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Opinion

The spooky sporting dream whose name dare not be spoken

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30th January, 2020
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Are there are some sporting dreams that are just so big that nobody has the nerve to proclaim them?

Take that rarest of birds, the tennis grand slam – winning the Australian, French, Wimbledon and US titles within a calendar year. Only five players have done it: Don Budge (1938), Maureen Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (1962 and 1969), Margaret Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988).

Surely it sits in the heart of every tennis player, but have you ever heard anyone publicly declare that one of their goals was to win the grand slam?

Crack the top 50. Sure. Break into the top ten. Why not? Win a major. Yep. Win the grand slam? No way.

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Maybe it’s got something to do with its origins. At the end of 1937, when the great American champion Don Budge set off to Australia, he kept a closely guarded secret: to win all four majors that year. He told no one of his plan, except for his good friend and doubles partner, Gene Mako, who he had sworn to secrecy. In one of sport’s greatest moments of irony, Budge ended up having to beat Mako in the US singles final to achieve his dream.

Budge’s secrecy was aimed at minimising the publicity and pressure he knew would build the closer he got to fulfilling his goal. Over the years, Budge’s prescience has been confirmed.

You only have to recall how both Martina Navratilova (in 1984) and Serena Williams (in 2015) fell at the last hurdle of their grand slam attempts under the weight of the hype and pressure. Both inexplicably lost in semi-final matches to opponents they were expected to beat easily. Navratilova lost to Helena Sukova and Williams lost to Roberta Vinci.

Serena Williams plays a backhand

For all her dominance, Serene Williams has never claimed the grand slam. (Photo by Fred Lee/Getty Images)

In 2019, Dylan Alcott was a hot favourite to complete the grand slam in wheelchair singles. Just as inexplicably, he was walloped in the final of the US championships by Brit Andy Lapthorne 6-1, 6-0. In the Wimbledon final, a few months prior, Alcott had defeated Lapthorne with the loss of only two games.

Maybe the idea of winning the grand slam has become so big and so daunting that not only do you dare not proclaim it as a goal, but maybe its mythical nature places it beyond the control of mere mortals?

Sounding a little far-fetched? Well, consider this.

Don Budge won the first grand slam in 1938. This is the same year Rod Laver was born. In 1969, Rod Laver won his second grand slam, the same year that Maureen Connolly – the first woman to complete the grand slam in 1953 – died. 1969 was also the year Steffi Graf, who won the grand slam in 1988, was born. And 1988, the last time the grand slam was achieved, marked 50 years since Don Budge won it in 1938.

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Spooky, huh? Just make sure you keep it to yourself.

Check out Off The Frame, a new, quirky and off-beat podcast exploring the outer limits of the world of tennis.