MELBOURNE — Hail the Conquering Hero! (But please don’t keep on demeaning him.)
I’m talking about that red-headed, left-handed spellbinding lad, Rodney George Laver, a refugee from a Queensland farm Well, he hasn’t fallen off a horse for some time, or wielded the sweetest racket this side of heaven. But he’s among us again to help salute the 40th anniversary of his most recent Grand Slam. (There were two.) And of course the celebration will largely take place in the tennis pen named for him at Melbourne Park.
Known as “The Rocket,” he is the genuine item, one of merely five Grand Slammers in the vast history of tennis, and yet he is demeaned. I don’t suggest that folks are bad-mouthing Laver or throwing rotten tomatoes as he walks by. No, not that kind of insult. Certainly many of us — though he has been off the court for three decades – believe that no other nation has produced a tennis Conquering Hero of his accomplishments. This is not to discount such latter day phenoms as Federer, Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, Nadal. But none of them owns a Grand Slam.
You see, Laver, as well as Aussie Margaret Smith Court and German Steffi Graf – the only Grand Slammers still with us – are victims of careless, really disrespectfully sloppy, use of language by journalists and commentators.
They throw around “Grand Slam” thoughtlessly. The Australian Open, despite all the trumpeting, is not a Grand Slam. Nor are Wimbledon, the French and U.S. Opens. They are the four majors. A true Grand Slam is winning all four within a calendar year. Alone at that summit: Americans Don Budge (1938) and Maureen Connolly (1953), Laver (1962 and 1969), Court (1970), Graf (1988).
Connecting “Grand Slam” with anyone else or any one championship is confusing to the public, and makes light of the rarest deeds of the Quintessential Quintet – Budge, Connolly, Laver, Court, Graf.
An Aussie champion, Jack Crawford, like Margaret Court a native of Albury, New South Wales, inspired the Grand Slam possibility. In 1933 Crawford conquered Australia, France and Wimbledon. Nobody had done that before. Despite the tiring campaign, and suffering from asthma, he nevertheless clambered to the U.S. final, and John Kieran, a New York Times columnist, wrote that “if Crawford wins, it will be something like a grand slam in bridge, taking all the tricks.”
Alas, “Gentleman Jack,” as he was called, one of the most popular Aussies, could not do the undone. He did make it to the fifth set, but his was a house of cards, razed by Englishman Fred Perry, and Grand Slam speculation was shelved for five years. Until along came a lanky Californian, Don Budge, who went all the way, and dined out on the Slam – his private property for years.
Laver was born the year of Budge’s extravaganza, 1938. Rod made his first Slam as an amateur, turned pro, and had to wait until 1969 when the four majors were at last open to all. Budge had kept his Slam intentions a secret, to reduce the pressure from the press.
Contrastingly, in 1969 Laver made it clear that he was aiming for his second Slam amid all the best players in existence. “You’re the only one with a chance to Slam if you win the Australian, the first leg,” he said, having done so in 1960 only to flop at the French, losing to Spaniard Manolo Santana in the third round. He was shut out immediately in 1961, beaten in the Aussie finale at Kooyong by fellow country boy Roy Emerson.
Appropriately, his second Slam was launched in Queensland, a title round defeat of Spaniard Andres Gimeno when the Open was staged on Brisbane grass. Laver rocketed the rest of the way on a New South Wales route, beating Ken Rosewall for the French title, John Newcombe at Wimbledon and Tony Roche in New York.
For a long while I felt that Roger Federer would be the next Grand Slammer. Thrice he grasped three of the prizes (2004, 06-07), but Parisian clay was his quicksand, and Rafa Nadal his nemesis the last four years. I know that a Federer admirer, the impeccable sportsman Laver, would welcome Roger to the ultra-exclusive club. It may come to pass, and would bring greater attention to the game.
Meanwhile, whenever I hear or read that Federer has 13 Grand Slams, one behind Pete Sampras’s male record, I wince, and wish I could wash the offender’s mouth out with laundry soap. You can understand, I hope, that such is loose use, and slights what the legit Slammers have done. Laver would never complain – but I will.
However, you may counter, “Is the definition of a Grand Slam a regulation, chiseled in marble somewhere?”
Sadly, no. But Melbourne Park would be a good place for it: “The road to a Grand Slam starts here.”
Until then, repeat after me: “A Grand Slam is the winning all four majors within a calendar year – and only that.”
All the while wondering how in hell Laver did it twice.