Early last year, sitting across the table from Rod Laver in the Melbourne hotel from which he can view the stadium bearing his famous name, the conversation - inevitably, as these things do - turned to the Grand Slam. The true, calendar-year kind.
Did the last man to achieve the feat, and the only player in history to do so twice, believe his 1962 and 1969 deeds could or would be repeated?
It was possible, Laver said, with the caveat in those pre-pandemic days that seem like a lifetime ago that Rafael Nadal would need to retire first, for who could possibly beat the clay court phenomenon at Roland Garros?
Well, in the French Open semi-finals in June, we learnt the answer to that one.
It's the same name that was Laver’s pick to not just eventually overtake Nadal and Roger Federer on the all-time list of men’s major winners, where he is now the three-way equal leader with 20, and, also the guy the Australian legend nominated as most likely to claim the coveted grand slam in the next three to five years.
Novak Djokovic. On the eve of the US Open. on the cusp of something truly remarkable.
Or, in Laver’s words: “Djokovic’s got a game that doesn’t make mistakes. Yes, the other guy’s too good, at times, but how many times might that be?’’
This year, in all tournaments: five times, the first three on clay. Yet it is the most recent loss, against Pablo Carreno Busta in the bronze medal game at the Tokyo Olympics, which followed a momentous semi-final upset by Alexander Zverev, that appears to have the biggest chance of derailing Djokovic’s campaign, just when the momentum had appeared almost irresistible.
Yet it was not just the result against Carreno Busta, but the racquet-throwing meltdown, and subsequent withdrawal from the bronze medal mixed doubles play-off with the unfortunate Nina Stojanovic that drew such condemnation.
Djokovic, of course, had arrived with the goal of claiming the fourth leg of the so-called Golden Slam. How horribly It all ended - having reportedly ignored his team’s advice in the first place by entering all three Olympic tennis events in the debilitating Japanese humidity and heat.
Indeed, Djokovic’s fate added a little extra poignancy to Laver’s words from last January. For someone with a game that doesn’t make mistakes, the Serb is a man who has been racking up many well-documented unforced errors of a different kind.
So, how will he recover from this latest PR disaster heading - without any further matchplay - into the tournament that can either deliver such a grand prize or snatch it away. As Laver also said during that interview just one day can knock you out of it. You get sick. Injured, anything. Just one bad day.
In the Australian’s case, some time after his 1969 US Open finals triumph over Arthur Ashe on the damp Forest Hills grass, his friend John Newcombe went through the paper draw sheets he had collected from the four majors to examine with Laver the occasions on which defeat threatened most seriously. There were a handful that were particularly perilous, and yet Rockhampton’s finest found a way.
Next, some perspective: for a sense of how difficult the singles Grand Slam is to achieve, consider that Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953) Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988 - plus Seoul Olympic gold) are the only other players to own one.
The one year (2009) Federer prevailed at Roland Garros, for example, he had already lost the final at Melbourne Park, so was out of contention. The one time Nadal won the Australian Open he would go on to suffer his sole loss at the French in nine years. Only once before, in 2016, has Djokovic claimed even the first two legs of the coveted tennis quadrella.
Rewinding slightly further... Pete Sampras? Never won a French. Andre Agassi? One of eight men who own a career slam, but not among the six of those without the calendar kind. Wilander claimed three of the four in 1988, as did Connors back in 1974. Bjorn Borg? Played just once in Australia, and was beaten in each of his four US Open finals. Which paints a clear statistical picture of just how monumental this Djoker Grand Slam would be.
Laver is expected to be at Flushing Meadows if it happens; his statistical legacy compromised by the 21 majors he missed after turning professional following Grand Slam No.1 in a weakened field in 1962. It was full-strength all the way in 1969, which ushered in the Open era, prompting a 50-year anniversary tour that was celebrated globally to such acclaim.
Laver never played a full schedule again, finishing 1969 with nothing more to prove and a growing family as his priority. Which brings us back to that day at the Grand Hyatt in January, 2020, when, reluctantly discussing his legacy, the ever-understated 83-year is prodded into defining it: “My record. Just leave that out there. Whatever people think. Winning the Grand Slam certainly was a feather in my cap.’’
One that Novak Djokovic doesn’t have. At least not yet.
Listen to The First Serve, tonight at 7pm AEST on 1116AM SEN Melbourne, 1629AM SEN SA / replayed at 8pm AEST on 1170am Sydney or listen live and catch up on the SEN App.
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