It will stand as one of the great unknowns in tennis – just how many Grand Slam titles might Rod Laver have won in his career if he had been eligible to play at the majors between 1963 and 1967?
The 11-time major champion became the only player in history to win Calendar Grand Slams as both an amateur and a professional, in 1962 and 1969. But in the intervening years, his decision to turn pro saw him exiled from the majors, then proudly considered ‘strictly’ amateur tournaments in spite of covert payments being made to players.
“Turning professional in 1963 wasn’t about the money, although that was important,” said Laver, who joined Jack Kramer’s coterie of world-class talent on the fledgling Pro Tour. “I wanted to play against the best players in the world.”
Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad, Andres Gimeno – these were just some of the leading lights of the men’s game who turned to barnstorming around the world in a bid to establish the professional game. Laver describes the enterprise as playing “one-night stands around the world, for five years.
“We played everywhere,” he recalls. At Madison Square Garden in New York, one such event took place on a canvas court stretched across an ice rink. Meanwhile, Wimbledon and the French, US and Australian Championships continued without them. “It was not always a wonderful time, turning pro,” Laver admits.
The advent of the Open era in 1968 changed all that – not only allowing Laver and his fellow pros to return to the majors, but heralding the transformation in tennis that has seen the game become one of the leading sports for both men and women worldwide.
The £2,000 cheque Laver received for winning the 1968 Wimbledon title may be dwarfed by the seven-figure sums on offer to today’s major winners, but it ranks among one of the most significant prizes in the sport.
“Seeing the explosion that has happened since 1968,” he adds, “it’s just a wonderful feeling.”