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

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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

Davis Cup trophy

26 November:

Leon Smith picked 3 singles players in his team, which means that Andy will play doubles with his brother Jamie Murray on Saturday. Kyle Edmund will make his Davis Cup debut against David Goffin tomorrow.
Johan van Herck decided to preserve Steve Darcis for the doubles, so Ruben Bemelmans will face Murray on Friday.

Should it come to a decisive fifth rubber, Darcis would probably face James Ward on Sunday.

Belgium or Great Britain, which team will win the Davis Cup 2015?

  • Great Britain (96%, 43 Votes)
  • Belgium (4%, 2 Votes)

Total Voters: 45

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23 November:

Updates for people travelling to Ghent:

– Additional security measures will be in place at all entrances to the venue and will apply to all ticket holders, staff members and visitors.

– Entry into the event will take longer than usual. Please keep this in mind when planning your arrival to the Flanders Expo. The gates will open two hours in advance of each day’s start time.

– Bags and backpacks will not be permitted into the Flanders Expo, those who arrive with them will be asked to check them into available off-site storage facilities.

– No food or drink will be allowed into the arena. A full selection of refreshments will be available in venue.

More infos.

22 November:

16 November:

No surprise with the teams nominations announced today: Goffin, Darcis, Bemelmans and Coppejans for Belgium, Andy and Jamie Murray, James Ward, Kyle Edmund and Dominic Inglot for Great Britain:

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Pete Sampras, 1990 US Open

From Hard courts: real life on the professional tennis tours, by John Feinstein:

“I remember watching Lendl in all those Open finals,” Sampras said. “I was eleven when he played his first one, and everyone was against him. So I rooted for him.”

Six years later, when Lendl was No.1 in the world and Sampras was a brand-new seventeen-year-old pro, Lendl invited him during the week of the Masters. Lendl likes to have young players work with him. They are eager, attentive, and challenging. Sampras didn’t disappoint Lendl and Lendl didn’t disappoint Sampras.

“He taught me what it means to really be a pro,” he said. “There were times I hated him because he made me ride the bike or run until I was about to drop, but I learned from him. He also told me over and over to worry about one thing in tennis: the Grand Slams. He said he wished he had learned that when he was younger.”

As much as he respected Lendl, Sampras had a quiet belief he could beat him. Everyone in tennis knew that the Wimbledon loss had damaged Lendl’s psyche. The hunger to win every single match and every single tournament wasn’t there anymore. He had played in only one tournament prior to the Open and had lost his first match – to Malivai Washington – in New Haven.

Sampras has watch him play Michael Stich in the second round. Stich was a tall, twenty-one-year old German who was quietly moving up the computer. But he certainly wasn’t a match for Lendl on hard court. And yet, Stich kept Lendl on court for four difficult sets.

“It wasn’t like the difference was huge,” Sampras said. “The guy was still great. but he wasn’t quite at the same level as I remembered in the past.”

Sampras was hyper the day of the match, wandering from the locker room to the players lounge to the training room and back to the players’ lounge. Lendl sat quietly in the locker room with Tony Roche, waiting to play. Remarkably he had been to eight straight Open finals. This was not new to him.

The match was a roller coaster ride. Sampras, coming up with huge serves at all the key moments, won the first two sets. But Lendl didn’t roll over at this stage of his career, not in a Grand Slam. He came back to win the next two sets. Sampras felt tired, frustrated. Lendl seemed to be getting stronger. But, down 0-4 in the fourth, Sampras found a second wind. He came all the way back to trail 5-4 and even two break points to get to 5-5. Lendl saved those and served out the set, but Sampras felt as if he was in the match again.

Lendl, having come back to even the match, felt pretty good about his chances, too. But, serving at 1-2, he got into trouble – with his thirteenth double fault. Sampras had returned so well that Lendl felt he had to make his second serves almost perfect and, as a result, had missed a few. Lendl saved that break point and had two game points of his own. Sampras kept coming, though. He got to break point again and bombed a crosscourt forehand that Lendl couldn’t touch. Lendl swiped his racquet angrily at the ground. He was down 3-1 and knew that breaking Sampras again would be difficult.

Sampras was trying hard to stay in the present.

“I just had this feeling I was going to win the match, that it was meant to be,” he said. “I really felt that way. But I didn’t want to think about any of that before it was over.”

He had one scary moment when Lendl had a break point with Sampras up 4-2. Sampras took a deep breath and served a clean winner. He followed that with an ace – his twenty-third of the match – and closed the game with another service winner. With a chance to get back into the match, Lendl hadn’t put a ball in play for three straight points. The look on his face told the story. Six points later, it was over. Sampras hit one more solid backhand. Lendl chased it down and threw up a weak lob. As Sampras watched it float toward him, he felt chills run through his body. “Just hit the ball,” he told himself. He did, cleanly, and his arms were in the air in triumph.

It was another four-hour marathon and another stunning upset. Sampras was the young American most fans hadn’t heard of, but they knew who he was now.

Like it or not, Sampras’ life had just changed for ever. He was no longer a prospect or a rising young American. He was now a star, a just-turned-nineteen US Open semifinalist – one who had beaten Ivan Lendl to get there.

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.

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