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

Arthur Ashe, Wimbledon 1975

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions by Rex Bellamy

The achievements of Arthur Robert Ashe – known as ‘Bones’ when he was a skinny boy and as ‘The Shadow’ when he became a skinny celebrity – are remarkable not least because of the social and racial context in which he achieved them. His blood lines were mixed but essentially he was a black who came close to dominating a white world. In that complicated and controversial area Ashe was a pioneer of enduring influence: as he was in the organization of professionals as a corporate force, as a central figure in the game’s administrative evolution, and as a driving force behind revisions of the rules of play. In addition to all that he found time for a diversity of business ventures and social and charitable work. Like a stone cast into a pond, Ashe made a splash that sent ripples – often, waves – in every direction. Consequently his historic status was more important than his playing record suggests, distinguished though that was.

Descended from West African slaves, Ashe was brought up in a legally segregated community (a parallel of sorts with the South African politics into which he later dipped his toes) and learned to live with the racial distinctions. His mothe was frail and died when he was six years old. So Ashe and his brother Johnny were mainly brought up by his father, who policed and othewise tended a ‘black’ public park in which Ashe played his first tennis. The local tennis clubs and tournalents were no-go areas for anyone of Ashe’s pigmentation. His development had two main causes, other than his ability and character. One was the proximity of a black physician and tennis coach, Dr Walter Johnson, from Lynchburg. Ashe first went there when he was 10. Johnson had much to do with the grooming of the first black American to achieve international renown in tennis: Althea Gibson, who won the Wimbledon, United States and French championships in the 1950s.
Now, he did the same for Ashe, though Johnson’s son Bobby undertook most of the actual coaching. Dr Johnson and Ashe’s father also taught the teenager to ride the punches of racial prejudice and injustice and acquire the disciplined composure, the outward serenity, the dignity, with which he conducted himself. It must have helped, too, that the Ashe brothers joined their father on fishing and deer-hunting expeditions that taught them to wait patiently, with brains in gear, and endure frustration. The other main cause for Ashe’s advance was his liking and aptitude for study. He went to high school at St Louis and moved on to the University of California in Los Angeles, where he was plunged into the seaching fires of collegiate coaching and competition.

In those days tennis had yet to gain acceptance as a full-time competitive sport and the more talented Americans tended to complete their college commitments before joining the world tour and finding out just how good they were. Ashe was 22 years old, and already an established Davis Cup player with some heartening results behind him, when he went to Australia for the 1965-66 season and consolidated a growing reputation: first in the state tournaments and then in the Australian championships. He was runner-up to Roy Emerson that year and the next, but the wreckage his awesome serving left in its wake included Tony Roche, Fred Stolle and John Newcombe. Ashe had arrived. He was ready to play a starring role. It turned out to be both historic and bizarre.

Read More

Jennifer Capriati, 1990

From Tennis Confidential by Paul Fein, 1990:

The touchy subject of who should get the credit and how much for a star’s success isn’t new.

Robert Lansdorp, Tracy Austin‘s coach for a decade, used to grow incensed when the more famous Vic Braden was mentioned as her first coach. Lansdorp finally lashed back:

“I don’t like Braden getting credit for rolling a ball at Tracy in the crib, and Roy Emerson getting credit for her serve when it hasn’t changed? I’ve done it and I’ve done it all. It’s like a work of art. An artist would feel robbed if somebody else put their name on his painting.”

Lately, Rick Macci has felt similarly robbed. He coached whiz kid Jennifer Capriati for two and a half wonderful and important years, starting in January 1987, when she was ten. Now, Capriati mania and the worldwide avalanche of publicity have largely ignored him and his crucial role in her spectacular development.

“To make the story more Cinderella-like for the public, the marketing line is that it went from Jimmy Evert (her first coach) to her dad (Stefano) and now where she’s at today, at the USTA Training Center,” says Macci. “It’s like the two and a half years at Rick Macci’s Tennis Academy she disappeared and I didn’t exist.”

Macci reasonably acknowledges that before he began training her, Jennifer possessed champion qualities as evidenced by her Orange Bowl 12s crown.

“She was probably born a champion, and she fell into the great hands of Jimmy Evert, who instilled tremendous racket preparation and balance in her ground game.”

Yet Macci knew that Chrissie clones with great ground strokes and little else can no longer attain the pinacle of today’s more athletic and diversified game.

“Jennifer had three-quarters of the package before she came to me, but the remaining one-quarter is the difference between being number ten, number five, or number one some day,” says Macci.

Their big mission was to develop the best serve in women’s tennis. “The trap that a lot of women fall into in pro tennis is to just get the ball in play, instead of making the serve a weapon,” he points out.

So the creative Macci devised a multifaceted approach that this enthusiastic prodigy thrived on. For both instruction and inspiration, they watched, on hundreds of occasions, videos of Martina Navratilova serving, “to try to imitate the fluidity and looseness of her service motion.”

To perfect the classic throwing motion indispensable for an explosive serve, Capriati threw a football to Macci for fifteen minutes nearly every day for two and a half years. She also imitated a hula dancer to get her hips and shoulders to roll in sync during the serve.
Since Capriati was quite stiff and mechanical at the outset, Macci stressed wrist-snap to achieve maximum racket-head speed for greater power. So, standing with her feet locked up inside ball hoppers three feet from the fence, she tried, sometimes as many as five hundred times a day, to whack the ball downward and bounce it over the fence.
Even the mino detail of catching the ball Macci threw to her before each serve became purposeful. Capriati gently caught it on her outstretched racket.

“I wanted her to develop soft hands so eventually she could handle the racket like a magician when she’s out of position, like a McEnroe,” he explains.

All the effort and dedication have already paid off. Capriati, now 5’6″ and a solid 125 pounds, has belted serves timed at ninety-seven miles per hour. Braden praised her serving technique as the best he’d ever seen in a girl her age when she was twelve.
What’s more, Macci vastly improved her volley, gave her a topspin forehand, and positioned her more offensively nearer the baseline so her superb ground strokes could better attack the ball on the rise.
Macci’s devotion and affectionfor her shined as brightly as his expertise. Besides an estimated two thousand hours of on-court coaching, Macci, thirty-five, baby-sat for her and her younger brother and took them out for dinner and the movies. He also wrote her scores of motivational letters before the Capriatis moved to Grenelefe from Lauderhill, when her parents droved her two hundred miles each way every weekend for lessons. Capriati appreciated all of it. In a touching note now framed in Macci’s office, she wrote:

“Dou you know something, I really like my service, it’s really gotten better. I can’t wait to come here again. It’s so fun. You’re one cool dude, awesome and great. See ya soon! Love, Jen.”

The love affair was mutual – and her departure last July traumatic. Macci would confide that it left him feeling “like I know what it’s like to have a daughter who’s died.” Eight months later, the gratifying result of their fruitful relationship was her incredible professional debut at the $350,000 Virginia Slims of Florida. There, still only thirteen, she knocked off players world-ranked at numbers 110, 34, 19, 16 and 10 (Helena Sukova) and forced number 3 Gabriela Sabatini to play “my best tennis” before yielding only 6-4 7-5 in the final.

Capriati has even bigger fish to fry, though – namely, the current queen of tennis.

“Every time we played a match, the whole focus would be to prepare her to play Graf”, recalls Macci. “I always hit the inside-out forehand and the heavy slice backhand crosscourt. I had her competing with the best sixteen-and-eighteen-year-old boys in the world all the time. I have no doubt I did all the right things to prepare her.”

Macci is convinced that Capriati’s style will match up quite effectively against the West German superstar.

“Why? Because Jennifer’s best shot is her backhand down the line, and Jennifer can keep the exchanges even or stay in control – whereas when Graf plays other people, she definitely is controlling the show.”

Could amazing Jennifer beat Steffi this year?

“No doubt, in my mind. She has a very legitimate chance,” predicts Macci. “Once thing I’ve always liked about Jennifer is that she has respect for opponents, but she has no fear of anyone.”

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.”

Read More