This year marks the 50th anniversary of TENNIS Magazine's founding in 1965. To commemorate the occasion, we'll look back each Thursday at one of the 50 moments that have defined the last half-century in our sport.
In the same year that the United States sent a rocket to the moon, Australia launched its own Rocket—a freckled, 5’8”, 143-pound flash out of Rockhampton, Queensland—across the globe to win an unprecedented second calendar-year Grand Slam. Rodney George Laver’s four-for-four run at the majors was a celebrated achievement at the time; when he won the last leg, at Forest Hills in New York, he was declared by many to be the greatest player of all time. But the myth of his perfect season has only grown in the 46 years since, as the world’s best male players, from Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have strived to match the little Aussie master, only to a fall a shot or two short of his legendary standard.
Of course, Laver wasn’t quite perfect in 1969, but he was certainly productive: He won 18 of 32 tournaments he entered and finished with a 106-16 singles record. Who says the tour is more physically demanding today, when 80 matches in a season is considered a debilitating grind? Laver and his opponents didn’t engage in the grueling rallies we see now, but the serve-and-volley style they played forced them to move at top speed throughout their points; and they did it in both singles and doubles. At big events, every round was three-out-of-five sets, and there were no tiebreakers to bring those sets to a predictable close.
Laver might have been thankful for a breaker or two in his first serious test of ’69, a 90-game, 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 death march through 105-degree heat against Tony Roche in the semifinals of the first Australian Open. Laver brought three sun hats to the match, which he called the “hardest of my career,” and he soaked them all. The two butcher’s sons from the Aussie bush threw lefty bombs at each other until, unfortunately, a line call sealed their fates. Serving at 3-4 in the fifth, Roche felt—and almost certainly still feels today—that a Laver shot had landed wide, but instead of hearing "out" from the line judge, he heard nothing at all. Roche never recovered, and Laver, after a comparatively pro forma straight-set win over Spain’s Andres Gimeno in the final, had secured the first of the Big 4.
“You get all the calls when you win the Grand Slam,” Laver said as he looked back over his charmed season, and that call in the Aussie Open semis wasn’t his only break that year. Just beating Roche at all that day could have been seen as a stroke of good fortune. According to Laver, at the start of ’69 the younger Roche “made it clear he thought my time was over and his time had come.” Roche might have been right if it hadn’t been for the majors. He beat Laver in the tournament immediately before the Aussie Open, in Sydney, and the tournament immediately after, in Auckland. Roche finished ’69 with five wins in their nine matches, but he could never catch the Rocket when it counted.
Laver’s next task, to win the title in Paris, looked even more daunting. Clay was this net-rusher’s least-favorite surface, and while he had won the title at Roland Garros during his first Slam run in 1962, he was just 6-5 there otherwise. In ’69 he was nearly gone before the tournament began. In the second round he faced another countryman of his, the long and lanky Dick Crealy, who jumped out to a two-set lead. Play was stopped and resumed early the next day in the main stadium, in front of what Laver described as approximately four people. As he said, “10:30 is not really the French spectator’s hour.”
Alone together, the two Aussies fought to 4-4 in the fifth set. Up a game point on his serve, Crealy had an easy sitter. Laver, assuming he would have to serve to stay in the match, turned away; to his shock and delight, he watched as Crealy smacked the ball past him, and well out. Laver broke and held for the match. Given that reprieve, he powered through the rest of the draw, and right past his greatest rival, Ken Rosewall, in the final. Motivated by his loss to Muscles in Paris the year before, Laver attacked early, and attacked with precision. “I don’t know of any match I enjoyed better,” he said, “the points just rolled in.”
But even Rod Laver couldn't stay on that kind of roll for long, and even he had trouble with the sport’s lightning-fast transition from clay to grass. Two weeks after cruising past Rosewall in front of a packed house at Roland Garros, Laver found himself on godforsaken Court 4 at Wimbledon, down two sets to an Indian player named Premjit Lall. Again, Laver was helped by his opponent’s overzealousness. Lall, like Crealy, missed a sitter at 3-3 in the third set, and Laver was off to the races. He won the last 15 games of the match.
That wasn’t Laver’s last comeback at Wimbledon that year. In the semis, he faced a red-hot Arthur Ashe, who won the first set 6-2 by playing what Jack Kramer called the best tennis he had ever seen. But Laver, who had never lost to Ashe to that point, knew that patience had its rewards against the American. He waited him out through the middle two sets, before turning the tables entirely and winning the fourth at love.
In the final, Laver faced yet another fellow Aussie, John Newcombe, the Wimbledon champion two years earlier. Newk, who liked to junk Laver, had beaten him at Queen’s Club two weeks earlier, and he looked primed for a repeat when he went up 4-1 in the third on Centre Court. But again Laver turned it around, this time with a surprise slice crosscourt backhand pass that left Newcombe shaking his head, and wondering where his lead had gone. The next thing the Rocket knew it was the following morning, and he was waking up in the bathtub at his hotel, still in his Champion's Ball tuxedo.
When he’d recovered, it was on to New York for one more major and one more comeback. This time it happened against Dennis Ralston in the fourth round, on the rain-drenched grass at Forest Hills. Down two sets to one, with the crowd in the American’s corner, Laver took it to a fifth. There, serving at 2-3, Ralston obliged just as Crealy and Lall had, with a volley that he tried to make too good, and which cost him the match. Laver, the fastest of tennis players, seemed to have that effect on his opponents.
Waiting, in a rain-delayed Monday final, to try to spoil the Slam was the same man who had almost stopped it before it began, Tony Roche. The Rocket had one more trick up his sleeve, though, and one more opportunity to turn bad luck to good. Wearing cleats was the best way to combat the soggy turf at the West Side Tennis Club; Laver put them on at the end of the first set, but Roche was afraid they would hurt his already strained thigh muscles. From there, Laver ran Roche, almost literally, into the ground over four sets.
The last time the low-key Rocket had jumped the net after a victory was in 1957; when his foot caught the tape, he had fallen straight onto his face. But there was no stopping him this time. A few seconds after Roche's final forehand sailed out, Laver found himself in mid-air. He leapt across the net, and into tennis history. No man has followed him there yet.