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How Novak Djokovic compares to the two men holding a calendar Grand Slam
With his Wimbledon triumph on Sunday, the world No. 1 is now a US Open title away from joining Don Budge and Rod Laver in the most elite of company.
Published Jul 11, 2021
MATCH POINT: Djokovic defeats Berrettini in four sets
Novak Djokovic’s win at Wimbledon earned him yet more rare pages in the annals of tennis history. A sixth Wimbledon men’s title puts Djokovic only behind Pete Sampras (seven) and Roger Federer (eight) for the most in the Open era. A 20th singles major ties him with Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most all-time.
Far more significantly, Djokovic now heads to the US Open having won three of four majors, one New York title run away from tennis’ most incredible achievement, a calendar-year sweep of the majors, formally known as the Grand Slam. Only two men have done this—Don Budge in 1938, Rod Laver in 1962 and ’69.
You could write a document as thick as a phone book on what’s changed in the 52 years since Laver’s Grand Slam. A few highlights: The US Open was played on grass. Serve-volley tennis prevailed on first and second serves. Changeovers were brisk, players strolling near the umpire’s chair to take a brief swig. White clothes. White balls. Wood racquets. The ’69 final took place on a Monday afternoon in front of 4,000 people. After a 95-minute rain delay, the court was so soggy that a helicopter was deployed in an effort to dry it off. After losing the first set to fellow Aussie Tony Roche by the pre-tiebreaker score of 9-7, Laver asked officials if he could wear spikes. Sure, came the word, we’re going to need to resod the grass anyway, so tear it up all you want. Off Laver went, sprinting through the last three sets, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2. First prize was $16,000.
Djokovic would likely appreciate that the very existence of the Grand Slam is tied to an event he holds near and dear: Davis Cup. In 1933, Australian Jack Crawford reached the finals of the U.S. Championships. Prior to that match, Associated Press writer Alan Gould borrowed a term from bridge. Gould opined that a Crawford win in New York would complete a “Grand Slam” of the four titles of the only nations that had won Davis Cup—Australia, France, Great Britain. In the long white pants that players usually wore in those days, purportedly taking a nip or two of brandy on changeovers, Crawford lost that final to Fred Perry.
But while times have changed, Budge, Laver and Djokovic also occupy extensive common ground. For all the elegant, elite settings that have long comprised tennis, like most tennis champions, these three came from humble origins. Budge was the son of a Scottish immigrant who worked as a printer. Born and raised in the the working class city of Oakland, California, Budge learned to play tennis on high-bouncing gravel courts at a public park. Begging for chances to play with his older brothers, Laver began on an antbed court located on his family’s farm. Djokovic, his parents running a pizza restaurant, scurried from one court to another, on several occasions timing practices around NATO bombings.
Each endured early disappointments that subsequently triggered notable upgrades. In the 1936 U.S. final, Budge served for the title versus Perry at 5-3 in the fifth, only to lose it 10-8, a frustrating loss Budge attributed to a lack of fitness, exacerbated by his penchant for milk shakes. Immediately after that, like Djokovic over a decade ago, Budge cut out sweets and upped his off-court training regimen, highlighted by extensive runs through the Berkeley hills. Laver lost his first two Wimbledon singles finals, outplayed both times by Alex Olmedo in ’59 and Neale Fraser the next year. Djokovic labored four years as number three in the world behind Federer and Rafael Nadal before earning the number one ranking in 2011.
But as body and mind sharpened, Budge and Laver also began to revolutionize the way tennis was played. At the start of 1937, Budge watched a match (as chair umpire, no less) between Perry and Ellsworth Vines. He came away struck by Perry’s ability to hit the ball early and Vines’ firepower. Budge wondered: What if you could do both? How oppressive would that be? By the end of 1937, he’d won Wimbledon, the US Championships and also been the star of the U.S. Davis Cup team’s first championship run in eleven years. The cornerstone of Budge’s game was a lethal one-handed backhand drive. Modeled after his left-handed baseball swing, this was tennis’ first significant topspin backhand, as forceful in its time as Djokovic’s laser-sharp two-hander.
In his youth, Laver was told by his coach, Charlie Hollis, that to become the first lefty to be number one in the world, he’d need to go where no lefties had gone before and master a topspin backhand, a stroke Laver modeled after the Budge drive. Laver won the first of our Wimbledon singles titles in 1961. By 1962, he was even better, the backhand yet one of his many weapons. As Jules Heldman wrote in World Tennis about Laver’s ’62 semifinal win over Rafael Osuna, “It was murder. In the last game, Rafe bravely served and ran for the net. Rod cracked a backhand back full speed, free swing – so hard that Rafe’s racket wavered in his hand. Not so amazing, perhaps, but the same scene was repeated four points in a row. Rod literally knocked Osuna down with four successive returns of serve, and Osuna was one of the quickest and best racket handlers who ever played.”
Vision and ambition also propelled these men. At the end of 1937, Budge was the world’s best amateur, but rejected a $50,000 offer to turn pro. Instead, he confided to a small group of friends his ambition to sweep the titles of Australia, France, Great Britain and the United States. Despite Crawford’s one-time foray, they weren’t called the majors then. But Budge saw their importance, taking a three-week boat trip to Australia on his way to the title there. Upon beating his best friend and doubles partner, Gene Mako, in the finals of the U.S. Championships, Budge told the world that he indeed had completed tennis’ first Grand Slam. By the end of the year, he’d signed a pro contract for $75,000.
Laver’s ’62 sweep came as an amateur. But he was also well aware that as impressive as it was to win those four titles, he was not necessarily best player on the planet in 1962 and he’d next have to prove himself as a pro. Such veterans as Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzales all had plenty to say about the young contender, beating Laver many times in ’63 and even beyond. By 1965, though, Laver was the man to beat in pro tennis.
And by 1969, one year into the Open era, Laver was ready to comprehensively rule tennis. There were no shortcuts that year. Over the course of 26 matches, 16 came versus future Hall of Famers, including all four finals. At each major, Laver was forced to play at least one five-setter, in two cases rallying from sets to love down. No match was more demanding than his Australian Open semifinal versus Roche. On a day when temperatures exceeded triple digits, Laver won by the now-unrepeatable score of 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. Added to this was that all year long, Laver’s wife, Mary, was pregnant with their first child. The anticipated due date was the same day as the US Open final. Fortunately for Laver, weather and biology altered that timetable, son Ricky born on September 27.
With body and mind, paired with his massive work ethic, Djokovic has redefined the concept of the complete player. For many years, that was often considered the province of a frequent net-rusher, armed with a one-handed backhand. To be sure, that is one form. But the Djokovic two-hander has long been a dominant weapon, akin to the Budge drive and Laver’s topspin. Note also how, like Budge in his youth, Djokovic took steps to improve his forehand and also greatly enhanced his serve and volleys. “I've always kind of believed that I could play my best tennis in Grand Slams and give myself a good chance to win any slam really on any surface because I know what I'm capable of,” said Djokovic. “I know I have a very complete game that has proven to be successful on all surfaces in the past.”
History has rung loudly at Wimbledon this year. Twenty years ago, Djokovic’s coach, Goran Ivanisevic, won Wimbledon. Naturally, he was elated to see his charge earn such a significant victory. “Rod Laver did the last time,” said Ivanisevic. “Nobody expected in the 21st Century that would be possible, but it's possible. We are from Balkan. People from Balkan, everything is possible. When nobody expect anything, we create everything. We are very, very special, special people there.”
Added to the four majors is the upcoming Olympics and the possibility of a feat only accomplished by Stefanie Graf: the so-called “Golden Slam.” Though following today’s final, Djokovic indicated he is, in his words, “50-50” about whether he’ll head to Tokyo amid recent developments.
Back to comparisons with Laver. Let’s not even talk about the disparities between media coverage then and now. We’ll have plenty of time for that in the coming weeks.