MELBOURNE, Australia – When Rod Laver beat Roy Emerson to win the Australian Open title in 1962, the event was played on grass in Sydney and, as an amateur, he took home no prize money.
Much has changed in tennis since Laver’s victory 50 years ago, but one thing has remained the same. No other man has been able to match his feat from that year — winning the “Grand Slam,” or all four majors in the same calendar year.
The Australian tennis great didn’t just do it once; he replicated the feat as a professional player seven years later after the Open Era began and professionals were again permitted to enter the majors.
“I would say the toughest was probably the first, but the most satisfying was probably the second because I had all the players in the world were open and playing,” the 73-year-old Laver said Wednesday in a visit to Melbourne Park.
“I was just honoured to be able to pull it off. You don’t start off trying to win the Grand Slam … My ability, I felt it was possible to win tournaments, but not a Grand Slam.”
American Don Budge is the only other player to win the Grand Slam in 1938. Many men have been close since Laver’s second slam in 1969 by winning three of the four majors, including Roger Federer (2004, 06, 07), Rafael Nadal (2010) and Novak Djokovic (2011), but none has been able to capture all four in a single season.
Laver acknowledges, however, that the game has changed dramatically since his days and players face enormously different pressures, which makes it far more difficult to have long, injury-free careers.
“When you’re playing amateur tennis, just playing in the tournaments, you don’t have the criteria of who wants to win it,” he said. “No one was really high on, ‘I’ve got to win this tournament for my career.’ There was no career, because you’re playing amateur tennis. There’s no money in it.”
The way the ATP Tour is structured now, he said, players must compete week in, week out in order to maintain their rankings. The talent has also improved to such an extent, there are few “easy” matches anymore.
“The first round (in any tournament) could have been a final last week. You’ve got to play your best tennis from the word ‘go,'” said Laver, who won 11 major titles. “Back in my era, there were players that you would think would win the tournament. You had an easier one or two rounds.”
The top players have been advocating for changes to the tour in recent months — and some are prepared to go as far as striking to make their point. Many believe the tournament schedule is too long — and has taken a toll on their bodies — and that prize money has not increased in line with growing profits at the four majors.
Laver said the players are certainly better off financially now than he was in the late 1960s when the first professional circuit, known as the World Championship Tour (WCT), was established.
“You’re probably talking to the wrong person saying, ‘Is the prize money enough?'” he said. “It’s a different world. To play for $10,000 in those WCT matches, that was big money in our world because we just left open tennis, and I turned professional. There was nothing like that sort of money out there.”
The men’s and women’s champions at the Australian Open will each receive $2.4 million in prize money, with the losing finalists getting $1.2 million. The 64 men and 64 women who lost in the first round of singles received $21,800.
“Being able to see the winner is going to walk away with $2 million is great for the sport,” Laver said.
In a later interview on ESPN with Roger Federer, with Rod Laver Arena set in the background, Laver said nobody had given a name to winning all four majors in a season.
“We didn’t think of it like that. We thought of four tournaments,” he said. “It’s a different world … the slams now.”
Earlier, Laver had joked that the players have it much better today when it comes to conditions at tournaments, as well. They might complain about bad calls, but at least they have technology like the Hawk-eye video replay.
“There were suspect umpires at times,” he recalls of his playing days. “You had to be a certain age before you could get into Wimbledon to be a linesman. At the same time, you look back and the linesman is asleep.”