A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Rod Laver and the Overrating of the Pre-Open Era Grand Slam

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Sculpture depicting Rod Laver outside the Rod ...

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Well here I go taking a hatchet to Rod Laver for the second post in a row.  The first post was in direct response to Laver’s recent interview, but this is just a general point that needs to be made and now seems like as good a time as any to make it.

Almost any argument for Laver as a candidate for GOAT (greatest of all-time) mentions that he won not just one but TWO Grand Slams.  Some will go the extra mile and point out that Laver won the Grand Slam in his last year as an amateur in 1962, and then again in the first full year of the Open Era in 1969 as a professional, and thus imply that might have achieved the Grand Slam half a dozen times had the politics of the situation not gotten in the way.

Let’s clear some things up:

The Best Players Played Professionally even before the Open Era

Professional tours in tennis did not begin with Laver in the 1960s.  They began in the 1920s, and by the late 1930s it became established the best players in the world were professional.  So when Laver won the amateur Grand Slam in 1962, he did this while competing against minor league talent.  The true #1 player in the world at that time was the fellow who would become Laver great rival, Ken Rosewall.  Come 1963, Laver joined the professional tour, and Rosewall dominated him.  It wasn’t until 1965 that Laver emerged as the clear best player in the game over the then 30 year old Rosewall.

There actually were 3 tournaments call pro majors before the open era:  French Pro, Wembley Pro, and US Pro.  How did Laver do in those tournaments?  8 wins and 14 finals in 15 appearances include one year where he won all 3, the closest thing to a Grand Slam possible under the circumstances.  Sounds amazing right?  Well it’s very good, but consider Rosewall’s accomplishments:  In that same time period, Rosewall won the other 7 tournaments.  In total Rosewall won 15 wins in 27 appearances, including a run from ’60 to early ’64 where he won 10 in a row.

Dual Dominance of Laver & Rosewall

What we’re left with is that an evaluation of the 1960s major tournaments tells us that we have not just 1 player more dominant than any player since, but 2 players, and that it’s actually Rosewall who is the most impressive of the era.  So Why is Laver so well better known today? and What does this dual dominance mean in general compared to other eras?

Well, Laver vs Rosewall, I’m convinced it goes back to the overrating of the then amateur Grand Slam for why Laver is talked about so much more today.  There are plenty of knowledgeable people who will argue that Laver was simply superior at his peak, but to me there’s a simple question really:  Given how much focus is given on Laver’s Grand Slams, if it had been Rosewall with those Grand Slams, even done in an arguably inferior fashion to Laver’s performance, do people really think that Rosewall’s 2 hypothetical Slams wouldn’t be given the same kind of treatment Laver’s Slams do now?  I’d like to hear such arguments, but my opinion is pretty certain:  The 2 Slam accomplishment is a Ruthian type of statistical accomplishment that draws people’s attention forever, and it would be the same if it were Rosewall who did it instead of Laver.

Given that it’s clear that the impressiveness of the accomplishment is based on misunderstanding, and that it is Rosewall with his massive number of professional majors and his massive 10-win streak who has the real Ruthian accomplishment, I think it’s safe to say that Laver’s legend is puffed up well beyond what it should be by a lot of people.

Now to be fair, Laver has the career matchup edge over Rosewall 79-63 including a 35-20 edge in all finals.  One can certainly use that as part of a pro-Laver argument.  However consider also that Laver didn’t turn pro until Rosewall was already 29, and that there is every reason to think that Rosewall would have had the advantage had they played when the two were younger.  So giving Laver an edge based on that is questionable (though the tendency to overrated head-to-head records without consideration of the context of those matchups is probably another factor which wrongly helps Laver).

What does it all mean?

Now what does the dual dominance by Rosewall & Laver mean?  Consider this other factor:  Before the Open era, while the very best players in the world played on professional tours, those tours actually resembled a tour along the lines of what we see today with musical acts.  There were some tournaments, but much of the play involved a few stars barnstorming from city to city playing each other.  Think about the ramifications of that:  The top few players in the world got way more practice against each other than the top players of today, and the other players got significantly less practice.

So we should expect in any era such as that there would be a ridiculous level of dominance at the top both in terms of dominance within a particular calendar year and in terms of longevity.  After all, that 22 year old may have all the athleticism in the world, but if he hasn’t been playing against the very best before, it’s going to take him some time to catch up.  And so this is almost certainly one reason why at the beginning of the Open era, we saw Laver & Rosewall continue to dominate even though they were both in their 30s at this point.

Now, all the arguments I’ve made to this point should give you serious questions about how much to value the dominance of Laver & Rosewall.  To be clear though, this shouldn’t necessarily make you question how good these guys were.  As I said, they got to play against each other and other stars a ridiculous amount of the time.  140+ matches between these two compared with only 22 matches between Federer and Nadal.  There really is an argument to be made that the system back then was superior for producing the best tennis ability we’ve ever seen.

That said, let me put just one more cloud of doubt in your mind:  Laver and Rosewall were both 5 feet 7 inches tall and playing in an era where the tiny country of Australia was able to dominate the sport.  Yes the lack of technology in the game meant that power was arguably not as crucial to a player then as it is now, but is it really likely that the 2 best players in tennis history were 2 lilliputians from the same place and era of minor sport popularity and earnings?

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Written by Matt Johnson

January 16, 2011 at 2:20 pm

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