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