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It is an examination of ability: technique, tactics, physical-conditioning, emotional and mental stamina. Roland Garros is a great advertisement for the sport, where crowds take matches, grim struggles to heart, and Rod Laver, who arrived in Paris 50 years ago, knew that he faced his toughest fortnight of the year. Every player of consequence was present in 1969, prize money was increasing, and there were new names under the heading, ‘Le comit du tournoi’ on the front page of the 1969 programme. French tennis meant business.
“I enjoyed the emotional involvement, watching matches and witnessing the crowds cheer and boo,” Laver told ATPTour.com, 50 years on. “Coming back is much more possible on clay than on grass courts. Early on, you looked forward to and dreaded every match, the low-pressure balls, but by Roland Garros in 1969, I was as fit as I’d ever been in my life. In late Spring that year, I remember that the clay was dry, dusty and, as a result, slippery."
Laver, who had beaten Andres Gimeno in January for the Australian Open crown, had played at a round-robin tournament in Amsterdam the week before and was confident after claiming the second biggest title of the year, two weeks earlier, at Madison Square Garden in New York over Roy Emerson on a slow, synthetic court. Having swept past the Japanese Koji Watanabe in the Roland Garros first round, the 30-year-old looked up to fellow Australian Dick Crealy.
“He was 6’5” and had a big forehand,” recalls Laver. “He hit the ball extremely hard and throughout the first set I was chasing balls. By the time he let up, I was two sets down, but rain stopped play, when it was dark under the lights, at two sets to one up.
“I remember waking at 7 a.m. the next day, practised with Emmo before 9am for a 45-minute pre-match workout, then was ready to go for 10:30am, when it was very windy. It wasn’t a spectator’s hour, as I reckon there were four people in the stadium. I won nine of the next 11 games, but Dick recovered from 1-3 in the fifth set to lead 4-3. He missed a volley into an open court, in the ninth game at 40/30. It was the good fortune I had.”
Laver completed a 3-6, 7-9, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4 second-round victory with the wind on his back, grateful to survive. “The tournament committee were eager to get to the quarter-final stage by the end of the week, so, on the same day, after some lunch, I came out to beat Italian Pietro Marzano [6-1, 6-0, 8-6],” he said.
“I then played Stan Smith, the 6’4” big-hitter, who was rapidly improving and I had a tough match against him a month later at Wimbledon. He had a cold, it was cold and the match finished in drizzle. I didn’t want it to be carried over to the next morning [again], so I worked hard in the third set [for a 6-4, 6-2, 6-4 win].”
Laver, who first travelled to compete in Paris in 1956, had to learn to play on clay, and prior to 1962, when he won his first calendar-year Grand Slam, had a 6-5 match record at the championship. “I had to learn to play on clay,” said Laver. “I’ve always believed that the key to playing well on clay is having patience and strength in your legs. It is all about accuracy over speed as clay blunts serve power, but it’s an exciting test of your abilities. To me, the importance of getting first serves in was key, as I didn’t have a cannonball serve, but I did fire the occasional ace.”
Through to the quarter-finals in 1969, Laver then waited on Gimeno, who shook off nerves to edge past 1961 and 1964 champion Manuel Santana, who had pulled a groin muscle in lunging for a ball in the fourth set. “Perhaps the victory in the previous round, helped him to win the first set against me, but I got down to work by keeping the ball low, slicing my backhand and heading to the net. Slicing was more often the best form of attack, giving you time to approach the net. You didn’t think Gimeno ever thought he could beat you, but he gave a good show and I won in four sets [3-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3].”
Laver then challenged Tom Okker, a terrifically quick Dutchman with fast reflexes and a hitter of big topspin strokes. “This was early Okker, but he won the first set and I knew that I had to dig in,” says Laver. “By then, I’d sharpened my anticipation and remember half-volleying well and taking the net away from him to win [4-6, 6-0, 6-2, 6-4]."
In a re-match of the 1968 Roland Garros final, the sport’s two best players came face-to-face once more for the 75th time – through amateur, pro tour and Open Eras. In the 11th edition of their clay-court rivalry, Laver, who had beaten Ken Rosewall two weeks earlier, 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 at the Dutch Pro Championships, was totally focused as they walked through the dark tunnel in the bowels of the stadium and out onto the main show court. Rosewall had defeated 1966 titlist Tony Roche 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 in the other semi-final.
“I played him in the final the year before, when he beat me in four sets,” says Laver. “So I just knew that I had to change my game a little bit. I decided I was going to hit my groundstrokes, heavy groundstrokes and pressure him when I could. Bill Tilden always used to say, “Never change a winning game.” I always knew that a player who played cautiously after building up a lead took a risk, so I’d tend to go hard for the first point of a game, and the first two games of every set.”
During the 1969 Roland Garros final, Laver’s groundstroke length kept 1953 champion Rosewall under pressure to force errors. Rosewall was simply unable to pounce on any short ball with his backhand and hit the net to produce crisp, well angled volleys. Laver knew, anything less than keeping his long-time rival behind the baseline and he was in trouble.
“It all worked for me,” said Laver, who collected $7,000 in prize money. “I was timing the ball perfectly that day, perfect control from game one. That’s what it takes to win any match. I led 3-1, then went 3-4 down in the first set, but came through 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 [in one hour and 33 minutes]. I think Ken felt that I played him better on instinct. My form stayed all the way through.”
Laver would later see a 4-3, 40/0 advantage evaporate in the fifth set of the Roland Garros doubles final with Emerson against John Newcombe and Roche, who won the 13 straight points for the match. But Laver was halfway to the Grand Slam, seven years on from his first in 1962, having conquered the most physically demanding championship.
"A Grand Slam year starts in January and ends in September; from the Australian Open and ends with the US Open,” said Laver. “You have to win 28 matches, not beat 128 players in every draw. While I knew Wimbledon and the US Open would be tricky, the dream was alive.”
Coming up in July 2019: Laver Reflects On 1969 Wimbledon