Tony Roche and Rod Laver, 1969 US Open

After his wins at the Australian Open, Roland Garros and Wimbledon, Rod Laver headed for New York, in search of a fourth major in a row. He was taken to five sets by Dennis Ralston in the fourth round 6-4 4-6 4-6 6-2 6-3, then defeated Roy Emerson 4-6 8-6 13-11 6-4 in the quarterfinals, and defending champion Arthur Ashe in the semifinals 8-6 6-3 14-12. He then faced Tony Roche in the final.

From Rod Laver’s autobiography A memoir:

The final was postponed for a day, until Monday 8 September, when the rain had eased a little. It now fell steadily instead of teeming. In the countdown, Tony and I sat side by side in the locker room, gear on and ready to play, both on edge, hoping for the sun to pierce the purple clouds above. Out in the grandstands 4000 hardly New Yorkers huddled under umbrellas. I was extra toey because Mary had been due to give birth on the 7th, the previous day, but as yet there was still no sign of our newborn’s imminent appearance. Believe me, as time ticked by I gave those leather racquet grips one helluva workout.

Even though he was bone-tired after beating Newk in 169 minutes two days before and I was daisy-fresh in comparison, having taken only a short time to finish off Arthur Ashe, Tony exuded calm confidence and he had every right to do so. That year, he had beaten me five times in our eight meetings.

It was mid-afternoon before Rochey and I were able to go onto the court, which was wet, slippery and slow. Since early morning, there had been a helicopter hovering over the court in a bid to dry it off, but all the chopper blades did was suck up more water to the surface and make it even soggier. An important match wouldn’t proceed under those conditions today. Yet I was confident that I’d handle the sludgy surface better than Tony because I had played on much worse surfaces time and again as a pro – mudheaps and waterlogged bullrings where to take a step would be to lift chunk from the surface – while Rochey was only a recent arrival in the pro ranks and had spent most of his career playing on pristine, perfectly maintained courts. As a precaution, however, before we hit up I fronted match referee Billy Talbert and said, ‘If I find myself sliding, can I wear spikes?’ He said, ‘Be my guest. This is the last match of the tournament so it doesn’t matter if you tear up the court.’
The spikes were three-eighths of an inch (9.5 millimetres) long but, unlike sharp running shoe spikes, the ends had been cut off and were blunt, so if it became necessary to wear them they would definitely churn up the court. I started the match wearing my normal shoes, thinking I’d wait to see how I went in the mud.

I should have won the first set, but deserved to lose it. And lose it I did. After sliding all over the court, I was serving for the set at 5-3. Tony broke me with a magnificent backhand return, which I couldn’t reach on the slippery surface. I asked the referee ‘Can I put on my spikes?’ Seeing that the conditions were hampering my game, Talbert gave his approval. Tony chose not to don spikes because he had strained his thigh muscle in the semifinal against Newk and worried that he might exacerbate the injury and cramp up with the quick and juddering stops you make when you’ve got spikes on. Although, because of the spikes, I was moving around the court well, it was so drenched and torn up that my feet were still going in directions I didn’t want them to. Rochey won that first 9-7. I had served five double faults, and I’d not been guilty of serving that badly for a long, long time. At that stage, Tony was looking invincible.

With spikes, I’d learned, you have to lift your feet higher than usual as you move around the court, because if you try to slide to reach a ball they do their job and dig in, which can bring you crashing down. In the end, it wasn’t too much of an adjustment to make, and for that, as for so many things, I had Harry Hopman to thank. Back in the early Davis Cup days, he had made us all train in them, lifting our feet high, just in case we ever had to wear them in an important match.

I have a distinct memory of a Davis Cup tie at Kooyong in the rain and before it Harry, one of whose many credos was ‘be prepared’, telling us, ‘Get your spikes on, grab your oldest racquet and come with me to the back courts, we’re going to get wet’.

Tony began the second set as he’d finished the first. On fire. He held his serve in the first game. Then he led me 30-40 on my serve in the second game and found himself in an excellent position to go on and win the set, which would put him in the box seat for the match. As I readied to serve again, Tony stalled to set himself to return. I settled myself too. I had to hold serve. The entire match, and the Grand Slam, which I confess was now top of my mind, could hinge on it. Usually, I try to serve at medium pace with spin, making sure the ball goes in and putting the onus on my opponent to handle it. This time I did the opposite, the unexpected, and I belted down a boomer, slicing it wide to Tony’s forehand. He scarcely got his racquet on it. He had blown his chance to break me. Such chances are rare, and I made sure he didn’t get another. The match did turn on that point. I won that game, and as I became more sure of my balance, I began to hit the ball as hard as I have ever hit it. Tony couldn’t handle the pressure I was able to exert. I won the second set 6-1.

A half-hour rain delay held up the third set. When play resumed, I won it 6-2. I felt in total control. In the corresponding US final in 1962 against Roy Emerson, I got the flutters for a bit and recovered. It was a mark of how being a pro had toughened me that I never took my foot off Tony’s throat in the fourth, and what proved to be the final, set.
Hop and Charlie would have approved. My spikes had allowed me to set myself for effective lobs and I lobbed beautifully that day, whereas Tony was hampered by sneakers that offered him little stability on the slippery grass and in the mud and so he struggled to counteract my shots. There was a tiny blip when I was serving for the set and match at 5-2; I made the old mistake of trying to smash away for a winner a sitter of a forehand volley return from Tony when a workmanlike, no-risk response would have done the trick, and I blew it. My second serve was slower and placed perfectly and Rochey’s forehand return went long. I had won the US Open final 7-9 6-1 6-2 6-2 in 113 minutes.

I ran to the net to greet Tony as the crowd stood and cheered. Right then is when I broke another of my rules. In my euphoria I forgot my dignity and leapt over the net. Even before my feet hit the ground I felt a fool. I had never been a show-off, a gloater who rubs his disappointed opponent’s nose in the mud by celebrating like a lunatic, and this is exactly what I was doing. I remembered how I’d learned my lesson when, as a green and giddy 19-year-old excited by my first victory over a world class player, I hurdled the net when I beat Herbie Flam in Adelaide back in ’57 and caught my foot in it and tripped and sprawled ignominiously flat on my mush on the court. Fortunately this time I cleared the net, but I was ashamed by my showboating and what might have appeared to be a lack of respect for Tony. No, the right thing to do when you win a match, and especially, and especially a hard-fought match, is shake your rival’s hand and say, ‘Tough luck,’ or ‘It’s my shout!’

I had won a second Grand Slam. I was the only player to do so and I had won my Slams seven years apart after being exiled to the wilderness of the professional circuit.
At the post-match press conference I announced my decision to Mary and our new baby first from now on and phase myself out of minor tournaments.

I love tennis – it’s my life. But so is my family.

When the reporters put it to me that winning the US Open was a bigger challenge because of the Grand Slam pressure, Mary’s pregnancy, delays and rain interruptions, soggy courts, the umpire’s microphone breaking down – and not forgetting the calibre of my opponents – I conceded they had a point.

This was probably the toughest competition I’ve played in

Read more:
Rod Laver’s road to the 1969 US Open final

From Rod Laver’s autobiography A memoir:

When I strode onto the court at Forest Hills, New York, in the first round of the US Open in the last week of August, I had won 23 matches in a row, beginning with my first round victory over Nicola Pietrangeli at Wimbledon. The last person to beat me was John Newcombe at Queen’s three months earlier. I had been fretting that my winning streak, one that was unprecedented in my career, would come to an end, as purple patches always do, and that when my luck ran out it would be at the US Open at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills. […]

When I entered the cauldron to play against Mexican Luis Garcia in the first match of the Open, I was at peace with myself. I beat young Garcia, and then the Chileans Jaime Pinto-Bravo and Jaime Fillol without dropping a set.

Dennis Ralston, whom I faced in my fourth match, was a different proposition, a living, breathing wake-up call that I was not going to win this tournament without a mighty struggle. Dennis, who had pressed me in the past but was yet to beat me, lost the first set and then, playing the best tennis I had ever seen from him, won the next two. The 10,000-strong crowd at Forest Hills that gloriously sunny afternoon forgave their countryman for some disappointing Davis Cup performances in the past, and cheered him passionately. Their cheers were most ecstatic when he walked to the baseline after we’d had a breather when we changed ends, and when I stepped up there’d be a deafening silence and baleful glares that left me in no doubt that I wore the black hat that day. So to neutralise the crowd’s support for Dennis, I fell back on my old Harry Hopman ploy and assumed my position at the baseline at precisely the same time Dennis did. That way I soaked up the cheers that were meant for him, and nobody was going to boo for fear that Ralston would think he was the one copping the Bronx cheers.

I downed Dennis in five sets, 6-4 4-6 4-6 6-2 6-3. He succumbed to my persistent pressure in the fourth set and his hangdog body language in the fifth told me that his gallant resistance was finished and I overpowered him.
We Aussies stuck together and Emmo and Fred Stolle played a part in my win over Dennis when they came to me in the dressing room during the 10-minute break after the third set and told me to toss the ball up a little higher when I served, because many of my serves that day had been finding the net. Their advice paid dividends.

After my match with Dennis, the heavens opened over New York and in 48 hours dumped 16 centimetres of rain. The courts of the West Side Tennis Club became a quagmire. The organisers of this prestige tournament were ill-prepared. The few flimsy tarpaulins they had handy were never going to protect the court surfaces, which, because of the sparse covering of grass over their soil, turned to viscous mud and were not remotely playable. For the next two and a half days, while we waited for the deluge to end, I practised on indoor courts, worked out and had soothing hot Epsom salts baths in the gymnasium of the New York athletic club.

In my quarter final against my old mate and nemesis of so many years, Roy Emerson, my rhythm was out of whack and I began sluggishly. Before I knew it, Emmo had won the first set 6-4 on a court that was still waterlogged, which made the balls heavy and sodden. Then Emmo broke my serve early in the second set. I concentrated on settling myself and slowing down, doing the little things right, like keeping my eye on the ball and hitting through it, breathing evenly, getting my serves in by placing them precisely, simply returning back over the net anything he hit at me without necessarily going for winners, punishing his second serve… all the tried and tested stuff.
As slippery as that court was, I was moving quickly, faster than Emmo, and battling my way back into the match. I won the second set 8-6, and the third 13-11 on the back of a little good luck. Roy hit a forehand passing shot that he believed was good but which the linesman ruled out. Deuce. I then produced two passing forehands that he was unable to handle to win the set. In the end, it was the court as much as me that ended his US Open. He had a way of dragging his foot when he served and he was chewing up the baseline so much that soon there was no solid section of the court from which to serve. Then he began catching his dragging foot in the sludge. When it was my turn to serve from the end Roy had ripped up, it was not a problem for me for the simple reason that I did not drag my foot. I was ahead 5-4 in the fourth and serving for the match when I surprised Emmo with my first top-spin lob of our encounter. He was racing in to the net when the ball arced back over his head. The slippery court prevented Roy from stopping and turning to give chase, and he didn’t even try – he just kept running to the net, his hand outstretched and grinning that big gold-toothed grin of his.

On his way to our semi final showdown, Arthur Ashe‘s sledgehammer serve had seen him convincingly beat Manuel Santana and Muscles Rosewall, so he was on a roll. And of course in our match the crowd would be right behind him. With a final depending on the result, I needed no added incentive to beat Arthur, but I had a point to prove against him, because he had been putting it about that it was time for older generation players such as Muscles and me to stand aside for him and his contemporaries Newk, Rochey and Tom Okker. Speaking for myself, I had no intention of vacating the scene for anybody just yet, and I was determined to show Arthur that there was life in this old dog yet.
After I came onto court at the same time as him to bask in the cheers of his supporters, the Americans who made up the vast majority of the crowd, he went immediately into top gear, much as he had done at Wimbledon. His dynamic serves had me on the defensive and, at 5-4 to him, he served for the first set. Then Arthur’s inexperience brought him undone. Instead of coolly and accurately placing a winning serve, he attempted to ace me and the ball sailed out. His softer second serve was easy meat. I did my usual thing of just returning the ball to him firmly but surely, sending back to him everything he hit at me, applying the pressure back on him to hit winners. I was chipping, straight down the middle of the court and depriving him of the wide angles he needed to slam winners.
The first set was mine 8–6, and then I won the second decisively, 6-3. In the third, however, Arthur gave a glimpse of the skill and tenacity that were to make him a far better player in years to come than he was in 1969. After he led 3-0, I caught him up and we remained locked together on serve until night fell and play was called off for the day with the score 12-12. We left the court lost in our thoughts. I got the impression from Arthur’s worried expression that he would not be sleeping well that night. Arthur knew what he had to do; wrap up the third set the next morning and take the match to five sets. And I knew what he had to do, so I planned to blitz him from the outset, win the next two games, the fourth set, and the match. […]

When I did put my head on the pillow sometime after 11, I slept like a baby and felt fresh, relaxed and ready for action when Arthur, who looked drawn, and I resumed our match next morning. Also in my favor was that the was serving first. Now, serving after a break or first in a new match is never easy because you’ve had no time to warm up and get your arm and eye in. This is why I chose to receive when I won the toss in a match – it gave me a good chance of breaking my opponent’s serve. Which is what I did, and I held my own serve to wrap up those two games and win the match in straight sets. I was in the final.

That was the good news. The bad was that I’d be playing Tony Roche, who was in tremendous form and dead keen to avenge his loss to me in the Australian Open semi final in January on the back of what he will believe to his dying day was a questionable call.
I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels between me and tony, who was, and remains, a good friend: he hailed from a tiny Australian country town like me, and his dad had also been a butcher. I thought again of how Ken Rosewall scuttled his mate and doubles partner Lew Hoad’s Grand Slam bid in the US championships in 1956. My fear that my friend Roy Emerson would do the same to me in the final of the 1962 US championships proved groundless, but now I wondered whether it was ordained that this time another mate would end my Grand Slam bid. Then I banished those qualms from my mind. This match would be won by the better player on the day and anything that happened 13 or even 7 years ago would have no bearing.

Photo by Walter Iooss Jr. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Read more:
1969 US Open: Rod Laver completes his second Grand Slam

The Rocket Rod Laver

Rod Laver

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy, published in 1990:

Rodney George Laver was the most astounding player I ever saw, and may have been the greatest ever. His record is without parallel. Consider what that record might have been but for his exclusion from 21 Grand Slam tournaments when he was, presumably, at his physical peak, between the ages of 24 and 29. Had professionals been eligible for those events, Lew Hoad might have had the better of laver for a year or so and Ken Rosewall would always have been worth an even-money bet. But one has to believe that from 1963 to 1967 Laver would have collected another bunch of major championships and perhaps a third Grand Slam. Laver overlapped and dominated two Grand Slam eras separated by seven years. He did so because he had it all. Because he was adventurer and artist in one. Because he could raise his game to any level demanded of it.

Laver was only 5ft 8 1/2in tall and usually weighed around 10st 71lb. But he had gigantic left arm and his speed and agility were breathtaking. The circumference of his left forearm was 12in and the wrist measured 7in. The strength of that wrist and forearm gave him blazing power without loss of control, even when he was on the run at full stretch. The combination of speed and strength, especially wrist-strength, enabled him to hit ferocious winners when way out of court – often when almost under the noses of the front ow of spectators. And he was a bow-legged, beautifully balanced, and as quick as a cat. He had some glorious matches with Rosewall – and with Tom Okker, who could match Laver’s speed and panache but was second-best in terms of strength and technical versatility. Laver also had the eyes of a hawk and fast anticipation and reactions. Like Budge, he was feckle-faced and had copper-coloured hair. Another distinguished feature was a long nose that, in spite of the kink in it, gave a false impression of hauteur. For much of his career Laver was confessedly shy and self-conscious, but there was no ‘side’ to him. He was easy going – except on court.

Marty Riessen once summed up Laver admirably: “To look at him walking around, you wouldn’t think he was world champion. He doesn’t stand out. His stature isn’t something you expect, like a Gonzales or a Hoad. Off the court, his personality seems almost retiring. But it’s as if he goes into a telephone booth and changes. On court he’s aggressive. Such a big change of personality – when a lot of players play the same as they act. What impresses me is his quickness. Speed enables him to recover when he’s in trouble. And the thing I learned from playing Laver is how consistent one can be with power. It’s amazing how he can keep hitting with such accuracy. He combines everything. There are a lot of good competitors. But he’s fantastic.”

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From Rod Laver‘s autobiography A Memoir:

“I’m proud to say that the 1960 Australian championships men’s singles final between Neale Fraser and me is remembered as one of the geat matches in Australian tennis history. Many who where at the match say they have never seen a crowd so emotionnally involved, with the possible exception of the legendary Lew Hoad-Tony Trabert Davis Cup singles match in 1953 when 17 000 spectators went crazy at Kooyong and most of the nation turned on the radio.

My match with Neale was a tense and brutal five-setter, played and in incendiary January heat in font of 8 000 wilting but highly excited fans wearing fun hats and zinc cream on their noses and fanning themselves with their programs. Most were barracking for the local boy, yours truly.

Neale and I made each othe venture to places neither of us had been before. It was a match in which all the things that I prided myself on, that Charlie Hollis and Harry Hopman told me would be the making of me – my fitness and stamina, my refusal to be beaten, my array of shots – clicked in … in the last three sets, anyway. Neale overwhelmed me 7-5 6-3 in the first two, and to many my cause must have seemed hopeless. At my flighty, erratic worst, I had been sacrificing accuracy for speed and power in my serves, and committed way too many double faults.
However in the third set I steadied the ship, got my serve back under control and, aware that Neale, who at 26 was five years older than me, was beginning to struggle in extreme heat, I upped the pace. I won the third set 6-3. Being the champion he was, Neale came back at me hard in the fourth, which, if he’d won it, would have given him the match.
It was match point against me in the 10th game of that set but I battled my way out of trouble by scrambling madly to retrieve Neale’s shots and level at deuce, then, having snatched back the momentum, I went on to win 8-6.

As we crossed over before the fifth and deciding set, Neale and I, good mates and merciless rivals, stood together for a moment in the shade of the grandstand. (Unbelievably, and shamefully, in those days in amateur tennis there were no chairs for the players at courtside, though plenty for the officials in the hospitality tent.) Whew , said Neale ‘how bloody hot is this!’
In the final set, we went hell for leather, and though we were both exhausted, physically and mentally – Neale’s legs were actually buckling, like a drunk’s – we played some thrilling rallies and each scored with excellent passing shots, and the crowd cheered itself hoarse with every one.

At one stage, Neale lobbed over my head and I raced back and gave the ball an almighty crack with my backhand and it driftd high and wide. Neale volleyed it with his backhand and fluffed the shot. That was the catalyst that swung momentum back my way.
Emmo, who was watching in the stand, went to Neale afterwards and said, ‘Frase, that ball would have gone out by 15 yards if you hadn’t hit it!’
Neale saved six match points. Afterwards he couldn’t remember anything about that set. In the end, luck was with me and I won the set 8-6.

At 21, I was the Australian champion, and only the second Queenslander to achieve that honour.

Enjoy this 4-part Rolex documentary retracing Wimbledon’s history from Suzanne Lenglen to Rod Laver to Roger Federer. A must-see for every tennis fan.

Part 1 (1877-1939): the foundations of Wimbledon

Suzanne Lenglen, designer Ted Tinling, Gussie Moran, Bill Tilden, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, René Lacoste, Don Budge, Helen Wills, Fred Perry

Part 2 (1945-1977): a brand new era

Virginia Wade, Jack Kramer, Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Ann Jones, Louise Brough, Harry Hopman, Ken McGregor, Rod Laver, Frank Sedgman, Cliff Drysdale, WCT, Handsome Eight, Ken Rosewall, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Billie Jean King

Part 3 (1978-1999): the Golden Era

Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Martina Navatilova, Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi

Part 4 (2000-2011): Sampras, Federer, Venus and Serena

Pete Sampras, Pat Rafter, Roger Federer, Goran Ivanisevic, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick, John Isner, Nicolas Mahut