Laver’s Grand Slam: 1969 US Open, 50 Years On
In the final part of this year’s series, Rod Laver looks back 50 years to the 1969 US Open, when he completed his second calendar-year Grand Slam
With his heavily pregnant wife, Mary, at home in Newport Beach, California, the Australian arrived at the Tudor City apartment of actor Charlton Heston, on the east side of Manhattan in New York City, riding a 23-match winning streak, which included consecutive titles at the US Pro Championships in Boston, St. Louis, Binghamton, Fort Worth and Baltimore.
Laver was in great shape and full of confidence ahead of his shot at completing a second calendar-year Grand Slam. Any thoughts about a dip in form didn’t enter the mind of 31-year-old. Only the due date of his first child, revealed by his wife by telephone when he was competing in Brisbane at the 1969 Australian Open in January was of a concern. The same day as the US Open final, 9 September.
Speaking exclusively to ATPTour.com 50 years on, Laver admitted, “It’s a strange thing, but I didn’t really have any let-downs, whatever the championship. I just kept on playing. If I enjoyed it, why would I stop? Because I won Wimbledon and then headed over for the US circuit, I was playing and keeping myself in good shape and playing well.
“Once Wimbledon ended, Mary returned to California and I went on the road and didn’t look back. I felt I was busy with my program. I was very happy and Mary was happy too, she told me to do my thing. She had her daughter, Ann, with her and there was plenty of people around, so we left it as was. Thinking of Mary certainly eased my concerns about completing the calendar-year Grand Slam.”
Laver and his good friend, John McDonald, a former New Zealand Davis Cup player, took up residence in the apartment of Heston, who they had known since the late 1950s, when the Ben-Hur actor watched tennis at the Pacific Southwest tournament in Los Angeles, which, in the amateur era of the sport, was the latest US tournament played after the national championship.
“We played some tennis tournaments and he invited a group of players to his house in Beverley Hills,” remembers Laver. “He loved playing tennis, happy to be part of the tennis world as he played quite a lot of tennis to a good level, and we enjoyed meeting him.
“I was happy when Chuck said, ‘Why don’t you take my place in Tudor City, it’s under rent control and the price was right. Be my guest.’ McDonald also knew him through Wimbledon, so he came as my friend, driver and hitting partner. John was almost like a coach of mine. He knew all the things I was doing wrong, and he could immediately tell me how I could fix it, such as footwork, or ball toss on serve. His advice helped get me out of bad habits.”
Having read everything written en route to his 1962 calendar-year Grand Slam, Laver was now well versed about the media and limited his newspaper reading, merely content in preparing the grips on his racquets out of habit. “I didn’t know what people were writing about me in the columns,” says Laver. “I talked to [CBS Sports commentator and Boston Globe writer] Bud Collins at different times and he brought up the Grand Slam, but I didn’t let anything around me let my focus drop. The amount of reporters was small, not many travelled as they do now, so I didn’t have to worry too much.”
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Through three rounds, Laver didn’t experience any problems against a trio of Latin Americans, Mexican Luis Garcia (6-2, 6-4, 6-2), then two Chileans Jaime Pinto-Bravo (6-4, 7-5, 6-2) and Jaime Fillol Sr. (8-6, 6-1, 6-2) on the West Side Tennis Club grass, which was a far cry from the surface quality of The Championships, Wimbledon. “The Forest Hills grass and Wimbledon grass was no comparison,” remembers Laver. “The centre court was uneven and was the only court that ever got covered. The court surface heaved up and down, they didn’t re-seed or do the regularly work to make it better. So you played it accordingly.”
The second US Open of the Open Era was far more commercial than in 1968, with a huge ‘Come To Marlboro County’ sign on the new $167,000 scoreboards; IBM boards around the grounds highlighting statistics; Spalding emblazoned on the front and backs of ball boy shirts, and Pepsi logos on the drinks coolers behind the umpire’s chairs. On the court, Dennis Ralston, who kept the ball low over the net and produced a number of fine returns, was the first player to have Laver sweating, when the American found himself up a set and a break in the fourth round. Laver had beaten Ralston in five sets en route to the 1968 Wimbledon crown, but nationalist fervour from the Forest Hills crowd presented a mental battle this time around.
“If I didn’t time it right, I would walk out after a change of ends to silence,” says Laver. “But if I stepped out at the same time as him, I felt the support the crowd was giving him. It was a mental thing, I was out here too. I walked out together with him, unless he took off like a bullet and I was too slow. Back in those years, there were no chairs on the court [courtside chairs came into effect at 1975 Wimbledon]. You just stood at the net post, by the umpire’s chair, towel off and kept going.”
At two sets to one down, using the old amateur rules, Laver and Ralston took a 10-minute break after the end of the third set. “We both went inside to the locker room, and Roy Emerson and Fred Stolle came in and sat beside me and told me to throw the ball higher, so I wouldn’t miss my first serve,” recalls Laver. “They gave me good tips, as they were watching and knew what was happening.”
Laver, who ultimately won 6-4, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, breaking in the sixth game of the fifth set when Ralston missed a backhand volley, admits, “Dennis was always tough for me, he served and volleyed well and was a good mover on the court. Maybe sometimes I didn’t concentrate hard, but unless you played your best tennis you’d get in trouble.”
From that moment on, the West Side Tennis Club became a swimming pool; the already patchy grass got chewed up and tournament organisers expected to lose $100,000 of the $500,000 gross. Rain washed out two complete sessions, six-and-a-half inches of rain fell in a little over 24 hours — which was a 25-year high — and gave Tournament Director Owen Williams a major headache. During the two-and-a-half-day lull, prior to the quarter-finals, Laver and McDonald drove to Englewood in New Jersey to train indoors, or visited the NY Athletics Club gym, but Laver ran too much and his leg muscles became sore.
“When you had breaks, it was always tough to keep yourself ready to play these matches and have the right level of concentration,” says Laver. “It happened, but I worked through it. By exercising a lot and playing hard, that puts you in a position to go five sets.”
Laver needed to draw upon his reserves in the quarter-finals, against fellow Australian Roy Emerson, who he’d beaten in three times en route to his first calendar-year Grand Slam in 1962. “He is probably my best friend,” says Laver. “You’re both fighting to win the match and he won’t give me the match, as he wants to win the tournament.”
Emerson led by a set and a break, but as a toe-dragger when serving, he’d inadvertently dug a trench behind the baseline and it later affected his motion. By taking special care of his serve and hitting through the ball, Laver found a way back by playing his own game. “He started off well and played well, but as the match progressed, I knew I was getting better,” remembers Laver, who eventually came through 4-6, 8-6, 13-11, 6-4 against the 1961 and 1964 champion. “I felt I needed to have the attitude of playing the way I was playing, and everything will be fine. Not the attitude of trying to change your game, because you’re not winning.
“I wanted to play the game I played in years past. I didn’t change my game, because I was down as I thought I could get back. If I lose, I lose. You’re not supposed to win every tournament. Play your game, and if you lose, you lose.”
Ahead of Saturday’s semi-finals, showers were of considerable force and first delayed and then interrupted Laver’s clash against Arthur Ashe, with 11,000 spectators left to huddle under the stands. Tarpaulin covers and the use of a hovering helicopter as an improvised drying device didn’t help matters and failed to keep the courts truly playable. Speaking of the tricky court conditions, Laver says, “I was used to playing on the grass. The Australian courts weren’t that level either and there was a lot of bare patches, making for different speeds. If it was a tough court for me, then my opponent would be in the same position and he won’t be able to play the game he wants to play. You play accordingly. You’re used to playing and not getting good bounces, that’s why I served and volley.”
By hitting winners on return of serve and looping his topspin groundstrokes, the Australian found himself at 8-6, 6-3, 12-12 when bad light stopped play for the day. Ashe, who had beaten Manuel Santana and Ken Rosewall en route to the semi-finals, served for the first set at 5-4, and in the third set had a set point at 9-8, with Laver serving at 30/40. Concluding the next day, when there was further rain, the final was subsequently delayed by 24 hours.
Even then, Laver and Tony Roche needed to wait a further one hour and 35 minutes until the delayed start of play, as another helicopter attempted to hover over the court, but it merely pushed water to the edges of the court. “I knew about the helicopter,” says Laver. “The only problem was it brought up more water from the court.” The centre court baseline was saturated and both finalised struggled to bounce the ball pre-serve. Roche welcomed the delay, having come through a highly physical semi-final 3-6, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, 8-6 over John Newcombe on Sunday.
Laver was wary of Roche, who would win five of their eight matches in 1969, but had gotten the better of him at the start of his Grand Slam year at the Australian Open, when one set of their semi-finals was 24-22. Thoughts of Laver’s idol, Lew Hoad, who’d won the first three major championships of 1956 only to lose to Rosewall in the US Championships final, didn’t enter the head of the ‘Rockhampton Rocket’. “I wasn’t afraid to lose,” says Laver, of 9 September 1969, 50 years on. “But I knew it was going to be a very tough match, so I had to put my best foot forwards.”
Laver served for the first set at 5-3 in soggy conditions, but soon asked Mike Gibson, the Wimbledon (1962-1975) and US Open (1969-70) referee, if he could put on spiked shoes. “I asked the referee, Mike Gibson, ‘If I can’t stand up on the grass, can I wear spikes?’ He said, ‘Certainly, as this is the last match. You’re welcome to play in them.’” Roche got cramps when he wore spikes, so kept his tennis shoes on. Laver had played in spikes in Davis Cup ties and in Australia in the past.
“I ended up losing that set, but I had spikes on and felt more comfortable. The court was soft, and I found myself skidding in my spikes. After a run, you’d put your breaks on and slide through the shot. I had to keep plugging away, but I also knew I had to get my first serve in and volley more, not letting the ball bounce. It was easier to get used to it, but if you weren’t used to it, it would be difficult to lift your feet up. You don’t slide to the ball, but you stop and hit. It was a unique occasion to do so in one of my biggest matches.”
Laver found himself down 30/40 in the first game of the second set, but worked past Roche, who was five of the last 23 games. Nothing, even a 30-minute rain delay at the start of the third set, could put off Laver, who went onto win 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 and complete his second calendar-year Grand Slam. The elation of the moment saw Laver leap over the net, momentarily forgetting how Herb Flam caught the net and tripped when he did so at Adelaide in 1957. “We did it in Australia at various tournaments. I was so happy to complete the year.”
Afterwards, Don Budge, the first player to win the calendar-year Grand Slam in 1938, congratulated Laver once more, as he’d done at Forest Hills in 1962. Although Laver had a $16,000 cheque in his back pocket for winning the US Open title, he didn’t have any loose change and had to ask a newspaperman to borrow a dime in order to phone his wife, Mary, in California. “I was thrilled to tell her that I’d won and that she was doing fine. She wasn’t in labour. Back at the very beginning of the year, Mary called me when I was in Australia and told me that she was pregnant. The due date for the baby was 9 September, the same day as the final of the US Open. Ultimately, she was three weeks late. Our son, Ricky, was born on 27 September.”
Victory proved to be a watershed moment for Laver, who declared to reporters in his post-match interview that he planned to focus more on his family in the future. There was no loss of desire for the sport, but the 1969 US Open was his 11th and final major singles trophy. “At 31, I had some injuries, a tennis elbow that was tender at times,” Laver told ATPTour.com. “I could play the match, but afterwards I suffered for a while to get it back. I took aspirin or medication to relieve the pain, but I felt pretty happy and that I hadn’t been with my wife too often. I felt it was time that I needed to be with Mary and my child.”
Following his triumph, Laver travelled to Los Angeles, where he saw his 31-match winning end to Raymond Moore, but, most importantly, he was relieved to be heading home. During his historic 1969 season, Laver won 17 singles titles, earned a record $106,000 in prize money and compiled a 106-16 match record.
Now 81, Laver still finds it amazing that no other man has completed the ‘Grand Slam’, first coined by John Kieran, a New York Times columnist, in 1933. Five men have since have won a trio of Grand Slam events in the same year — Jimmy Connors in 1974, Mats Wilander in 1988, Roger Federer in 2004, 2006 and 2007, Rafael Nadal in 2010 and Novak Djokovic in 2011 and 2015.
“It is amazing, when I look at the players who have competed over the past 50 years, whether it was Connors, John McEnroe, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, or Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in today’s era,” says Laver. “Years ago, a lot of people didn’t look at the four major tournaments as a Grand Slam. Some didn’t like going down to play in Australia in December or January. Maybe it was the circumstances that they didn’t feel the impact of what the Grand Slam was.
“But the game is bigger now, people have looked closer at historic records over the past 20 years, and it’s great that tennis celebrates its past. I’ve enjoyed my 50th anniversary celebrations.”