CARLSBAD (USA): It was the final year of a turbulent decade, when Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Beatles were about to release “Abbey Road,” and Neil Armstrong had just taken man’s first steps on the moon.
There was another rocket launch in 1969, one that still resonates in the sports world today — Rod Laver wrapped up his second career Grand Slam of tennis.
“That was sort of a different time,” Laver mused recently after his usual Tuesday night match with his son, Rick, and a handful of mates at La Costa. “There were some interesting things that went on.”
Hard to believe, but it’s been four decades since the slightly built, red-haired Australian known as ‘Rocket’ won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year.
Now 70, Laver is heading down under next week to be honoured at the Australian Open for the 40th anniversary of his second Grand Slam. He also won tennis’ four biggest tournaments as an amateur in 1962.
The four men he beat with his powerful left arm in his 1969 Grand Slam, Spaniard Andres Gimeno and fellow Aussies Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche, are scheduled to join Laver at a legends lunch.
Laver also is set to present the trophy following the men’s final at Rod Laver Arena, the centre court at Melbourne Park.
“I’m very honoured. Plus, having the name on the stadium is quite a coup,” Laver said. “That’s sort of really the crowning achievement of my whole career — having my name on it.”
Laver enjoys talking about his Grand Slams, if asked.
“I guess my make-up’s not one to be flamboyant,” said Rocket, who was given the sarcastic nickname by Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, who felt the 17-year-old Laver was a bit lackadaisical. “I just enjoyed playing and competing.”
The years go by, and no one’s joined American Don Budge (1938) and the unassuming Laver as the only men to win the Grand Slam.
Laver won Wimbledon four times, the Australian Open thrice and the U.S. and French championships twice each. He added six Grand Slam titles in men’s doubles and three in mixed doubles.
Laver likely would have won many more Majors but was banned from the Grand Slam events in his prime after he turned pro in 1963. He did not return to the Majors until the Open era in 1968, then promptly won Wimbledon for the third time.
Laver ushered in the 1969 season, the first full year of the Open era, by beating Gimeno in straight sets to win the Australian Open. To get there, he outlasted Roche in a 4-1/2-hour, five-set semifinal that included a 22-20 second set.
Roche, also a lefty, threw a bit of a twist at Rocket.
“I spent five years in the pro ranks and there were no left-handers in there, so he was totally new to me to play,” Laver said. “For me it was hard because the ball’s coming the reverse way.”
Laver won the French Open with another straight-set final against Rosewall.
He was half-way there.
“I guess I’m thinking its possible now. I’ve won three Wimbledon’s prior. It’s possible to win Wimbledon. You’re starting to feel pretty good about yourself.”
Laver beat Newcombe in a four-set final. In the semifinals, Laver had to rally against Arthur Ashe after losing the first set 6-2. “He started out like a house on fire, and I’m thinking, ‘what is going on here?”’ Laver said. “Then he’s up a break in the second set. I said, ‘well, he can’t keep this up, surely.’ He’s bombing my big serves with return serves, serving aces, everything’s clicking, and finally, he did, he came down to earth. Those matches are ones that you remember.”
Wimbledon was his favourite tournament. “Everybody who’s anybody wants to play at Wimbledon. So that atmosphere is just unbelievable. The adrenaline flows and your concentration is better.”
A month after turning 31, Laver completed the Grand Slam by defeating Roche in four sets in a rain-delayed Monday final at the U.S. Open.
Laver remembers the helicopter that was brought in to try to dry the court and switching to spiked shoes after losing the first set. “It made a mess of the court,” he said.
Having spent his off-court time hidden away in his friend Charlton Heston’s Manhattan apartment, Rocket said he didn’t feel any pressure.
“I felt keyed up, but I didn’t feel like nerves had got to me… you’ve got to be fortunate not to have any injuries, no colds, no flu, nothing to put you down. It’s not only your tennis, it’s the good fortune of staying healthy.”
Laver always thought Boris Becker and Pete Sampras would win the Grand Slam, but neither even made it to the final of the French Open.
“Roger Federer is very capable of winning all of them,” said Laver, who’s lived with wife, Mary, in northern San Diego County for several years. — AP