Australian Open 2011: Of Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal, Grand Slams and GOATs

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Australian Open 2011: Of Rod Laver and Rafael Nadal, Grand Slams and GOATs
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The talk is rife. Rafael Nadal has three Majors in the bag; he is head and shoulders above the competition in the rankings; and he was the form player of 2010.

Quite right, then, that he goes into the Australian Open strongly tipped to become the first man since Rod Laver, who accomplished the feat 41 years ago, to hold all four Majors at the same time. Whatever the name this achievement is given—the Rafa Slam, or perhaps the mini-Slam—there is one man who remains certain what it is not: a Grand Slam.

That man is one of the very few who has the right to comment: Laver himself.

Were it anyone else, there might be accusations of immodesty, perhaps of sour grapes, that he should respond thus to what would be a landmark for the remarkable Spaniard. But Laver is both the epitome of modesty and, in any debate about who is the greatest player of all time, the yardstick against whom all others are measured.

Even those who never saw him play, who have only heard tell of his achievements, bracket him with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, with Don Budge and Pancho Gonzalez, with Bill Tilden and Jack Kramer.

And were it not for his five-year professional hiatus before the arrival of the Open era, most believe Laver would have put the “GOAT” question beyond argument.

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Between 1963 and the Australian Open in January 1968, he was in his prime, reaching his full potential, winning Majors by the handful. Had he remained an amateur, he could have played in 21 more Majors. As it is, he won only 11, but those 11 produced two calendar Grand Slams: one in the amateur era, one in the Open.

Laver was born Aug. 9th, 1938—and in a quirk of timing, Federer and Sampras would have birthdays within the same four-day period.

At 15, Laver missed two months from school with jaundice and, feeling left behind in his studies, decided to get a job and work at his tennis. Though he grew to barely 5’8”, he developed great strength and speed and was soon spotted by coach Harry Hopman (after whom the Hopman Cup is named). It was Hopman who christened the left-hander “the rocket”, not because of his speed, but for his determination and work ethic.

At 17, Laver took part in his first international tour, winning the U.S. Junior Championship. By 20, he had helped Australia win the Davis Cup. And at 21, he won his first Major, the Australian Championship.

By the final year of his amateur status in 1962, he had won 54 titles. Six of them were Majors, and he was runner-up in five more.

In 1962 alone, he became the second man after Budge to achieve the Grand Slam. He won 22 tournaments on three different surfaces, ranging from hard in Venezuela, to clay in Houston, to grass in England.

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Between the end of March and the end of the U.S. Open, he played every single week: 16 tournaments and three Majors. And this was during an era when players paid their own way and made their own travel and boarding arrangements.

Technically, Laver had superb timing, great disguise on his swinging left-handed serve and was formidable at the net.

His ground-strokes on both sides were hit with topspin, quite an innovation in the 1960s. And his huge left forearm became the stuff of legend.

With the winning of the Grand Slam, Laver was ready to earn a decent living from his tennis and turned professional. The success continued unabated, and between 1964 and 1967, he reached the final of all three major professional tournaments every year: the U.S., Wembley, and French Pro Championships.

In 1967, Laver won 19 titles. He won on wood, on clay, and on grass. He won indoors and outdoors. Between the beginning of March and the beginning of May, he traveled from Puerto Rico to Miami, Boston, Montreal, Paris, and back to San Diego. Yet he is the first to admit that the pressures on players are very different now.

“Today’s game is much more physical than when we played. The ball is hit so much harder, the players generate so much speed and spin. I’d have to play differently if I was out there today.”

Two Australians, Laver and Roche, in the semis of the Australian Open, 1969

It’s entirely in character for Laver to focus on the achievements of, and pressures on, today’s players rather than his own. Yet the pressures under which he played were just as demanding.

The rewards were slim and the travelling constant. There was no money for entourages to organize training, transport, physio, and the rest. Laver drove himself to his Major finals, had his own rackets strung, donned spiked shoes when the grass in the 1969 U.S. Open final was waterlogged.

There were no chairs at the change of ends, no roofs if the conditions got too hot, no tie-breaks when matches were tight. Laver says of the current tour: “It’s tough out there today.” It was tough out there for him, too, but he’d be the last to admit it.

Eventually, with the arrival of the Open era in 1968, Laver was able to play the Majors again. Things started slowly with just the Wimbledon title, though he also won the U.S. and the French Pro Championships and nine other titles.

Then, in 1969, he became the only man to win a calendar Slam in the Open era, and the only player, man or woman, to win two Slams overall.

What gave him particular pleasure as he approached retirement in 1976 was to rejoin, after an 11-year gap, the Davis Cup squad (Professionals had been banned from participating until 1973.). It was the fifth time he’d played for his country and the fifth time he’d been on the winning team.

Poor quality, but fascinating Laver vs. Roche U.S.Open final, won wearing spikes.

In all, his 23-year career yielded at least 183 titles (some say it is 199—records were less reliable prior to the Open era). And that gives Federer’s 67 and Sampras’s 64 some perspective.

It is that record sheet, and the fact that Laver remains a quietly-spoken, well-informed and enthusiastic follower of the game despite the setbacks of a stroke, knee surgery and a new hip, that make people pay attention when he has a point of view.

In an interview with the U.K.’s prestigious Daily Telegraph, he courteously opined that if Nadal won this year’s Australian, “it would be a mini-Slam, or whatever you want to call it, but it isn’t the Grand Slam.

“Winning one [Major] tournament is difficult enough. I’m not knocking what would be a great achievement of Nadal’s to win four in succession, but I don’t think winning four in a row across two seasons would be the same as a calendar-year Grand Slam…Winning the Australian Open would be a start for him.”

It’s a view echoed, he says, by Martina Navratilova, who won four Majors in a row in 1984/5 but admitted it did not have the same meaning as winning all four over the same year. And this week, the legendary Margaret Court, owner of 24 Majors and her own Grand Slam in 1970, concurred.

“I’d love to have seen Laver play [Federer and Nadal] but it was a different game back then.”

And she went on to say that she found it almost impossible to put anybody above Laver: “When you look at it, Laver won the Grand Slam twice and Federer hasn’t done that…I think Laver in this time and age would have held his own.”

So perhaps a Rafa Slam, outstanding achievement though it would be, should not be matched to the great Laver’s. But one thing “the rocket” won’t be drawn on is the “GOAT” debate.

“I think everyone should wait until the end of Nadal and Federer’s careers and then have a discussion about this. All a player can do is to try to be the greatest of their own era.”

Well said, that man.

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