Commentary

Will anyone match Rod Laver's feat?

Updated: June 12, 2012, 12:50 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

It was still dark outside when Rodney George Laver, as curious as the rest of us, awoke Monday morning.

He shut off the alarm, reached for the remote and turned on the television.

"Of course, I watched it," he said later, laughing. "What else am I going to do at that hour?"

Nine time zones away in Carlsbad, Calif., more than four decades' distance from the Parisian court he once commanded, The Rocket followed the flickering images intently. The 73-year-old Australian was, he said, genuinely ambivalent about which of his achievements might be matched.

No. 1-ranked Novak Djokovic was trying to win his fourth consecutive Grand Slam singles title -- something that hadn't been done since Laver swept all four in 1969, a calendar-year Grand Slam. A record seventh French Open championship for No. 2 Rafael Nadal would give him 11 majors, tying Laver's career total.

"They're the two best players on the circuit now," said Laver. "They hit the ball so hard and so deep, so accurately and consistently. Watching them, it's just hard to imagine how they can do that and be so under control.

"To play in the fourth [straight] championship against the same player is quite something."

[+] EnlargeNadal
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty ImagesRafael Nadal is now only one Slam title away from passing Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg on the all-time list.

The final had been forced into an extra day at Roland Garros. Nadal had taken the first two sets Sunday, but with rain descending on Court Philippe Chatrier, Djokovic won eight consecutive games. He was up 2-1 in the fourth set when play was called -- the French Tennis Federation, in its irrational logic, blamed darkness -- and an out of sorts Nadal was rescued.

"It looked to me on TV like it was raining fairly solidly," Laver said. "But they didn't stop it. At the end, the ball had to be squishing with water and mud. I've played on that court a few times. It can get pretty sloppy."

In about 50 minutes Monday afternoon, order was restored. Nadal broke Djokovic immediately and then again with Djokovic serving to force a tiebreaker. A double fault ended Djokovic's quest for a non-calendar Grand Slam.

What was Laver thinking?

"That records are to be broken," he said softly. "That goes with the territory. I wasn't relieved or any of that. It would have been quite a feat. It had to be disappointing for him.

"I wished Novak all the best in Australia."

Laver, whose name graces the center court at the Australian Open, leaned in during the trophy presentation and said to Djokovic, "Congratulations, you've only got three to go."

Crafty, eh? Three to go for a calendar Slam, the one Laver achieved in 1962 and 1969.

"Disappointment is there because I lost the match," Djokovic said afterward. "I lost the finals. Yes, there was obviously opportunity to make a history, as well. But it was not a primary thought in my mind."

A year ago, Roger Federer ended Djokovic's 43-match win streak in the semifinals at Roland Garros. It was obvious the pressure of that unconscious run played a role in his loss. This year, Djokovic almost failed to escape the fourth round, dropping the first two sets to Andreas Seppi. Then he lost two of the first three to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals.

How did the prospect of simultaneously holding all four major trophies affect his play?

"It didn't. It really didn't," Djokovic said. "I mean, I was excited about this opportunity. Nothing more than that, really."

Afterward, Djokovic called Nadal the best on clay ever. Nadal declined to concur.

"I don't know if I am the best or not," said Nadal. "I am not the right one to say that."

Laver, of course, is. He was, as always, effusive in his praise of Nadal.

"Yeah, he's unbelievable the way he plays on the clay," Laver said. "He just has too many guns for anyone that comes up against him. His ability to retrieve is quite uncanny. It was amazing to see him break the record of seven, beat [Bjorn] Borg's six. It was hard not to root for him."

Nadal credited his mental toughness, a trait he shares with Laver.

"Especially on clay, more than in the rest of the surfaces, because you have to run, you have to suffer sometimes," Nadal said. "Probably the reason is because I always was scared to lose.

"Winning as much as I did in this surface the last eight years is not because I played great every time. Is impossible to play great every time. Because when I played so-so, I was there mentally. The mental part was there 100 percent."

Nadal has fashioned a career record of 52-1 at Roland Garros, but consider this lesser-known number: He is 75-1 in best-of-five-set matches on clay.

In this world of instant gratification and narrowing attention spans and information overload we are always seeking the bottom line. In men's tennis, the major singles title totals look like this:

No. 1 Roger Federer: 16, No. 2 Pete Sampras 14, No. 3 Roy Emerson 12. Tied for No. 4 all time are Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg and, now, Rafael Nadal.

These hard, black digits, however, are charged with a fascinating, teeming volatility. What if? Borg hadn't retired at the age of 25? It was Federer who had won that epic 2008 final with Nadal at Wimbledon? Djokovic hadn't taken three straight majors from Nadal? Laver hadn't turned professional and been excluded from the 20 majors played from 1963 to '67?

"Yeah," Laver said, "water's under the bridge. That's something I elected to do. I took myself out of it, couldn't afford to stay as an amateur. Roy Emerson won five Australian Opens after I left.

"You know, it was never as important then, counting Grand Slam titles you'd won. Emerson didn't even know how many he'd won; it was not common knowledge. If you won Wimbledon, it was a feather in your cap. I won two U.S. Opens, I knew that.

"That's the way it was. No one was counting."

Today? Laver and a certain muscular 26-year-old Spaniard occupy precisely the same place on the all-time tennis ladder.

"It's funny," Laver said. "I noticed that when they said Nadal had won 11. I didn't know how many he had won previously.

"I thought, 'Yeah, I won 11, didn't I?' "

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.