SAN DIEGO—If Novak Djokovic wins the U.S. Open two weeks from now to complete the first calendar-year Grand Slam in men’s tennis since 1969, “Rocket” Rod Laver will be there to welcome him into a remarkably exclusive group.
“I’d be very happy to shake his hand if he can win the four Slams. I’d be happy for him to be a part of—whether it’s a ‘club’ or not, I don’t know,” Laver said with a chuckle during a recent interview with The Associated Press.
No man has won the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open in the same season since the slightly built, red-haired, left-handed Australian did it for the second time—yes, second—52 years ago. That was so long ago that the Beatles were just about to release “Abbey Road,” and America was still reveling in Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk.
The decades have rolled along, and Laver—who also completed a true Grand Slam as an amateur in 1962—and Don Budge, who did it in 1938, remain the only men to accomplish the greatest feat in tennis.
That surprises Laver, even if, as he says, “It’s tough to put them all together.”
It requires skill on a variety of surfaces nowadays: The U.S. Open and Australian Open are played on two types of hard courts, the French Open on red clay, Wimbledon on grass. It also requires avoiding injury. And figuring out each opponent for 28 matches spread out over about eight months. And handling each day’s particular weather. And so on.
“I never said I was going for a Grand Slam; that’s pressure right there. And Djokovic, I think he wants to talk about it, and so that could be a detriment, if there is one,” Laver said. “He knows all the players, so there shouldn’t be any problem with (that). … I think pressure is the one thing Djokovic may find himself having problems (with). Maybe he’s not feeling well. There’s lots of things that can go wrong.”
As it is, Djokovic is the first man since Laver to claim a season’s first three major trophies. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, for example, never even managed to get just halfway there by winning the Australian Open and French Open in the same year.
The No. 1-seeded Djokovic will start his path at the U.S. Open on Tuesday night against Holger Rune, an 18-year-old from Denmark making his Grand Slam debut. Win that, then six more matches, and Djokovic would take advantage of what he calls “a very unique opportunity.”
Three women have gone 4-for-4 for a true Grand Slam, most recently Steffi Graf in 1988. Serena Williams came close in 2015, winning that year’s first three majors before losing to Roberta Vinci in the U.S. Open semifinals in one of the sport’s greatest upsets.
The quiet, unassuming Laver, who has lived in northern San Diego County for years, said he’s never gotten any special satisfaction about being the last man to win the Grand Slam.
He’s always been ready to be joined by a newcomer.
“It really doesn’t worry me,” Laver said Thursday evening, holding a cup of beer in that powerful left hand before a San Diego Padres game at Petco Park, where he was a guest of owner Peter Seidler. “When Don Budge won it in 1938, and I did it in ’62, he says: ‘We’re in a special club here. There’s only two of us in it.’”
Laver, now 83, was 31 in 1969.
Djokovic is a 34-year-old from Serbia. He shares the men’s mark of 20 career major titles with Federer and Nadal, who are injured and not playing in the U.S. Open.
Djokovic’s greatest attribute is his consistency, Laver said.
“He doesn’t have a big serve or a big forehand or backhand, but all of them are good. That’s one of the things he can rely on,” Laver said. “If one isn’t working as good as it should be, then he’s got something else to lean on.”
Laver was invited by the U.S. Tennis Association to go to New York for the final few days of the U.S. Open.
“If history is made at the 2021 U.S. Open,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said, “what better way to celebrate it than with Rod Laver, the last man to accomplish such an amazing feat?”
Djokovic already did win four majors in a row, spread out over two seasons in from 2015 to 2016, but he wouldn’t mind getting some advice about the all-in-one-year achievement from Laver.
“Hopefully he can tell me something that could help me,” Djokovic said. “He is one of the all-time greats, legends of our sport. Someone I admire, respect, and look up to.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the pair has spoken; they’ve often chatted at Melbourne Park, where Djokovic has won nine Australian Open titles at what is now known as Rod Laver Arena.
There’s something else with Laver’s name on it: his signature green-and-white Adidas tennis shoe.
As Laver spoke with friends on a concourse just before Thursday’s baseball game, a fan walking by noticed the shoes and said he wore them as a kid.
Laver, he added, was his idol.
Someone mentioned that the man wearing the Rod Laver shoes was, indeed, Rod Laver.
“Holy… ! It is!” said the man, who circled back for a quick picture with one member of a club that currently has only two—and soon could have three.
By Bernie Wilson