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Basketball philosophy

What Constitutes a Grand Slam?

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Rafael Nadal Melbourne 2009

Image by Brett Marlow Melbourne Australia via Flickr

On the eve of the 2011 Australian Open, tennis great Rod Laver has just uttered some fighting words in the direction of Rafael Nadal who is attempting to win his 4th major in a row, and thus complete what is being called the Rafa Slam.  He says that winning 4 major tournaments in a row is not a Grand Slam unless it happens within one calendar year, from January to September.

“The pressure of winning a Grand Slam — there’s supposed to be a start and an end to it,” Laver said. “There’s no real start or end to it if you just keep going from one year to the next. You can say, ‘Well, I’ll start at Wimbledon,’ or ‘I’ll start at the U.S. Open and win all four in a row.’ ”

Now before I jump on him too much:  1) He is technically correct about the definition, and 2) It’s entirely possible he didn’t mean this at all as a statement of the superiority of his own achievement.  I’d call him foolish for making such a statement if he didn’t use it as a way to brag because of how it comes off, but there are worse things than being a bit foolish when dealing with the media.

Let’s talk about what really matters though:  Is winning 4 majors in a row any less of an achievement if you don’t do it in one calendar year?

Seems pretty clear to me the answer is “No” generally, and “Depends” in the specific.

Is there Unique Pressure to the Calendar Grand Slam?

Laver talks as if there is some unique pressure to what he achieved, but we really have no evidence to back that up.  If 4-in-a-rows were common enough that we saw people choking on the 4th leg of the calendar Grand Slam but not on others that would be one thing, but no one’s won 4 in a row since Laver did it in the 1960s.  The reality is that players are now judged so heavily on their major tournament victories that they take all of them extremely seriously, and the media presence today creates much pressure now than really anything Laver faced back in the day.

Really what is implied when one favors the calendar slam over other 4-in-a-row runs is that the player’s inability to say when his run starts (it has to start in Australia in January) means that the accomplishment is less susceptible to a player just getting “hot” at a particular time.  However, if you achieve the calendar slam but don’t manage to win 5-in-a-row, then one can throw the “hot” argument your way just as easily.

The Australian Open and the Strange Notion of a Tennis Season

Australian Open‘s unique place in the calendar gives us some food for thought into achieving what’s thought of as a calendar slam.  The other 3 majors take place from May to September in a hectic duration of tennis that really gives the appearance of what in other sports would be called a “season”.  Meanwhile the Aussie takes place in January, and at times has taken place in December.  When it took place in December of course, calendar purists would assert that you had to win Aussie 4th to complete the Grand Slam instead of 1st as it is now.  How perfectly arbitrary.

Clearly from the perspective of a player on a good run of tennis, one Australian Open relates about as much to the 3 majors that follow it as the 3 majors that precede it.  The majors that are really tied together are those other 3 (the French, Wimbledon, and US Open).  As such I would argue in general that if you want to make an argument that particular orderings are someone “suspect”, the reasonable thing to do would be to say that any player whose 4-in-a-row run does not include a May to September major sweep is the one to question.  For example, if I were to tell you that Roger Federer won 4 in a row starting with Wimbledon and ending with the French Open in some alternate universe, one question that would be bound to come up in your head is whether Nadal was injured in the season of that ending French Open.

Still, as I said before, all of this is too hypothetical.  There are reasons to think that a particular ordering of major wins is possibly a little less based on that player’s dominance, but it’s also just possible the player peaked at an unusal time.  Thus, when speaking generally, the only reasonable way to go is to call any run of 4 major wins in a row a Slam of some sort, and to sort out the specifics by doing more detailed analysis.

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Written by Matt Johnson

January 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm

One Response

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  1. We’ll in my opinion winning 4 or 5 tournament in a row regardless if its within or beyond calendar year, that can be considered a Grand Slam.

    iTennis.com

    January 22, 2011 at 7:24 am


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