Big Tennis Record Preserved

You know the feeling. The idea that something must be true, must have happened already because it seems like it’s all around you. This can happen in many walks of life – politics, war, music, relationships. Last month I was reminded it can happen with sports.  In tennis in fact.  I had to look this one up. I was surprised and astonished. I bet others were too.

When No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic lost to No. 2 Daniil Medvedev in the US Open Finals last month, he missed winning the Grand Slam by a whisker. Why is this important? What are people talking about? He’s won before, hasn’t he?  We see him all the time after all.  He must have won. He won Roland-Garros, and Australia, and Wimbledon. As the remarkable Roger Federer fades and Nidal struggles, Djokovic keeps winning and winning, workmanlike in consistency and power.

This is true, and not true – and in this way – connects to our remarkable era of the 1960s – full of producers and achievers no one associates with it. What are we talking about? What connection?

If you look into this idea of tennis “Grand Slams,” it gets complicated. You mean, all Grand Slams aren’t the same?  Nope. Turns out there are many kinds.  But the distinction we want to make here is between something called a “Calendar Grand Slam” and a “non-Calendar” one.  The first is the winning of all four majors (Australian through US) in the same season in sequence. No breaks. The non-Calendar one can start in the middle of one season with, say, Wimbledon and loop around to finish the next season – all in sequence but not in the same season. the same calendar year. The International Tennis Federation made this ruling in the early 1980s.

The non-Calendar option made the Grand Slam sweep more flexible, if still about as hard. And more players have done it on both the men’s and women’s side. For example, Serena Williams has captured two non-Calendar Slams; as has Martina Navratilova in 1984; and Djokovic himself in 2016.

Djokovic, left, w/Runner-Up Plate at recent US Open

But here’s the rub and the tears. A few weeks ago Novak Djokovic was trying to win his FIRST Calendar Slam, and failed.

The news is that the Aussie Rodney (“Rod”) George Laver (b. 1938) stands alone as the ONLY achiever of this task in the everyone-plays-everyone Open Era that started in 1968, and even before. Laver stands alone in so many categories, it’s hard to keep track. But he defines the era of the 1960s, he defines excellence, and his achievements have endured into our own day where records seem to fall routinely as athletes get better and better from innovations in strength-training, nutrition, and equipment.

The author John Bercow compiles Laver’s career statistics and records that have no peer in his book Tennis Maestros that I list below:

Rod Laver in action at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships, 1970

  • reached 14 consecutive Major finals (1964-68)
  • most singles titles, pro, 70 (1963-68)
  • 198 career titles (1956-76)
  • 286 career finals (198 titles, 88 runners-up)(1956-76)
  • most finals in a single season, 30 (1965)
  • most career indoor titles (1963-75)
  • 15+ titles in 6 seasons (1962, ’65, ’66, ’67, ’69, ’70)
  • 7 consecutive 10+ title seasons (1964-70)
  • 16 consecutive 5+ titles seasons (1960-75)
  • 147 match wins in a single season (1961)

To demonstrate longevity, Bercow lists 38 titles accomplished older than age 30, from 1968 to ’75. To demonstrate flexibility, he points out that, unlike the excellent Nadal who excels particularly on the clay of the French Open, Laver achieved his no-peer triumphs on all surfaces of his time: grass, hard, clay, wood, and carpet !

I left one out, of course, alluded to above: the unassailable and still-standing achievement of winning the Calendar Grand Slam TWICE – once before the Open Era in 1962, and once within it – in 1969.

After winning Australia, French and Wimbledon, Laver capped his Grand Slam in Forest Hills in 1969 at the West Side Tennis Club in Flushing when the US Open was played on grass (above center).  After collecting his $16,000 prize and calling his wife in California from a pay phone to give her the news, Laver likely never dreamed he would be the last man to do this – to stand alone. So he was hopeful this past September 12 that he would welcome a second member to the Calendar Grand Slam Club courtside with a Djokovic victory. Instead Daniil Medvedev stunned the tennis world beating the champion Djokovic in straight sets 6-4, 6-4, 6-4. And so the record stands. And as Laver wrote Djokovic in a Tweet, “Take heart, the quest continues.”

Margaret Court in action at Wimbledon, July 1969.

Not only Laver, we can touch here on another titan from our era whose achievement remains untouched by anything from the 2021 season – by anything at all. Margaret Court (née Smith in New South Wales, 16 July 1942) won more Grand Slam titles than any player in history, regardless of sex – with 64 before and after the Open Era, including 24 singles titles, an all-time record. By contrast, consider how fragmented the current singles women’s field was in 2021 with four different players winning the majors from four different countries. Court also won 19 women’s and 21 mixed doubles. She holds the record for most titles in a single Grand Slam event, with an astounding 11 championships in the tournament of her birthplace, Australia, including 7 in a row from 1960 to 1966. Court’s singles winning percentage overall is unequalled at roughly 91.5% in Grand Slam finals.

There are more statistics one can cite. For the purpose of this column, though, Margaret Court, while not alone like Laver, is in a very rarefied realm of women’s Calendar Year Grand Slam singles champions. Only three hold this distinction, with Court in the middle date-wise: Maureen Connolly in 1953, Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988. As of this writing, we are clearly in a 33 year-drought; and with the competition in women’s singles mentioned above, the drought may continue.  After all, Babe Ruth’s home run record took 34 years to fall to Roger Maris in 1961.

So the records set by “Down Under” players hold in 2021, and they hold from our era: the Long 1960s. History has kept the achievements of Court and Laver without peer for half a century.

Aussie to Aussie: Laver presents trophy to Court on the 50th anniversary of her Grand Slam win in 1970.

Each has an arena named after them. Each is still alive, and an inspiration to younger people. Margaret Court is a tennis legend and now a Pentecostal minister in Perth. Rod Laver lives in Carlsbad, California, losing his wife in 2012, and is immortalized in his towering achievements of course, but also in the shoes which are so popular and named for him!

Court was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 with the description: “For sheer strength of performance and accomplishment there has never been a tennis player to match her.” Everything seems controversial these days, and so opinions will vary, but Court even today has only the company of Graf in her achievement of the Grand Slam.

And Laver? Well, he stands alone – still; surprising those who thought, for sure, this couldn’t be true. Somebody has to have done this. Sampras?  Nadal?  Emerson?  Billie Jean?  Nope. Not even Djokovic has done it – who seemed unbeatable.

The 1960s holds a record of the many achievements of mankind, most unknown or advocated for. This is what we do here at the Project. In tennis, achievement came tenaciously, gracefully, and with style in the persons of Laver and Court . . . and others we didn’t mention here but do on our Tennis Timeline.

While hippies, protestors, and rioters were tearing at the fabric of America and the 1960s world, these titans of tennis were practicing, drilling, refining, stretching to be better – contributing to building this fabric up.

As this column attests, the 1960s are still relevant today.  Honest and hard-won achievement always is too.

We go to sea next month.  See you then.



September 14, 2021

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