be beat in four sets: 8-6, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4. Emerson (also with an impressive career record in Grand Slam events) was to be Laver’s opponent in three of the four Grand Slam events of the year, also in the French and the US. In those days, the Australian (Kooyong), Wimbledon and the US (Forest Hills) were all played on grass with the French (as always) on clay – a surface thought not to favour Laver and his strong serve/volley game. In that year’s French, Laver had his work cut out for him, having to play three consecutive five-setters on the slow clay surface in order to win the event. Coming back in the fourth set of the final, he eventually won the match, defeating Emerson 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 9-7, 6-2. As well as the sheer achievement of winning one of the four premier events, winning on a surface not ideally matched to his repertoire, was a credit to Laver’s versatility and winning zeal. After the French, Wimbledon beckoned: the centrepiece on the tennis calendar.
It was at Wimbledon where Laver beat Marty Mulligan in the final, a fellow Australian in what turned out to be a fairly easy and uneventful victory for Laver, by 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. The clear victory spoke volumes about Laver’s sheer dominance on grass. Laver only lost won set to an opponent in that year’s event, losing an epic first set 14-16 to Spaniard, Manuel Santana in the quarters. In the semis, he beat fellow Aussie and his main rival at the time, Neale Fraser in three sets, 10-8-, 6-1, 7-5
At Forest Hills in September, Laver faced into the final event of the year knowing that the Grand Slam was on potentially. Again, his opponent in the final was Emerson who, on this occasion, went down to Laver in four sets: 6-2, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. Following his Forest Hills win, Laver took the treasured Grand Slam crown, placing him as the unquestioned master at the pinnacle of the game. Ironically, it was during Laver’s absence from the amateur game through much of the 1960’s that provided Emerson with the opportunity to build up his own impressive track record in Grand Slams that decade. Yet, near the end of the decade in 1969, now in the Open era, Laver made a statement that he was not done yet, by winning his second Grand Slam – a gap of seven years since his first.
In some senses, Laver harks back to a simpler, more straightforward era before the trappings of professionalism we are familiar with today had yet to take root. Many left-handers pay homage to this model left-hander, not least John McEnroe, who saw Laver as his boyhood inspiration. The fact that no-one since has matched Laver’s achievements inevitably says something about Laver, about the current crop of players and about the state of competition among them. The level of competition at the top of the men’s game means that one of four of the top players has the potential to win Grand Slams on a regular basis – the 2012 season, for example, has shown how the top four have been in the frame in all the Grand Slams. Perhaps, none of the current Top Quartet has the kind of overall dominance Laver had in 1962. Laver, being the sportsman he is, would be the first to welcome a player matching his record. The fact that players of the calibre of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic have not yet done so, highlights the scale of the achievement fifty years ago by Rod ‘The Rocket’ from Rockhampton.