Laver ‘thrilled’ with trip down memory lane

  • Dan Imhoff

The Norman Brookes Challenge Cup stops Rod Laver in his tracks as he begins to make his way to his seat.

A legend of the sport, the Australian is about to watch the premiere of a short film celebrating the 50th anniversary of his second calendar Grand Slam.

No man or woman has done it twice since.

The now 80-year-old rests his hands on the cup.

He has already looked back on his 1969 season, the year in which he won the four majors as a professional.

But it is this trophy he decides to reflect on individually.

It is clear which of the majors he held dearest.

“I have to also mention, to own this, my own trophy, the thrill of probably the whole Grand Slams, they're right here,” Laver said as he tapped the cup.

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Laver holds the 1969 Norman Brookes Challenge Cup close to his heart

Tournament director Craig Tiley has introduced the six-minute film, ‘Rod Laver: Launch of a Legend’, and the star of the documentary still finds it humbling, even after years of being showered with anniversary accolades.  

“I'm just thrilled that this has happened,” Laver said. “You have made me a happy man.”

A legend of the sport, the Australian’s profile has further grown in recent years as contemporary greats – the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – speak fondly of Laver; as much for his class as an elder statesman of the sport as his legacy.

Laver first achieved the calendar Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962 before being barred from competing for five years after turning professional.

When tennis did become professional at Roland Garros in 1968, Laver spoke to his wife, Mary, about contesting the four majors the following year.

“You don't say, ‘I'm going to win the Grand Slam’,” Laver said. “It's a nine-month title, you know. So I guess I came down here in '69. This is the first time that all of them were going to be Open.

“Yeah, pride of being an Australian is how I would put it. I just wanted to be down here … I told my wife, I want to enter all four of them. And she says, ‘Well, go ahead. It's your life with tennis’.”

Laver knew better than to picture fighting it out at Forest Hills in that men’s final at the US Championships later that year. His focus was solely on the first major of 1969, on the grass courts at Milton, Brisbane.

There was no escaping the countdown, though, should his final date with destiny eventuate after a phone call from Mary back in the US.

“I arrived down here and she called me up and said she was pregnant,” Laver said. “The due date was the exact date of the US Open final. You know, it may be a thing that was, everything was on my side to make this happen.”

Laver went on to triumph in Brisbane, defeating Andres Gimeno in the Australian Open final. Always his toughest slam – “because Australians play on grass” – the French Open was next.

He had won on the clay in Paris on his way to the 1962 calendar Grand Slam. But with the elevated standard in competition professional tennis brought, Laver decided he had to learn from the best.

“I had to win the French, but actually they were teaching me a lesson every time I walked on the court at the French, anywhere through Europe. I said, ‘I've got to learn what these players are doing to me’,” he said. “Bit by bit, I found some of the secrets that they did.”

He unlocked all the clay-court secrets necessary that year, as his victim in the final – fellow Australian Ken Rosewall – discovered.

Laver went across the channel to Wimbledon where the stakes were even higher as the defending champion. Handling the pressure to aplomb, he carved his way through the draw before he held off his gifted, up-and-coming compatriot, John Newcombe, in four sets for his fourth title at the All England Club.

The weight of expectation now was enormous as he headed into the final major of the year in New York. Having a heavily pregnant wife as his priority, only weeks from her due date, only compounded the situation.

Two days of rain had bumped the final to the Monday. And after organisers tried desperately to dry out the grass with a helicopter, Laver took the court to face another compatriot, Tony Roche, for the title.

Roche claimed the opening set, 9-7, before Laver began to handle the heavy slippery conditions better, running away with the final three sets for the loss of just five games.

“My concentration when I was on the court, it wasn’t a nervous energy, it was the will to win,” Laver said. “You’re very happy with your own game, you’re not fidgety because you are nervous. You are bringing out the best in that key position. I was always thrilled to be in that position.”

As it was, Mary was due to give birth the day before his triumph over Roche. She ended up delivering their first son, Rick, three weeks late.

Fifty years since Laver claimed that calendar Grand Slam in the Open Era, the Aussie great did not ponder for long when asked whether his would be the last.

“It’s got to happen again,” he said.