When talk turns to the identity of the greatest male player of all time the argument usually boils down to a choice between Rod Laver and Roger Federer. However, there is one other Australian who surely deserves a place in any such discussion. Roy Emerson, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, won 12 Grand Slam singles titles – one more than Laver – and 16 in doubles. His combined total is a record in men’s tennis.
Emerson, who won the Gentlemen’s Singles title at The Championships in 1964 and 1965 and the doubles in 1959, 1961 and 1971, is the only man to have won all four Grand Slam titles in both singles and doubles.
Following the departure of Laver to the professional ranks at the end of 1962, Emerson dominated in the years leading up to the Open era. He had already won two Grand Slam singles titles when Laver was still an amateur, beating his great Australian rival in the finals in Melbourne and New York in 1961.
When Laver won his first calendar-year Grand Slam the following year Emerson was his opponent in three of the four finals. The only final Emerson did not reach that year was at The Championships, where he retired hurt in the fourth round against Martin Mulligan, the eventual runner-up.
After Laver had turned professional, “Emmo” went on a stunning run. Between 1963 and 1967 he won 10 more Grand Slam singles titles. By the end of his career he had triumphed twice in Paris, Wimbledon and New York and six times in his home country.
He needed all his powers of endurance to do so. Nikki Pilic and Wilhelm Bungert proved particularly stubborn opponents in the second round and semi-finals respectively before Emerson met his fellow countryman, Stolle, in the final. Emerson won 6-4, 12-10, 4-6, 6-3.
Twelve months later Fletcher, Keith Diepraam and Dennis Ralston all took sets off Emerson before a rematch with Stolle in the final. Emerson won 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 as Stolle finished runner-up for the third year in a row. Stolle often partnered Emerson in doubles but rarely got the better of him in singles, losing to his great friend in five Grand Slam finals.
Emerson, who was also a mainstay of Australia’s all-conquering Davis Cup teams of the 1950s and 1960s, was the top seed again at The Championships in 1966, when he appeared to be coasting after four successive straight-sets victories. In the quarter-finals he took the first set against his fellow countryman, Owen Davidson, with something to spare, but the match turned when he suffered an injury after running into the umpire’s chair while chasing down a drop shot. Davidson went on to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, 6-4.
Although Emerson won at least three singles matches every year in his next five appearances at The Championships, a new wave of players were coming through and he never went beyond the quarter-finals again. However, he was not one to give any opponent an easy ride. In 1970, at the age of 33, he lost 9-11 in the fifth set to the eventual champion, John Newcombe, who was seven years his junior. Emerson had turned professional in 1968, just before the start of the Open era.
In 1971 Emerson claimed his 28th and last Grand Slam title at The Championships when he partnered Laver to victory in the men’s doubles final against Ralston and Arthur Ashe. Typically, they won 4-6, 9-7, 6-8, 6-4, 6-4 after a hard-fought marathon. It was a fitting end to a wonderful Wimbledon career which had begun 17 years earlier.