San Diego: If Novak Djokovic wins Wimbledon and the U.S. Open to complete a Grand Slam, he'll have a big fan in the last man to do it.
Novak Djokovic. Pic/AFP
Rod Laver knows what it takes to complete tennis' ultimate achievement, having won the Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962 and again as a pro in 1969. Djokovic is halfway there heading into Wimbledon, which starts Monday.
"I think he's got a good shot at pulling it off and I'd be happy seeing it," Laver said over lunch at La Costa, the golf and tennis resort near his home. "You don't own the territory. It's a feather in his cap if he can pull off a Grand Slam. He's got two already."
Djokovic completed a career slam by winning the French Open earlier this month. That gave him the rarity of holding all four major titles at once. Rarer still would be a true grand slam, winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open in the same season. Laver, the red-headed "Rocket" from Australia, is the last man to do it, 47 summers ago.
While Djokovic's four straight major titles aren't the ultimate slam, "owning the four at one time, it's one hell of an effort," Laver said. For perspective, when Laver won his second Grand Slam, Richard Nixon was in the White House, the Beatles were about to release "Abbey Road," and Neil Armstrong had just taken man's first steps on the moon.
"I was thrilled it happened for me," Laver said. "You don't start off by thinking, 'I'm going to win a Grand Slam.' My thoughts were just, 'Hey, I'm in the event. I entered. That's what happened in '69. I told my wife, 'I want to enter all the tournaments.' "
Known for his powerful left arm, Laver won Wimbledon four times, the Australian Open three times and the U.S. and French championships twice each. He added six Grand Slam titles in men's doubles and three in mixed doubles. He likely would have won many more majors but was banned from the Grand Slam events in his prime after he turned pro in 1963. He did not return to the majors until the Open era in 1968, and then promptly won Wimbledon for the third time.
When the Lavers arrived at the 1969 Australian Open, Rod found out that his wife was pregnant and due right around the finals of the U.S. Open. "That was just the start of it," Laver said. "I was happy with the way I played. You've got to be fortunate to not have any injuries or sicknesses or colds. That helped for me."
It turned out that their son, Rick, arrived three weeks after Rod won the U.S. Open to complete the Slam. No man has come close to repeating the feat. Until Djokovic, only Mats Wilander in 1988 and Jim Courier in 1992 made it halfway by winning the Australian Open and French Open in the same year. Steffi Graf was the last woman to win the Grand Slam, in 1988.
Serena Williams came painfully close last year before losing to unseeded Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals. "I was fortunate to play some of my best tennis at the right time," Laver said. "That's what you've got to do. Serena had that chance to do it and then she played a so-so match in the semifinals at the U.S. Open. Was there pressure? What was it? I never really got an answer from reading about it. Did she feel she got nervous? Did she just play a bad match? Did the other player play out of her mind? That can happen."
Laver is 77 now. While he still plays golf, he can't play tennis anymore because of wear and tear. "It's bone on bone in my wrist," he said. "It just stings too much to get out there to play. I'd like to be able to. Not that I could do very well. At least I wouldn't have to go to the gym as much."
Laver was at the French Open when Djokovic won. He'd be going to Wimbledon if not for a cold. He plans to be at the U.S. Open for the U.S. launch of his autobiography. Djokovic has "got a great game," Laver said.
"Just his consistency and the depth in his groundstrokes. He not allowing any of the guys to take advantage of a shorter ball and try and penetrate. If the ball is too deep you can't do too much."
Laver knows there will be pressure on Djokovic, and the draw at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open will be key. "It'll be a tough test. The only thing he's got to worry about, the only thing I worried about, was that you've got to play seven matches. That's all you've got to play. ... I think it's very possible he can pull it off."