A few months ago, before this year's tennis season began, Rod Laver said, "Seeing a player win the Grand Slam is something that happens only once in a lifetime." At the moment that seemed a reasonable enough statement. Don Budge, an American redhead, had first done it in 1938, and in 1962 an Australian redhead—Laver—swept the titles of Australia, France, England and the United States. Indeed, there was almost a full lifetime between the two accomplishments, for Laver was barely a month old when Budge completed his Slam. After last week, however, Laver is going to have to revise his estimates. Unless something highly unlikely occurs between now and the U.S. Open at Forest Hills in September, Rod Laver is going to win the Slam for an unprecedented second time.
It is not Laver's triumph at Wimbledon—for the fourth time—that provokes such a prediction, but rather the way he won. In his final three matches of the Wimbledon fortnight Laver established himself head and shoulders, and a bit of the torso too, above the current rank of active players. Beneath him there are three or four guys slugging it out for second place, and nothing more. In Saturday's final round Laver, who will be 31 next month, played Australian John Newcombe, who was 25 two months ago, and the pattern of that match gave a clear indication of Laver's superiority. Merely by the threat of his well-rounded, all-court game, Laver forces his opponents to beat themselves nearly as much as he himself provides the winning shots.
Laver won the title match, really, in the seventh game of the third set. Although he had clearly dominated the match to that point, the scoreboard showed that Newcombe was slightly ahead. They had split the first two sets mainly because Newcombe—all credit due—had forced Laver to play the kind of game he least likes, and early in the third set the younger Aussie had gotten a vital service break and then stretched his lead to 4-1. Laver held his service at 15, and Newcombe went to serve the crucial game. If he could hold his service he would have a 5-2 lead and almost certainly would win the set. If he lost he would irrevocably forfeit the momentum he had gained.
On the first point Laver hit a blistering backhand that forced a half-volley error from Newcombe. Love-15. On the second point Laver passed Newcombe with a short, dipping cross-court backhand. Love-30. On the third point Laver teed off on a short second service and passed Newcombe with a backhand down the line. Love-40. Newcombe saved one break point with a superb first service, but at 15-40 Newcombe, who had been pressing on his service all afternoon, came up with one of his nine double faults of the match to give Laver the game. Laver won five more games in a row and coasted the rest of the way to win 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 neatly, surgically and very decisively.
July 13, 1969
With characteristic blandness, Laver said of that key game, "I played it well." Newcombe was more explicit. "I knew he would pull out all the stops," he said, "and I tried to pull out something extra, too. But nothing came."
The match ended what was the most enjoyable Wimbledon—on the men's side—since the 1930s. The women's singles was one of the worst, but national pride made up for it when Ann Jones—a lefty like Laver—provided England with its first singles champion since Angela Mortimer's victory in 1961. In the process Ann defeated Margaret Smith Court in the semifinal round 10-12, 6-3, 6-2 and halted the tall Australian's bid to become the first women's Grand Slam winner since Maureen Connolly in 1953. In the finals Mrs. Jones upset Billie Jean King 3-6, 6-3, 6-2, crushing the American's hope of becoming a four-time Wimbledon winner herself.
The pretenders to Laver's throne challenged well, and during the early rounds of the tournament it seemed a lot of people might have a chance to unseat the defender. Laver has been bothered for nearly a year by a classic tennis elbow that requires constant treatment by a hydroculator, a sort of heat-retaining bandage he must wrap around his left elbow every day before he plays. Ideally, he should also soak the injured arm in ice after each match, but as his wife Mary said, "Can you imagine getting a bucket of ice in London—for a sore elbow?" The consequence is that it takes Laver a long time to warm up, and in the second round he was down two sets to love against Premjit Lall of India before he rallied to win, and in the fourth round against Stan Smith, ranked No. 3 in the U.S., he struggled for five sets before winning.
But during the second week, when the tournament began to get serious, Laver was not only unbeatable, he was unapproachable. His quarterfinal victim was Cliff Drysdale, a South African professional who has the sort of steady and well-disguised ground strokes that bother Laver. Laver never allowed Drysdale to get started and won 6-4, 6-2, 6-3.
In the semifinals Laver met America's No. 1 player, Arthur Ashe, who had beaten Pancho Gonzales and was just regaining his form after a six-month siege of tennis elbow himself. For one set Ashe played brilliantly. He broke Laver's service three times, mainly because he slammed a dozen impossible returns of service, mostly off his backhand, and won 6-2. In the second set Laver applied just a little more pressure, Arthur took just a little off and the American was out of the match. The last three set scores were 6-2, 9-7 and, amazingly, 6-0.
In the other half of the draw Newcombe, Tony Roche of Australia and Tom Okker of The Netherlands displayed both the strengths and weaknesses of their imperfect games. In the quarterfinals Roche, the No. 2 seed behind Laver, met America's No. 2 player, Clark Graebner, in a rematch of their 1968 Wimbledon semifinal. Last year Roche won in four sets; this year Graebner carried the 24-year-old Aussie to five sets and actually had three match points—on Roche's service—before losing. Newcombe, meanwhile, met and defeated Okker in a match that was marked by streaky play by both players. Okker is perhaps the quickest player in international tennis, but is strangely susceptible to the lob, which Newcombe executes very well, and Newcombe won in four sets. That brought Newcombe and Roche together in the second semifinal. On past performance, Roche should have won. But Newcombe has seemingly cast a spell over him. "There was no way Tony could win that match," said Roy Emerson, a fellow Australian who knows them both well.
In the finals Newcombe broke Laver's service four times. However, he struggled the entire afternoon to stay even on his own service games. In the first set both players served five times. Laver played 28 points in his five; Newcombe played 40 in his five, and that was the difference.
And so Laver becomes only the fifth player in 83 Wimbledons to win the singles title more than three times, and the first since 1913. (He also won $7,200.) Laver's wife is pregnant, and, believe it or not, she is due to have her child on the day of the men's singles final at Forest Hills. "If it's a boy." Mary said, "it would be nice to name him after the winner." Chances are good she won't have to worry about naming him Arthur or John or Tom or Tony or Pancho.