There's an old tradition in baseball about not mentioning the possibility of a no-hitter while the game is going on. So maybe it's tactless of me to mention the fact that Australia's redheaded Rod Laver seems on the verge of winning his fourth major tennis tournament this year—i.e., of becoming the second man to win the Grand Slam (Australian, French, English and U.S. Championships). Since I am the only man ever to achieve this feat up to now, I must admit I'm interested in Rod's attempt. Also I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't admit that I feel mixed emotions about another freckle-faced redhead sharing my coveted title. I've become pretty attached to having the Grand Slam all to myself for so many years.
Some people have asked me, "How about it, Don? Can Laver do it?" Someone who plays the game, as I have, with so-called orthodoxy, can be a bit baffled by some of the "badminton-type" placements Laver makes for winners. It's a different style, but, needless to say, most effective. He's a wristy-type player like most of the recent Australians—Hoad and Fraser, for example. But Rod seems to have unusual control and versatility with his shots. I have to admit that, as a tennis player, Rod can do everything.
Rod's competition in this championship will come from all over the world. But Rod's countryman, Roy Emerson, seems to be the only opponent who has a chance to stop him. Ken Rosewall robbed fellow Australian Lew Hoad of his chance at a Slam in the Forest Hills final in '56 with inspired play. But I don't think Emerson is as good a player as Rosewall, and so Laver's chances, in my opinion, are better than Hoad's were six years ago.
Even aside from the fact that he's marked as the man who can and should win, Laver will have a lot more Grand Slam pressure on him than I did. In 1938 there was no advance publicity about my title prospects. I made sure there wasn't. I never mentioned my goal to anyone—I didn't want any added pressure. It seems to me now that I was the only one aware of what I was trying to accomplish, and I know I didn't say it out loud to anyone until after I'd won the Forest Hills championship. Doubtless, Rod has been thinking about the Slam as much as I did, but he has the added problem of public awareness—a factor that can rack the nerves. The press, tennis buffs and sports fans in general are especially attuned these days to record making and record breaking. Perhaps everyone was as aware of my Slam ambition as I was—but if they were they didn't mention it to me.
Years of concentrated effort were necessary for me to win my Grand Slam, but it might never have happened if my older brother Lloyd had not wounded my pride. I was known as "the regular" in my neighborhood in Oakland if there was any kind of game involved. Any kind, that is, except tennis.
Lloyd kept trying to coax me to the public courts because he loved tennis above all else and was constantly in search of anything on two legs that could hit a ball back (even a younger brother). My enthusiasm was all for team sports—baseball and football particularly. Lloyd cajoled and enticed and threatened me with little effect until he finally found an allure that was hard to turn down: brand new tennis balls. White fuzz on new tennis balls can be very seductive. They cost, they bounced, they felt good and they meant something very special to a kid generally restricted to bald floating spheres that had seen better days.
Still, I was reluctant to practice enough even with the new balls. Then one day at the dinner table, with the whole family present, Lloyd said I was "plain lazy." He went on to explain to the family that I had a talent for tennis but wouldn't practice, that I really should be entering the California state championship coming up in a week for boys 15 and under but that there was no use in doing so because I wouldn't work on my game.
"Plain lazy" rankled me more than anything ever had before. I, who was always up and out, toting that basketball, lifting that bat and trying to catch that football.
Bushrod Park in Oakland provided the nearest public tennis courts, and I must have established a record for time spent there during one week. From sunup until it was almost too dark to see, I played with anyone who came along, and when no one did, the backboard got my action.
After seven days of this I entered the state championship, my first tournament. To my amazement, I won my first match. I ran across the street to a drugs store and called my mother. I said, "Hey, Ma, I won!" I did that every day except after the finals, when I ran all the way home with the trophy. After that Lloyd didn't have any trouble getting me to play. I was hooked.