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Return of Rocket Rod

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Originally published on: 25/01/12 17:25

A full 50 years after winning his first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 1962, Rod Laver returned to Melbourne Park on Wednesday to celebrate the anniversary of what he describes as his toughest win.

Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest players of all time, Laver won 11 Grand Slams, 200 career titles and the Davis Cup on five occasions, but many believe his greatest achievement was claiming all four majors in the same year, twice.  

The Australian legend managed the feat in 1962 and backed it up by doing so again – this time in the Open Era – in 1969. Interestingly, Laver says he never even considered he might win the calendar slam before he did so.  

“I was just honoured to be able to pull it off,” he remembered. “You don’t start off trying to win the [calendar] Grand Slam. You’re just very happy to play the matches, tournaments. The thrill of going to the French Championships, Wimbledon, US Open.  

“Fortunately, the years prior to that, I had either won Wimbledon or got to the finals. [With] my ability, I felt it was possible to win tournaments, but not a Grand Slam…” 

Laver trails off, as if the feat still seems remarkable even to him. In the modern game, of course, it is an almost unthinkable achievement. Only Laver and Don Budge (in 1938) have managed the feat in the men’s game, and in the women’s, Steffi Graff was the last to do so, bettering the efforts of Margaret Court in 1970 by adding Olympic gold to a remarkable Golden Slam in 1988.  

Novak Djokovic won three of the four major events in 2011, Rafael Nadal did the same in 2010 and Roger Federer did so on three occasions in 2004, 2006 and 2007, but the chances of someone grabbing four in a year any time soon appear slight. And that may be due to the collective strength of the top four men that have climbed to seemingly unassailable heights on the current tour, suggests Laver, who is well aware that the game is plenty different to when he ruled it. 

“There were a lot of good players out there [back then] but I don’t know that we could hit upon saying there were four. There were probably eight to ten talented players that won tournaments in the past. It was amateur tennis so no-one was really high on ‘I’ve got to win this for my career’. There was no career. There was no money in amateur tennis.

“The whole cycle has changed for the good,” continued Laver. “Tennis is just unbelievable. Being able to see the winner is going to walk away with $2million is great for the sport.” 

That sport has changed immeasurably since Laver first picked up a racket. Gone are the days when serve-volley was the most effective playing style (“you had to [do that]”, Laver says, or else “you let the ball bounce and it might not bounce!”). As for the best of all time, Laver won’t be drawn, even if he does come across as an admirer of Federer.

“I saw him win so many [tournaments] like Wimbledon, then comes down here and plays his best tennis in the big tournaments,” said Laver of the Swiss, though he believes that any of the top three could be in contention for the ‘greatest of the modern era’ label when their time on tour is out.  

“He, Nadal and Djokovic have certainly proved they’re vying for first place,” Laver said. “By the time they get to where Roger is, five or six years from now, the same thing will be applied with the likes of Djokovic and Nadal.” 

Before then, there’s the pressing matter of this year’s tournament and Nadal’s crunch semi-final with Federer. It’s a tough call to pick a winner, according to Laver, but the Aussie great did reveal his belief that “Federer looks to be playing confidently.”  

Who could argue with a man of Laver’s repute?

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