Laver’s Grand Slam: 1969 Wimbledon, 50 Years On
In the third of a four-part series this year, Rod Laver looks back 50 years to 1969 Wimbledon, the third step to his historic second Grand Slam
With the first two major trophies in the bag, the lure of The All England Club beckoned Rod Laver, halfway to the calendar year Grand Slam, in the summer of 1969. But the pressure of performing at The Championships meant that even with a 21-match winning streak at Wimbledon — 24 if you included the historic pro event in August 1967, a major stepping stone to Open tennis — the Australian wasn’t leaving anything to chance.
At the peak of his powers, Laver holed up at a Dolphin Square apartment with his wife, Mary, who was seven months pregnant, and nursed a long-injured left elbow that had required a cortisone injection in Los Angeles, a couple of months earlier. He’d occasionally drive to SW19, but often took a Bentley or Rolls Royce, with a few other players picked up from central London hotels, to within 30 yards of Rudyard Kipling’s famous quote above the doors onto Centre Court. Stepping out of a courtesy car, they would turn left to the men’s locker room, long since demolished.
“I enjoyed playing at Wimbledon, I felt that I played some of my best tennis there,” Laver exclusively told ATPTour.com, 50 years on. “Not that I enjoyed the pressure, but my concentration levels seemed to increase. I always felt good about coming to Wimbledon and I gave myself every chance. I prepared well on the practice courts ahead of the tournament and I was ready to compete against everybody.”
For many players arriving at The All England Club is a pilgrimage, but for Australians, ever since Frank Sedgman became only the fourth man to win the triple crown — of Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles — in 1952, competing at The Championships is a source of national pride. Laver, who was absent for five years between 1963 and 1967 as a contract professional, had last lost at Wimbledon to Neale Fraser in the 1960 final.
“I didn’t feel unhappy about my first match,” admits Laver, who beat Nicola Pietrangeli 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 on Centre Court in the first round, which was carried over to the second day as a result of a wash out. “He was more of a clay-court player. He did play on grass, I’d played him at Wimbledon in other years. I felt comfortable about serve and volleying, and as he played a baseline game I felt comfortable about attacking him as there was no pressure at the net.”
As Charlie Pasarell and Pancho Gonzales battled it out on Centre Court in what, until John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s 2010 epic, was the longest Wimbledon match in history, Laver was in a muddle on No. 4 Court, watched by a vast crowd in the aisles between courts, down 6-3, 6-4, 3-2 against Indian Premjit Lall, a university-educated, one-time cement salesman. “There was a lot riding on that tournament,” reflects Laver, on the eve of the 2019 championships. “I’d already won two legs of the Slam and I thought my chances of winning Wimbledon were okay, so I put pressure on myself.”
Word began to spread around The All England Club of Laver’s plight, but at 3-4 in the third set, Lall pulled up, rubbing his legs and afflicted by cramp. He missed two smashes and lost the game, never to win another one that day. “I was very fortunate to come through that match,” says Laver, who won 15 straight games. “I pretty much underestimated him playing so well on the grass courts. He had a good serve and I was struggling. My confidence levels weren’t there. I started off on a bad note and I was fortunate to find my game. So you have to be very fortunate to come back from that level. It showed to me I wasn’t concentrating fully.”
With a couple of aspirins, taken an hour before he stepped out onto court, the dull pain in his left elbow was manageable, aided by soaking it each night in a compression pad. “It was a little tender at times, but I didn’t worry about it too much and once you got into a match itself you soon forget it. I would often remind myself to play every point, and not let a match away from you.”
Laver moved past Denmark’s Jan Leschly 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 and into the fourth round where he challenged a familiar foe, Stan Smith, who had suffered a cold in a damp two-day loss to the Australian in the 1969 Roland Garros fourth round. Laver says, “Stan preferred playing on grass, with his big serve and net rushing. He came to the net quite a lot. You had to worry about getting the ball past him and on grass you sometimes had to worry about the bounces. It’s a low bounce and making passing shots is a lot tougher than on clay courts.”
It was one of Laver’s toughest matches, but he came through 6-4, 6-2, 7-9, 3-6, 6-3 for a place in the last eight. “I knew what to expect, he had a big fast serve, but at the same time he made errors,” recalls Laver. “You have to take advantage of every opportunity that comes along. In the third set, I was down 0/40 at 5-3, and mentally you may think the match is in the balance, but you do your best to work your way through. You play one point at a time. You stop making mistakes. I did so, but Stan was always a tough competitor.”
Within the space of five days, Laver had played four matches, but there was no respite, tests came thick and fast. Cliff Drysdale had beaten Laver 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 in the West of England Open at Bristol, the week after his victory at Stade Roland Garros, and the South African had overcome Roy Emerson in the Wimbledon fourth round, but Laver proved to be a different animal in the quarter-finals, winning 6-4, 6-2, 6-3. Playing against a player with a double-handed backhand often proved a test for Laver, who admits Drysdale, “Had a good serve and a double-handed backhand, which you need a different attitude to play against. I used to attack everyone’s backhand, and his backhand was probably stronger than his forehand. In that instance, you had to cut down on the errors and make him hit winners or win the point. You have to play safe in many areas.”
Then came Arthur Ashe, the 1968 US Open champion, with a big serve and flashy game, never afraid to hit out. For a while, Laver was powerless, unable to impart his own game on the American, who would ultimately lift The Championships title in 1975. “The biggest thing that happened was he led 5-0 in the first set and he was serving aces, hitting winners, hitting return of serves for winners,” Laver told ATPTour.com. “I had never seen him play like that. For those five games he didn’t make an error. I said to myself, ‘He can’t keep this up. He can’t hit like this all the time, otherwise I’m going to lose for sure.’
“I just got the ball in play and make him hit the winners. Finally, I won a couple of games, but in the next set, it was the same thing. I needed him not just to make errors, but to hit shots. I still struggled in the third set, but won it and by the fourth set I was feeling much more comfortable about what I had to do. I played accordingly, my game picked up, and I got through that last set.” Laver won 2-6, 6-2, 9-7, 6-0.
Ahead of his sixth straight Wimbledon final — taking into his account his five-year absence as a professional — against 1967 champion John Newcombe, Laver didn't seek any council, pep talks or strategy sessions with any player, or Australia's great coach Harry Hopman. “It was a matter of going out and I knew what Newcombe was capable of doing,” says Laver, who had lost to 25-year-old Newcombe 6-4, 6-4 in The Queen’s Club semi-finals shortly prior to 1969 Wimbledon. “Newk was always a thinking man’s champion, he had a big serve and he made all his returns. My serves were in play, so I was the one who had to make the winners or keep the pressure on the opponent. I knew it was a tough match and I knew that my game had to be at its best when I played him. That was the way I approached it.
“There was no strategy, other than what I’d seen in previous matches against him. His backhand was a little worse than his forehand, so I thought I’d keep working on his backhand and keep him moving. Don’t let him play his shots.”
At one-set all, with Newcombe serving at 4-2, 0/15, 30-year-old Laver produced a moment of inspiration which, to this day, his opponent believes was the turning point. Speaking 50 years on, Newcombe told ATPTour.com, “Rod hit a beautiful backhand return down the line, low to my forehand volley. I could not have hit a better sharply angled volley cross court and followed up by covering 99 per cent of his possible replies. He just reached the ball low to the ground and chipped a sharp angle across my body. It was just out of my reach and touched the outside of the line. I remember as I watched the ball hit the line, I turned around and gave Rod a nod of my head, acknowledging the greatness of the shot at such a crucial time.”
Laver remembers, “I knew I was in a fight. I chipped the ball back, hitting it across in front of him. That gave me the opportunity to break serve and get back into the match. Those sort of things happen. You don’t think of it quickly, ‘I’m going to hit down the line or go behind him’. It’s instinct and it worked. There would be many times where that chipped backhand wouldn’t have gone into court. You’ve got to play with what you’ve got.”
Laver went on to win 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 for his fourth Wimbledon title, which at the time was more than any man since the abolishment of the Challenge Round in 1922, wrapping up the match by striking a high lob across court. He was $7,200 the richer and, most importantly, he was three-quarters of his way to a second calendar year Grand Slam.
“I never looked at draws, I simply worried about whoever I came up against – one step at a time,” says Laver, on the eve of The Championships in 2019. “If I won my matches, I would then see who I needed to play. The worst thing you can do is think if I win, then I’ve got to play a guy with a good forehand, a big serve. You’re getting worked up before it ever happens. A lot of times if never happens, because that person loses. It was in my corner. You’ve only got to win seven matches, not 120 of them. When I think back to 1969 Wimbledon, I got myself out of a lot of trouble against Premjit Lall, and then the matches against Stan, Arthur Ashe and Newk were very problematic.”
Coming Up In August 2019: Laver Reflects On 1969 US Open