On a warm, windy day 55 Septembers ago, Jack Crawford took the court against Fred Perry in the finals of the U.S. Nationals at Forest Hills. Before the match New York Times columnist John Kieran wrote. "If Crawford wins, that would be something like scoring a grand slam on the courts, doubled and vulnerable." Earlier in the year Crawford had won Wimbledon and the championships of Australia and France and thus stood on the verge of winning the titles of the only four nations—the U.S., Britain, Australia and France—ever to have won the Davis Cup.
Crawford had hardly set out to win the four tournaments. That would have been madness. Few players bothered to ply the oceans often enough in a single year to compete in all four championships. Even now, more than half a century later, with airplanes and agents whisking players everywhere about the globe, only four men and seven women have won all four major championships in their careers, let alone in a single calendar year.
However, in '33, Crawford led Perry two sets to one and stood but a set from winning the Grand Slam, even if he didn't know that was what he was trying to do. A reclusive sort from the Australian inland town of Albury, New South Wales, Crawford was an asthmatic who frequently took brandy mixed with sugar to help his breathing during matches. On this muggy afternoon in New York, Crawford downed two or three doses of the stuff. That is one story. Another is that Vinnie Richards, an old friend and top American player, slipped a "nerve tonic"—straight Kentucky bourbon—into Crawford's ice tea to help reduce his tension. Whatever, brandy or bourbon, tipsy or tired, Crawford fell to pieces, losing the last two sets 6-0, 6-1, and Kieran's passing reference to a Grand Slam of tennis seemed to float away, forgotten.
As Kieran suggested, the term Grand Slam is taken from bridge, and it refers to the winning of all 13 tricks by one set of partners. The term moved into baseball to mean a home run with men on all the bases, and then golfer Bobby Jones appropriated it in 1930, when he won the open and amateur championships of both the U.S. and Britain. Jones's feat was very much in Don Budge's mind in 1937, when he decided to remain an amateur for another year to help the U.S. retain the Davis Cup.
August 28, 1988
To keep up his interest until August, when the Davis Cup Challenge Round would be played in Philadelphia, Budge decided to go after the four major titles. He told no one about this scheme save his doubles partner. Gene Mako. As it turned out, Mako was the last man to stand between Budge and the Slam, but beyond that, the fabled hurricane of '38 postponed their Forest Hills final for a week. At last, on Sept. 24, Budge whipped Mako in four sets, and in the fourth paragraph of his story for The New York Times, Allison Danzig wrote that Budge's achievement was "a grand slam that invites comparison with...Bobby Jones in golf." This time the term stuck.
While winning golf's modern professional Slam—the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA—is beyond all tolerable limits of likelihood, someone has attained tennis's Grand Slam on the average of every decade or so (and every five years, if you include doubles). Since Budge bequeathed tennis the Slam 50 years ago. Rod Laver has won it twice, in 1962 and '69, and Maureen Connolly and Margaret Court have each won it once, in 1953 and 1970, respectively. This year Steffi Graf has won three legs of the Slam and is an odds-on favorite to go grand two weeks hence at the U.S. Open.
Martina Navratilova won six on the trot, as the British say, as did Budge and Connolly. But Navratilova hasn't won four in the same calendar year. She won the last three majors of '83 and the first three of '84 before Helena Sukova upset her at the Australian Open. However, because Navratilova was the holder of all four titles at the same time—even though they had been won in two different years—some people, herself included, insist that Martina's achievement is no less a Grand Slam than Budge's, Connolly's, Laver's or Court's. These people are in the minority. A Grand Slam is a fine wine the vintner must make with all the same year's grapes.
Some other awfully good players have just missed as well, though Crawford remains the closest no-cigar. Lew Hoad won the first three majors in '56 and got to the finals of Forest Hills against his old roommate Ken Rosewall. Hoad won the first set, and then saw little Muscles chop him and lob him right out of posterity. Jimmy Connors ran rampant through tennis in '74, winning the Australian Open and then losing a total of eight games in the finals at Wimbledon and Forest Hills. But he was barred from the French Open in an internal tennis dispute because he had played team tennis for an outfit known as the Baltimore Banners. Tony Trabert's only defeat for months in '55 was at the Australian championship, right after he had led the U.S. to victory in the Davis Cup and before he went on to sweep the other three majors. The French was the only Grand Slam title that eluded Perry in '34 and Roy Emerson in '64. Both, however, won at Roland Garros on other occasions and thus join Laver and Budge as the only men to have won all four titles in their careers.
Among the ladies, Navratilova has twice won three legs of the Slam. In 1928 and '29, Helen Wills won all but the Australian, which she didn't bother to enter. Besides Connolly, Court and Navratilova, four other women have won all the majors during their careers. Three of them—Doris Hart, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert—are easy to guess. The fourth, Shirley Fry, won exactly four Grand Slam singles tournaments, from 1951 to '57.
Should Graf win at Flushing Meadow as neatly as she did in Australia, France and England—dropping only one set, to Navratilova in the Wimbledon finals—she would sweep the Slam with the same broom Budge used. In fact, when asked years ago to recount his Slam year. Budge prefaced the rather quotidian details by saying. "Well, really, not a whole lot happened that year."
His dearest memory of that time is of the night he was invited to the Paris apartment of Pablo Casals. Budge had met the cellist during the French championships. After dinner Budge and the other guests assembled in the living room, sitting on great cushions as Casals took up his cello. "This concert is for my good friend Don Budge." was all that Casals said, and then he began to play.
The horror of the late '30s stood in stark contrast to the quaintness of the sportsmen athletes of the time. When the hurricane postponed the Forest Hills finals, Budge and Mako made a gentlemen's agreement to stay out with their respective girlfriends to a mutually acceptable hour—midnight, one, two, whatever—assured that the other wouldn't cheat and take an early night's rest. Only a few days after Budge won the Grand Slam. Chamberlain went to Munich and cut the ill-advised deal that provided Hitler with a major stepping-stone, Czechoslovakia, in his quest to conquer Europe.
Nineteen thirty-eight was also the year Laver was born, so that he turns half a century as the Slam does. In 1962, Budge, ever the gentleman, cheered enthusiastically for Laver to become the first male to match his feat. He even took Laver out to the country just before Forest Hills began so that the Rocket could escape all the fuss, and the two redheads played a couple of easy sets. Budge then greeted Laver at Forest Hills when he won the Slam. The torch was passed. It's a pity there isn't a Budge Cup or some such thing he could present to Graf should she become the fifth singles Slammer.
Budge's lasting regret is that his path was eased because the Nazis had locked up the great German player Baron Gottfried von Cramm, a critic of the Fatherland, in the spring of '38. Without von Cramm to contend with, Budge so outclassed the rest of the field that when Mako won one set from him in the U.S. finals, it was widely assumed that Budge had tossed a bone to his buddy. Budge vigorously denies the allegation.
Connolly, the youngest Slammer—when she won in '53, she was three months younger than Graf will be in September—was even more dominant than Budge, losing only one set in the four tournaments. Court dropped three sets. Curiously, although Laver is the only player to have won a singles Slam twice—first as a 24-year-old amateur and then as a doddering 31-year-old pro in the second year of open tennis—he is the only Slammer to have struggled.
Indeed, in '62 on the French clay, the surface most inhospitable to Laver, he faced the only match point any Slammer has been obliged to endure. In the quarterfinals, Laver trailed Marty Mulligan two sets to one and 5-4, 40-30. He came to the net behind a second serve—on clay, remember—guessed that Mulligan would return down the line and volleyed a backhand winner. In the semis, Laver won after Neale Fraser had served for the match in the fifth set. In the finals, Emerson led the Rocket two sets to none and then 3-0 in the fourth set.
In '69, Laver won despite 16 losses on the year, five alone to Tony Roche, whom he whipped 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 in the finals at Forest Hills. Generally, Grand Slams start in pitiless Australian heat and end in New York rain. That year Laver was down two sets to love twice—to Dick Crealy and Premjit Lall; titans walked the earth then—won sets at 22-20,18-16,14-12,13-11 and had to play brilliantly to come from behind to defeat John Newcombe in the Wimbledon finals. Moreover, Laver's only child, conceived shortly before the Australian Open, was born shortly after he won Forest Hills.
Nonetheless, the single most memorable Grand Slam winner's match was Court's 14-12, 11-9 victory over King in the '70 Wimbledon finals. The 46 games lasted nearly 2½ hours, and for Court, who was often criticized for wilting under pressure, it was her grandest triumph. She had torn ligaments in her left ankle in the quarterfinals and was shot full of painkiller. King had a Swiss-cheese knee that would go under the surgeon's knife right after Wimbledon—and keep her from challenging Court at Forest Hills.
Court's doctor warned her husband, Barry, that she risked permanent damage if she tested the ligaments at Forest Hills, but Barry kept this counsel to himself, and his wife won the Slam. Court thus finally brought a Grand Slam to Albury. She had come from the same town as Crawford.
Connolly is perhaps the least well known of this select group. But had her career not ended less than a year after she won the Slam, she might well be the standard against which all female players are measured. Graf so reminds many of Connolly—in her style and dispatch as well as her precocity—that whatever Graf accomplishes will reflect glory upon Connolly.
Little Mo won her first Grand Slam title, the '51 U.S. Nationals, at 16, and was still a teenager when she won her last major, Wimbledon, in '54. All told she won nine Grand Slam tournaments, including six in a row. Connolly could be absolutely merciless with opponents—she gave up only 11 games in the entire Australian championship of '53—forcing herself to despise the poor woman across the net. "This was no passing dislike," Connolly wrote, "but a blazing, virulent, powerful and consuming hate."
Little Mo's mother, who had always wanted to be a pianist but couldn't because she had such small hands, dreamed her child would grow up to be a musician. Maureen grew up thinking her father was dead, only to have him suddenly surface one day when she was an adult. She loathed her stepfather. Perhaps all this made it easier for her to fall under the thrall of the fabled Teach Tennant, a tennis Svengali who had also tutored Alice Marble and Bobby Riggs and who honed Connolly's killer instinct. "Maureen just had the ability of total concentration on the court," says Norman Brinker, her widower.
Away from the chalked rectangle, she was a frisky, well-rounded teenager, a superb equestrienne, a tap and ballet dancer, modest and becoming, and a devout Catholic who was given a special papal dispensation to eat meat on Fridays before big matches. All during her glitter years she was in love with Brinker, a young Navy officer and horseman who saw Connolly play tennis only once, briefly, in a minor tournament. Little Mo's hometown, San Diego, was so proud of her when she first won Wimbledon and Forest Hills, in 1952, that the chamber of commerce gave her a big roan named Colonel Merryboy. It was generally thought that only her love for that horse could distract her from winning the Slam in '53. It did not.
Little Mo eschewed the long trip to Australia in 1954, but she successfully defended her French and Wimbledon crowns with ease. Back in San Diego she and some friends went out riding on July 20. A cement mixer drove by and spooked Colonel Merryboy. He reared and crashed into the truck. Connolly broke her right leg, severing all the muscles in her calf. Little Mo was not yet 20, and she was finished. Fifteen years later, at age 34, as Laver began play at Wimbledon in pursuit of his second Slam, she died of cancer. Even her beloved Colonel Merryboy outlived her.
Four years ago, when Navratilova beat Sukova 6-1 in the first set of the semifinals of the Australian Open, which was the last leg of the Slam that year, Court, who had been watching on TV at home in Perth, turned off the set and went shopping. She was satisfied that Martina would soon join her as the only living female Slammer. But by the time Court returned, Sukova had won the last two sets 6-3, 7-5.
This July, at home in Dallas, Brinker flipped on the Wimbledon women's final. Graf fell behind a set and 2-0, but he didn't turn off the set. He watched as she won the third leg of the Slam. "It's funny." Brinker says. "You know, I never really saw Maureen play, but just watching Steffi for a few minutes, just a few minutes, and you know what I said to myself? I said, There is Maureen."
Graf was born June 14, 1969, the Saturday before Little Mo died. Evidently, the torch is to be passed.