50 years on: Laver reminisces

 - Ian Chadband

Legendary two-time RG champ hails today's 'big three' and talks calendar slams.

Ken Rosewall Rod Laver Roland-Garros 1968 French Open era Paris.

Roland-Garros was thrilled to welcome back an honoured guest on Monday as the great Rod Laver stopped by to offer some fascinating reflections of his second triumph here back in 1969, when he was en route to a second calendar-year Grand Slam, a still unparalleled achievement in the men’s game in the Open era.

Guy Forget, the Roland-Garros tournament director, introduced Laver by declaring that it was an honour for all French people to see him back and then offered a personal reflection of his first memory of the man who is still firmly in the debate about who might be the best men’s player of all-time.

Forget explained that he was 17, having trained fiendishly for six hours in the heat in Florida and feeling exhausted, when his coach Bob Brett came up and said: “Guy, would you like to play some more tennis?”

Forget recalled: “I go ‘hell no, I don't want to play anymore” and Bob said ‘Because there is a fellow who'd like to play for about an hour.’ I said ‘Oh, Bob, I'm tired. You have done so much today.’ 

He said ‘Too bad, because Rod Laver is here and would like to hit with you an hour.’ I went ‘Is he here, really?’ I couldn't believe it. So I grabbed my racquet, had my shower, went back on court and played with Rod. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life!”

On hearing this story, ‘Rocket’ just smiled: “I was a hacker back then!”

There you have it; still modest to a fault and still looking and sounding in great nick at the tender age of 80, Australia’s marvellous Rockhampton Rocket then touched on a whole range of subjects, from comparing the merits of the current big three Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to his fond memories of being the King of Clay here in his final year of winning Grand Slams.

On Djokovic’s chances of a calendar Slam:

“I marvel at someone like Novak with his ability and his consistency. When you look at the way he plays the game, he doesn't go ‘bang, bang, bang, ace, volleys’. He wins every individual point from the baseline, so he's quite an individual on his own ability.

Novak Djokovic - Roland-Garros 2019 huitièmes©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

"He's held all four (Slams) at one time so he's already done that portion of it. But he just won the Australian, so now he's in line to win a (calendar) Grand Slam. It's a long way to go, he's only got one, but this is probably, for him, I would think, the toughest match. There are so many good players out there that are playing on clay. That’s why today the clay court is probably one of the toughest ones for a player to win.

On the greatest of the ‘Big Three’:

“You know, they all play a little differently. I think you look at the three of them, at Novak and Rafa and Roger. To me, they are three just huge champions. 

“I don't know what their record against each other is all the time, but it's amazing to see players like that that are so in love with the game. They're prepared to put the effort in and know about the game, as well as being able to play it at its best.

"I don't know that I put one above the other because of the fact that tennis was just so fortunate to have, with (Andy) Murray in there as well, four great champions that are representing the game of tennis. Right behind them is another group coming up.

"I always thought that someone like Roger Federer was, just the way he plays and what he does around and off the court, a well-rounded champion. 

"I think all of them are just brilliant on the court!”

On the ageless Federer:

“It's amazing. After so many tournaments won, to see him back off and then see himself at 35 or 36, think to himself, ‘I like this game so much that I'm prepared to put the effort in, to learn how to play the game with my body in today's world.’ It's uncanny how he's pulled it all together.

Roger Federer - Roland-Garros 2019 - huitièmes de finale©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

"One of them is the drop shot. I mean, he's one-upped everybody with that particular shot. It's great to see someone like Roger being able to apply himself all over again. He's got everything in his repertoire. The guy is able to compete and play under pressure and pull off the shots that other people wouldn't even try, but he's doing it under extreme pressure.

"You’ve got to take your hat off to him that here he is now, still winning - he’s won the Australian and Wimbledon - but he still enjoys the game. And I think that's what comes out when you see him play.”

On the art of Nadal:

“Nadal with that left-handed forehand, it's uncanny how he can chase a ball down in any position and hit a winner. You think, Well, how do you do that? That's really an art. He's perfected it!”

On his Roland-Garros favourite:

“Roger's certainly in it and he's certainly playing well, but I don't know if anyone has really pushed him yet. I think he'll be pushed a lot more when it comes to some of the younger players coming up through the ranks. 

"I think someone like Rafa is going to be tough if Roger and he meet. I don't know. I'm probably favouring Novak at the moment and then Rafa, and then it goes down the line.”

Rafael Nadal© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

On his own calendar slams:

“In ’62, I played Roy Emerson in the final of the Australian, the French, and the U.S. At Wimbledon, he strained his big toe or something, and couldn't play, but there was a lot of the sameness. We played, I remember, at Forest Hills (in the US Open). I've got match point, he's got a forehand down the line and it's too long and it's over. So, it's over in an instant, but the memories last forever.

"The Slam in '69 (in the Open era, compared to ’62 in his amateur days) was certainly, I would have to say, tougher. But I think also the calibre of players that I competed against made it much more meaningful to pull that off.”