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The elusive Calendar Slam – those who kept the dream alive beyond Roland-Garros

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By Guillaume Willecoq   on   Friday 24 June 2016

10 men and 10 alone in the history of tennis have made it through the French Open with the dream of the calendar Grand Slam still intact, advancing half-way towards the Holy Grail. Novak Djokovic is still in the hunt this year: will he succeed where so many have failed, and become just the third man – alongside Donald Budge and Rod Laver – in over a century to achieve the impossible?

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic (2016)

In 2015 he crushed everything, winning four Grand Slam titles and reaching the final of the fourth – Roland-Garros. At the start of the Parisian Grand Slam in 2016, Novak Djokovic had not lost in a major since his defeat by Stan Wawrinka in the final at the Porte d'Auteuil twelve months earlier. This time the World No.1 sailed through the competition, seemingly unconcerned by the sets dropped against Roberto Bautista Agut (in the Round of 16) and Andy Murray (in the final). By triumphing over the Scot, he became the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to hold the four Grand Slam titles at the same time, though the Australian had achieved a "real" calendar Grand Slam. Was "Djoko" set to follow in his footsteps? Unfortunately not. The come-down after Novak's long-awaited victory in the French was brutal: he was halted in the third round, final and second round in his next three Grand Slam appearances (then in the first round at the Olympics and in the final of the ATP World Tour Finals, to complete the series of "big tournaments"). Back in Paris in spring 2017, Roland-Garros will be the last jewel left to defend in the Serb's crown… 

Jim Courier (1992)

Up until this year, he was the last player to have followed up success at the Australian Open with the Roland-Garros title. Courier was a rare gem in modern tennis – a man who totally dominated the field but for a short space of time – from Roland-Garros 1991 through to summer 1993. The first half of 1992 was his heyday – at Roland-Garros he brushed aside Muster, Mancini, Medvedev, Ivanisevic, Agassi and Korda with consummate ease. At Wimbledon however, the American fell in the first week, caught cold in the third round by Russian qualifier Andrei Olhovskiy, who was a lowly No.193 in the world. This shock defeat put an end to a run of 25 victories in a row for the world no.1… as well as dashing his hopes of a calendar Grand Slam.

Top 5 Men's Finals

Mats Wilander (1988)

In 1988, Mats Wilander was on top of the world. Having won in Australia to open the season, the Swede then followed it up with his third Roland-Garros, taking down a brash young Andre Agassi in the semis before dashing the hopes of Henri Leconte and the home crowd in the final. At Wimbledon, he made the quarter-finals for the third time in a row but was destined never to go any further in London, losing this time to his bête noire Miloslav Mecir. It would turn out to be Wilander’s only Grand Slam defeat of the year, as he went on to win the US Open.

Björn Borg (1978, 1979, 1980)

While we wait to see just how far Novak Djokovic will get, the man who has come closest to the calendar Grand Slam since Rod Laver actually carried it off in 1969 is no doubt Björn Borg. During the years when the Swede held the world tennis in general and Roland-Garros in particular the palm of his hand, Paris was always the first Grand Slam of the season, with the Australian Open coming at the end. Three years in a row – in 1978, 1979 and 1980 – Borg pulled off the Roland-Garros-Wimbledon double, achieving half of the calendar Grand Slam. He, too, stumbled at the third hurdle, the US Open, which would prove to be a tournament that would always elude him, despite making the final in 1978 (where he lost to Jimmy Connors) and 1980 (falling to John McEnroe). If we consider that the Australian Open was around the Christmas period and thus at the wrong time in the calendar, and also in the wrong place geographically, making it less of a sporting challenge than the other majors, then Borg missed out on the Grand Slam in the one truly decisive match each time.

Björn Borg: The "Ice Man"

Rod Laver (1962, 1969)

For Rod Laver, Roland-Garros was the toughest of the four Grand Slam tournaments. On the two occasions that he did win the French Open however, he was wise enough to win the three other majors in the same year, and thus achieved two calendar Grand Slams. It was by no means an easy task, though. In 1962, he saved a match point against Martin Mulligan in the quarters, had Neale Fraser serve for the match against him at 5-4 in the fifth set of the semis, then found himself two sets to one down and 0-3 in the fourth against Roy Emerson in the final! Things were easier in 1969, but he still fell two sets behind fellow Australian Dick Crealy in the second round, before nightfall gave him the break that he needed and enabled him to turn things around the following day. Paris was certainly the hardest of the four majors each time that he achieved the calendar Slam, but he is one of only two players to achieve it, and the only one to do it twice, as an amateur then as a professional to boot.

Roy Emerson (1963, 1967)

He never officially turned professional, but Roy Emerson was the main man when it came to Grand Slams for most of the 1960s, racking up 12 titles in the space of seven seasons. The stars never aligned over one season however – though he won two Wimbledons (in 1964 and 1965), he went out at the quarter-final and the fourth-round stage respectively in the years where he won at Roland-Garros (1963 and 1967). 1963 was a tough one to swallow, with the draws at Wimbledon and the US Open – which followed in close succession back in the day – seemingly wide open.

Lew Hoad (1956)

Anyone who knew him considered him to be at least potentially as good as Laver. Lew Hoad was a shooting star, who left a lasting impression on his peers. He had incredible power for his era, particularly since this was still back in the era of wooden racquets, and he added to this a range of shots and slices – top-spin in particular – which made him unique in his day. This modern brand of tennis made him liable to injuries however, and this was what cut him down in his prime. In 1956 though, he swept all before him, in particular at Roland-Garros where the only man to take two sets off him, Frenchman Robert Abdesselam, was duly punished to the tune of 6-0 in sets 3 and 5! He then went on to win at Wimbledon and it appeared that the Grand Slam was his… alas, he would fall at the final hurdle at Forest Hills. His best friend and doubles partner Ken Rosewall got the better of him in a final where the latter’s finesse was better suited to the windy conditions than Hoad’s power.

Ken Rosewall (1953)

Ken Rosewall was only 18 when he opened his account, achieving an impressive Australian Open-Roland-Garros double in 1953. Before him, the last player to have won the first two Grand Slams of the year was none other than Donald Budge – in 1938, when he went on to win all four. Rosewall however may have been mature beyond his years – his win at Roland-Garros was a veritable demonstration of high energy and tactical nous which saw him lose an average of just two and a half games per set throughout the tournament – but not developed enough physically. And at Wimbledon and the US Open, he was taken down in the match immediately following an exhausting five-set win – in the fourth round in London and the quarters in New York.

Laver and Rosewall, Roland-Garros 1968

Donald Budge (1938)

Having seen the impression that Crawford had made on tennis-lovers five years earlier when he came so close to touching the Holy Grail, Donald Budge set out to achieve the unachievable, even refusing an incredibly lucrative offer (for the time) to turn pro in order to devote himself to his quest for one more year. And thus it was that in 1938, the American finally proved to be head and shoulders above the competition. It was not until his ninth Grand Slam match of the season, at the fourth round at Roland-Garros, that he dropped a set – two, in fact – to Franjo Kukuljevic (6-2, 8-6, 2-6, 1-6, 6-1). He would only lose one more en route to the Grand Slam, in the final at Forest Hills. 24 matches, 24 wins – 37 if you take into account the fact that the American had won at Wimbledon and the US Open the year before! Six Grand Slam tournaments in a row – a record for men’s tennis.

Jack Crawford (1933)

He was the first player to get within touching distance of winning the four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year… and the first to get the public interested in the concept, at a time when travel constraints often dissuaded top players from appearing at all four majors. Crawford won on home soil in Australia and was the first to follow it up with success at the French Open, putting an end to a decade of dominance by the Musketeers when he saw off Henri Cochet in the final. It was only after he had won at Wimbledon that people really began to realise what the Australian was on the brink of in the United States, particularly when New York Times journalist Jack Kieran came up with the term "Grand Slam" to characterise what he was on the brink of accomplishing. Crawford ended up being overtaken by the fervour and the stakes in the final, where he was facing Fred Perry. In an attempt to relax, he turned to a popular remedy of the day and knocked back some brandy. The alcohol combined with the heat saw him let slip a 2-1 lead after the break that was customary at the time after the third set, and he was a mere shadow of himself in the final two, managing to win just one solitary game. The "Grand Slam" would have to wait…

Read more: Roland-Garros Highlights

The Legends of Roland-Garros: Djokovic on Agassi
Next Article: Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, head-to-head
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