By Randy Walker
The words “Roger Federer” are on one of my Google news alerts that I have set up, whereas, any time there are stories about Roger Federer picked up by Google, it is emailed to me once a day.
As the publisher of the book “Roger Federer: Quest for Perfection” (www.RogerFedererBook.com), I will paste links to these stories within book-branded social media channels (Facebook page, Twitter handle, etc.) as a way to market the book. On the day after Christmas, Google sent me a story on Federer written by Paul Malone of the Brisbane Courier-Mail that discusses an intimate dinner that is going to be held in advance of the Brisbane International tennis tournament featuring Rod Laver and Federer as the guests of honor. Malone, in a telephone interview with Federer, presented the Swiss great with the fact that Brisbane was the site of one of Laver’s greatest matches, against of all players but Federer’s former coach Tony Roche. Wrote Malone, “Told by The Courier-Mail a little about Laver’s 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 Australian Open semi-final win over Tony Roche, later to be one of Federer’s coaches, the Swiss master said it was a match neither Laver nor Roche had told him about. It was played in 39 degree heat and if the hot weather forecast for the week of this Brisbane International bears up, one difference is that Federer, unlike Laver, will not be driven by the sun to put cabbage leaves inside his white floppy hat.”
“Tony has told me about his US Open final against Rod (in 1969) and other great matches he played, but they didn’t tell me about the Brisbane match,”‘ Federer said to Malone. “It’s one I have to find out about. I’m very excited to hear more.”
This famous match is not documented in photos or film (that I could find), but luckily still in writing, including two of the books that I have published via New Chapter Press (www.NewChapterMedia.com). One is in Steve Flink’s volume “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time (available here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Greatest-Tennis-Matches-Time/dp/0942257936/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388081137&sr=8-1&keywords=Greatest+tennis+matches+of+all+time) where Flink rates this Laver vs. Roche match as the No. 16 match of all time and goes into thorough detail setting up, describing and putting into historical context the match. Also, the man himself who played the match, Rod Laver, gives his first-hand take on his triumph in his book “The Education of a Tennis Player” written with Bud Collins (available here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Education-Tennis-Player-Laver/dp/0942257626/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1388081759&sr=8-1&keywords=rod+laver+education+of+a+tennis+player)_ Had Laver not won this match, his second Grand Slam would not have been, but he prevailed and went on to beat Andres Gimeno in the final to win the 1969 Australian Open and then the next three legs of the Grand Slam.
So, for Roger Federer – and those other students of tennis history – here is an excerpt of the match as outlined by Laver in “The Education of a Tennis Player.”
I brought three sunhats to the court that Saturday to play Tony in the semifinals, and each one was thoroughly soaked when we finished over four hours later. We started at noon. My brother Trevor was coming down from Rocky for the weekend, and since he keeps his sports goods shop open a half-day, he phoned me: “I won’t be there till two. Try to keep it going so I can see something of it.”
We laughed about that later. Trevor got to see more than enough of me and Tony struggling away with the temperature at 105 and no shade anywhere. We kept towels in an icebox beside the court and draped ourselves with them every change game. It was only momentary relief. I kept taking glucose and salt pills, but I got groggy. It turned out to be the longest match I ever played—90 games—and by far the hardest. Ten years back, at Wimbledon, I got by big Barry MacKay in 87 games, also a semifinal. But the London climate was a lot easier to take than Brisbane.
There wasn’t much to choose between us after Tony got into the match. It looked like I had him when I won the first two sets, 7-5, 22-20 [no tie-breakers until 1970], but I was getting tired. At that point of the season Tony was fitter than I, and when he grabbed the third set 11-9, you could see him begin to puff up with confidence. That brought merciful intermission with a shower in the dressing room, one of those showers you never want to leave. Too quickly we returned to the oven, and Tony came back eagerly to resume with the same heavy serves and stiff volleys. I was in a daze as he ran off five games. The set was gone.
I conceded that much as I served the sixth game, but I wanted badly to hold serve so that I could lead off in the fifth set. It was hard to do because Tony was playing full-tilt now and felt he had me. He’d already beaten me in Sydney and he was going to do it again.
Confidence is the thing in tennis, as I’m sure it is in any sport. I hear other athletes talk that way. Confidence separates athletes of similar ability. Tony had it . . . and in an instant during the decisive set he lost it, through no fault of his own, on what may have been a very bad break. I’ll never be certain, but Tony Roche will go through life thinking he was bad-lucked out of that victory by a linesman’s decision. Maybe he was. We went to deuce in the sixth game of the fourth set but I worked to make sure I got the game. It was important to me, even though Tony and I both saw that the set would be his. Maybe he didn’t sense the importance. He served out in the next game for 6-1. We were even, and the momentum was his.
But serving first in the fifth set picked me up a bit. It’s a psychological help to go into the lead every time you win your serve in a close match, and that’s why I tried so hard for a seemingly meaningless game when I was down 0–5 in the fourth. I wanted to serve that leadoff game.
Naturally, now I had to hold my serve, and I hadn’t been serving too well. Tony had broken me three of the last four times. He was returning serve better than I was, and returning was tricky business on that court. It was freshly re-sodded and playing badly. Any time a ball landed on the court, hitting it was guesswork. That’s unusual for Australian grass, but this was Brisbane ‘69, with everything schemozzled. Bad courts were just one more factor in a general screw-up.
Now I knew I had to get my first serves in because Tony would be jumping all over the second ball. I tried to pull myself together and make sure the first serve was a good one and that I was up to the net in position to make a good volley. I figured one break of serve would decide the match, the condition we were in. Tony was stronger, but he’d never been in a fifth set with me, and he’d have just a little more pressure on him, serving second.
Every time I held, the situation would be just a little dicier for him. My serve began to work all right. His continued too. One love for me, but he tied it. Two-one, and then 2-2. Three–two. I was feeling a little better. He wasn’t blasting me off the court the way he had in the fourth set, and my confidence was beginning to come back. I’ve lost five-set matches, but not many, and I’d have to think hard to remember one. Three-all as Tony held, but his volleys didn’t have quite the zip. I served to 4-3 and we changed courts. Slowly. The wet towels from the icebox felt good on my head. I wrung out my sun hat and it was like squeezing a sponge. One of the things I used to do on hot days was put a piece of wet cabbage inside my hat. That was a pretty good trick for keeping cool. Nothing like a green salad on your head, although I don’t know if oil and vinegar does much for your scalp. But I had no greens this day, and Tony and I felt like the cabbage that lies alongside boiled corned beef.
It was his turn to serve and I screwed my mind into working for every point as though it were the last. If you do that when you come down the stretch in a tight match you’ll be surprised how often a superhuman effort will come out of you. “It’s 3-4 in the last set, and I’m going to hack and grub,” I told myself. “Just do anything to get the ball over the net. It doesn’t matter how you look. Form won’t win this one.”
You learn to hack, as we call it, when you join the pros. Get balls back, and the hell with trying to slap a winning shot that doesn’t have too much chance. It looks great if you make it, but at this stage you can’t give away points.
A big shot may look lovely, but anything that goes over the net now will look lovely. You still win matches by getting the ball over the net one more time than your opponent.
You face up to that when you leave the amateurs. You settle down. You can slam away when your opponent isn’t too sound, or you clearly dominate him, but I was in with Tony Roche in the decisive set, and it was no time for pride and flamboyance. I was going to scratch and dig and bloop the ball over any way I could.
I was chipping my returns now, trying to squib them onto his feet. With the ball skipping erratically on those courts, the opportunities to hit full out were limited, and the best thing was just to meet the ball. So Tony was serving at 3-4, and this was the place for me to do my utmost. He knew it; everybody who hadn’t passed out from the heat in the stands knew it. Win this one and I’d be serving for the match at 5-3. This had to make it even a little more tense for Tony. We split the first two points: 15-all. Then he missed a volley. The 15-30 point is an awfully big one in this spot. He came in with a good serve, down the middle, spinning into my body. I sliced under it with my backhand to chip the ball crosscourt with underspin. Tony looked relieved because
he thought the ball was going out. He was sure it was out, but there was no sound. Tony turned around and looked at the sidelines-man sitting behind the court. The official held out his hands, parallel to the ground, like a baseball umpire signaling “safe.” It meant my shot was good, and the umpire called: “Fifteen-forty!”
Tony was furious, and I can hold his hand and sympathize . . . now. It was such a big point, and the ball may have been out. I didn’t have a good view, but I had the feeling when I hit the ball that it might be going wide. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been called out because it was terribly close.
It was a judgment call. Nobody—and I know Tony agrees—can blame a linesman if he misses one on a day like that. He’d been sitting there broiling for more than four hours, trying to stay sharp and alert. And maybe the ball was good and the man was correct. No matter. It stands as good forever because the linesman said so.
“Fifteen-forty” was the best thing I’d heard all day. Two break points, and Tony was riled. Tony swung hard on his serve, and I knocked the ball back to him. He was at the net to make a backhand volley and sent the ball crosscourt to my backhand. Now this was a shot I love—the backhand down the line. Tony realized it and began moving to his left to cover it. But in this situation—two points to break—I was going for it with everything. I got the racket back and drove at the ball, snapping my wrist to load the ball with topspin. Tony and I had been through all this before. But even though he anticipated me, he was going to have a hard time volleying that top-spinning ball down his sideline whenever I hit it that well. Out went his arm in the reach that failed. His racket probed for the ball and found it, but he couldn’t control it. One of the most beautiful sights of 1969 was that ball clunking into the net.
Tony’s game was knocked apart by that line call, and he couldn’t get himself to function in the last game. He was mad and frustrated. He hadn’t quit, but it all seemed so unfair to him. In that moment of his anguish, I served through the game promptly, getting only token opposition. Ninety games, the eighth longest singles match ever played: 7-5, 22- 20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. It’s a good thing that players customarily shake hands at the end of a match. It was an effective way of holding each other up.
Even though Roche has been around, and at the highest level, he let himself get flapped out of that match like a novice, forgetting that you have to play the calls, as we say. Let’s assume the decision that upset Tony was outrageously wrong, and everybody thought so.
You can ask the linesman if he’s sure of his call. Sometimes he’ll change it or ask the umpire’s advice. But if he won’t there’s nothing you can do. You have to forget it, and make yourself work harder for the next point. Serving on grass at 15-40, Tony still had something like an even chance of winning that game. When he didn’t, he still had a shot at my serve. But by the time he pulled himself together the match was over. You mustn’t let the worst call in the world fluster you. I’m glad to offer this advice to Tony today.
Physically, that was the toughest match of the year, certainly of the Grand Slam. But the element of pressure wasn’t there. Not for me. The Grand Slam hadn’t even begun. I’d won nothing, and there was nothing to be concerned about. It was only the second tournament of the year, and though I wanted the Grand Slam, I really had no idea the year would turn out so incredibly well.
It could all have ended there as easily as not, on the center court at Milton. How many thousands of shots did I need to make the Grand Slam? I don’t know. Nobody counted. This isn’t baseball. But that one shot, the questionable call, could have changed the whole thing. Roche, of course, is convinced that it did, and I can’t argue with him. It’s funny, the hours and hours you practice, the miles and time you put in, and maybe the whole thing hinged on a bloke sitting in a chair, looking down the sideline, whose job it was to decide whether a ball was out or in. I like to think he was right, that he was wide awake and decisive and that my shot was a deftly hit winner. It reads better that way. But it doesn’t matter. Over the years the calls even up, Tony, but that one will hurt
even a century from now when you’re playing mixed doubles against Bonnie and Clyde at the River Styx Sauna and Racket Club, won’t it? But it may have been more than just a point—15-40 instead of 30-all—for both of us. If Tony had won the game, he might have won the match. That would have given him three straight victories over me, and a substantial heightening of his confidence. It wouldn’t have helped mine.
I can still see that backhand return of mine streaking for the sideline. Was a season for two men riding on that shot? That’s one way to look at it, but maybe I’m getting too dramatic. Nevertheless it’s weird how a simple mistake can change not only a match but perhaps a career.