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Rod Laver (centre) pictured with the players he beat in the four major championship finals for the 1969 Grand Slam. Left to Right: Andres Gimeno, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche.

Laver's Grand Slam: 1969 Australian Open, 50 Years On

In the first of a four-part series this year, Rod Laver looks back 50 years to the 1969 Australian Open, the first step to his historic second Grand Slam.

Rod Laver's first steps to immortality in competition 'open' to amateur and professionals, 50 seasons ago, saw the 30-year-old travel from his California home and back to Queensland for the first time in three years, to see his mother and father, who was aged 70. The first 48-player, eight-day Australian Open was set to be held — for the seventh, and final time — on the Milton grass courts in Brisbane's Frew Park, boasting a 7,000-seater stadium. “I’d beaten Neale Fraser to win the 1960 Australian Open in Brisbane, to become the first Queenslander champion,” remembers Laver, 50 years on. “The courts were patchy and bad bouncing; the pavilion was just as I’d remembered it as a kid. It was one of the most dispiriting tournaments I’d ever played in, as the humidity was intense and the seedings were odd — facing Emerson [the 1963-67 champion] and Fred Stolle so early on.

“Having won the Wimbledon title in 1968, I’d told my wife, Mary, towards the end of the season that I wanted to play all four of the major championships the following year. She agreed, ‘Go ahead, it’s your life with tennis.’ Completing another Grand Slam, after six years in the wilderness as a pro, was already on my mind when I arrived in Brisbane. With a cortisone injection in my left elbow, a product of going for a ball and falling on my left wrist in Boston in June 1968, I started against Massimo Di Domenico in the second round. Before every match I needed to wrap my elbow in a canvas pad for 20 minutes, then I iced it after each match. Right from the start, the January heat in Brisbane was excessive and the humidity was oppressive.”

Di Domenico, who joined four other Italian players — Vittorio Crotta, Pietro Marzano, Adriano Panatta and Piero Toci — on the tour of Australia and New Zealand, told ATPTour.com, “I remember walking with Rod along the tunnel leading to the Centre Court and being quite nervous. Rod was very friendly and talkative, which relaxed me a bit. I played reasonably well, although I lost 6-2, 6-2, 6-3, but Rod was always complimentary when I played a good shot. After the match, Rod asked me to practice with him in the following days, but with my English not being very good, Martin Mulligan, as our coach, stepped in to help fix the agreement.”

Then came No. 11 seed Emerson, the five-time defending champion, who would partner Laver to the doubles title later in the week. In their 31 matches between 1958 and 1962, the pair had met at seven major championships. “Playing Rod was always tough,” Emerson told ATPTour.com. “Harry Hopman [the long-time Davis Cup coach and captain] placed such great emphasis on Australians playing together that we always practised together and partnered up in doubles, so there were no surprises in new strokes or tactics. It all came down to a matter of points, a ball hitting a line or not. I was two years older than Rod and, over the course of our long careers in the amateur and pro games, we played over 70 times. I liked playing against left-handers, having partnered Neale Fraser, who was a great player, in 1959.

“Rod didn’t have the biggest serve of all time, and players used to target his second serve a lot. He was a slow starter too, so often I attempted to get off to the best possible start, but once he found his range and rhytmn later in a match there was no stopping some of his groundstrokes, particularly in the best-of-five sets format that we regularly played.”

Laver remembers, “The match started at 9 p.m. and could have gone on to 2 a.m.! Emmo served at 7-6 in the fourth set, but I eventually won [6-2, 6-4, 3-6, 9-7].” Emerson, who captured the first two major singles championships of 1963 and 1967, adds, “The biggest difference between Laver of 1962 and 1969 was he was more experienced, he had tightened up his strokes and was a seasoned player.”

”Scheduled to play 10 hours after beating Emerson, the weather posed another threat,” recalls Laver, of his quarter-final against Fred Stolle. “In January, Brisbane can get like a sauna, so in [38°C] afternoon heat, drinks were inexplicably left out in the sun to warm up. There was no ice. We threatened to walk off unless they were replaced with cold drinks. Fred had such a good serve, first volley and backhand, so I struggled to get through him [6-4, 18-16, 6-4], but what I remember is loud music from a wedding party was being played beyond the court. Rochey beat John Newcombe in a five-set quarter-final and their request for the music to be turned down was declined. For some reason, the organisers also decided to take time off to go to the races, a fact not lost on the pros, because the Australian LTA, at the time, was not in favour of Open tennis [which had begun in April 1968]. Incredibly, at one point, there were not enough linesmen and Bill Bowrey and Ray Ruffels played their quarter-final without them.”

The New South Wales Open, staged one week before the first Australian Open, highlighted how good promotion and enthusiasm ensured that Open tennis had captured the Sydney public’s imagination. But in Brisbane, a city that was at the time a quarter of the size of Sydney, and with most residents still away in their beach houses on holiday, the high-quality tennis on show at the Milton Courts was lost. Having pruned tournament expenses from $30,000 to $28,000 in the week before the first Australian Open, when organisers realised that attendances would be small, the eight-day, three-night tournament gate receipts were $14,000. The overall financial loss was $13,500 and at the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia A.G.M. later in the year, a decision was taken that in future the championship would be held between the larger cities of Sydney and Melbourne, which became the event’s permanent city in 1972.

Having made it through to the semi-finals, Laver then contested the longest match of his career. Fourth seed Tony Roche, then 23 years of age, had beaten Laver one week earlier in the New South Wales Open in Sydney and would become his main rival in 1969, winning five of their nine matches. “In the five years of being a contract pro, I hadn’t played any left-handers, but now Rochey, who was a part of the ‘Handsome Eight’ and used to playing other lefties Roger Taylor and Nikki Pilic, was my opponent. It was 95 per cent humidity for the midday start, the toughest match of my Grand Slam year. Rochey wore a handkerchief around his neck, I went through three sun hats. My brother, Trevor, had phoned before I stepped out onto court, saying he would come to watch at two o’clock, so hope I’d still be playing.”

In the eighth longest singles match played at the time, Laver “swallowed a couple of glucose tablets, salt pills and draped ice towels over his head at the change of ends”. Both players put web cabbage leaves in their hats to keep them cool in Laver’s 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 victory in four hours and 40 minutes. The second set alone, lasted two hours and five minutes and Roche told ATPTour.com, “I remember having five or six set points in the second set and when we both took a shower after the end of the third set, I thought ‘Rocket’ looked ‘stuffed’ and I’d got him.”

Upon the resumption of play, Laver said, “Rochey came out hitting heavy serves and solid volleys to take a 5-0 lead.” But the match turned with Laver leading 4-3 in the decider, when Roche served down the middle at 15/30. “I sliced under my backhand for a crosscourt,” said Laver, who had chipped returns to Roche’s feet all match. “Rochey watched it go by, thinking it was out, but there was no call. Tony lost his concentration, but I went on to win. I wasn’t thinking of the Grand Slam at the time. That was the equivalent of playing nine sets. Fitness had something to do with being able to compete that day.” The following day, the Brisbane Courier-Mail noted, “In between points in the fifth set, both Laver and Roche appeared ready to topple in exhaustion... never have two players been so evenly matched in sheer guts and brilliance on Milton's centre court." Incredibly, the following week, in Auckland, Roche beat Laver in four sets for the title.

Laver’s opponent in the final, ninth seed Andres Gimeno, who had beaten Butch Buchholz, Ruffels and Rosewall without dropping a set, told ATPTour.com, “The night before I played Rosewall, it rained a lot and the court was very slippery. I wore spikes and played very well, but Ken was wearing normal shoes and was sliding a lot. I played well in the other matches, but in the final, Rod played too good!” Laver, who’d soaked for hours in a baking-soda bath in his motel room after his victory over Roche, remembers, “My troublesome left elbow held up, but Gimeno lacked energy in the final. He was an artist, in placing and stroking the ball without a lot of heavy top spin. But he didn’t take his chances to break in the third set.” Laver won 6-3, 6-4, 7-5 for his third Australian crown and collected the $4,500 first prize.

Today, only one photograph exists of the trophy ceremony of the first Australian Open on 27 January 1969. Even when looking at the black-and-white snap, the freckles, the slight frame and the muscular left forearm are unmistakable. Laver, with sweat on his brow and a white towel wrapped around his shoulders, looks the president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia, Charles Edwards, straight in the eyes upon receiving the sterling silver and silver gilt Norman Brookes Challenge Cup, which took 800 man-hours to create in 1926. The scene, on the middle of three grass courts at the Milton Courts in Brisbane, witnessed by a sparse crowd on green wooden bleachers and as few as 15 journalists, was the first step of Laver’s historic ninth-month journey to the calendar-year Grand Slam.

Coming up in May 2019: Laver Reflects On 1969 Roland Garros