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Rod Laver knows the pressure Serena Williams faces going into U.S. Open

Rod Laver knows the pressure Serena Williams faces going into U.S. Open
Rod Laver is the last man to have won the Grand Slam in tennis, doing so in 1969 as well as 1962. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The strongest left hand and wrist in the history of tennis was put to use the other day, sipping a soft drink and gesturing about Serena Williams, while looking out from a veranda above La Costa's plush golf course.

Who better than Rod Laver to tell us about the potential pitfalls, as well as joy of achievement, that Williams faces the next two weeks.

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It is U.S. Open tennis time. Williams is the story. It has built from the moment of her match point at Wimbledon. She is going for a calendar year Grand Slam.

Don Budge did it in 1938. Mo Connolly did it in 1953. Margaret Court did it in 1970. Steffi Graf even tossed in an Olympic title in 1988. But only one person did it twice, that red-headed Aussie with the Popeye-muscled left arm and wrist. Laver in 1962 and '69.

Who better to assess the chances of the next possible member of the exclusive club of which Laver, who turned 77 on Aug. 9 and has slowed down to maybe just three rounds of golf a week, is the most prominent member.

"What Serena has done in her career is phenomenal," Laver said. "It's pure force. She doesn't set up points with any system. She doesn't use drop shots. She's just more powerful than anybody else.

"I really hope she gets it."

Tennis wants this for the obvious good of the game. So does Laver. Winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open, all in the same year, brings a lifetime pedestal. It's fame, more fortune and the start of your obit.

Even more so now.

"When I won in '62 at the U.S. Open," Laver said, "there were about eight reporters there. All of us thought this was pretty special. None of us really understood it."

There is no lack of understanding now. On stories such as this, media become locusts. The name Serena will be tweeted as often as the name Obama. At its calmest, the U.S. Open is a zoo. The Serena story unlocks all the cages.

Laver joked how casually this was once taken.

"Whoever won the Australian in my day would always kid the media," he said. "They'd say, 'Well, I guess I'll be going for the Grand Slam this year.' It was so impossible you kind of brushed it off."

Laver played 14 full seasons, won 49 pro tournaments, including 11 majors, and his total tour winnings were $1.6 million. Williams has won 21 major titles in 20 years since turning pro and more than $70 million.

When Laver beat Tony Roche in the '69 U.S. Open final to complete his second Grand Slam, he pocketed total prize money that year of $124,000. If Williams wins this U.S. Open title, her prize money will be $3.3 million. Third-round losers in men's or women's singles at this year's Open will nearly top Laver's entire take for '69. They will get $110,000.

Laver said that, to secure that $3.3-million check, Williams will need to "do everything to avoid extra pressure, the kind that takes a tad off your accuracy."

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"I haven't seen her lose because of nerves," he said. "I always felt that, when in doubt, you hit out [not softer or more safely]. She does that.

"She has always seemed more susceptible early in matches. She needs to avoid that. All of sudden, you are put in a spot to panic, where the pressure sets in. She needs to break early, to win a lot of 6-2, 6-3 matches.

"If she gets to the semis, she will be in good shape."

Laver lived that panic several times.

In 1962 at the French, fellow Australian Marty Mulligan had him down a match point in the quarterfinals. Laver followed in a second serve and recalled, "I had to take a pick, and so did he. Crosscourt or down the line. I picked down the line and so did he. I volleyed it away and stayed alive."

The spot was even tighter in an early rounder in '69 at Wimbledon. He trailed India's Premjit Lall, two sets to love and 0-3.

"I had no idea what I would do," Laver said, "except to keep playing, keep hitting. Somehow, I crept back up to 3-3 and got it back."

From 0-3 of the third set, he won the next 18 games.

"Serena needs to avoid that stuff, but it is inevitable, somewhere, in a long tournament," Laver said. "You aren't paying perfect attention and your second serve gets shorter. The other player feels that and starts playing better. You can't hope this just passes. You have to make it, to take control of it."

Laver said that winning a Grand Slam includes lots of luck.

"No colds, no injuries," he said. Also, as little external pressure as you can manage.

In '69, going for his second Grand Slam, he was able to avoid the crowds by taking actor Charlton Heston's offer of his fancy three-bedroom apartment near the United Nations building in Manhattan.

"He encouraged it," Laver said. "He said a hotel would put me right with fans and reporters."

There was another inescapable pressure.

"A while after I won the Australian that year," he said, "[my wife] Mary called and said she was pregnant, that the due date was Sept. 7.

That was also the date of the U.S. Open final.

The doctor was wrong. Son Rick was born a couple of weeks later. Laver's victory in the final over Roche was delayed one day by rain, anyway.

Williams' path to this greatness is certain to find obstacles. Laver is living proof of that.

He is also living proof that Grand Slam success can bring lots of years of verandas overlooking plush golf courses, from where the next Grand Slam prospect can be advised on how this very special thing is done.

Twitter: @DwyreLATimes

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