Legends - Tony Roche: "And I won this final I shouldn't have played"
His coaching CV needs no introduction and is arguably the most impressive of anyone still active in the sport. He transformed Ivan Lendl into a winning machine in the 1980s, led Patrick Rafter to the top of the tennis world in the 90s and was by Roger Federer's side during the Swiss ace's stranglehold over the noughties, not to mention having performed stellar work for Tennis Australia both in a development role and at the helm of the Australian Davis Cup team. Yet before all of that, Tony Roche was a top-class player, a Roland-Garros champion in 1966 and a privileged witness of history in the making, during a period when Australia dominated the game and Rod Laver completed his two calendar-year Grand Slams. We journeyed down memory lane with him.
His memories of Roland-Garros
"I went into Roland-Garros in 1966 knowing I had a real chance of winning it. I'd reached the final the previous year and had won in Rome and Prague before arriving in Paris. When my compatriots started to fall by the wayside, it certainly helped my cause [in his five other Grand Slam singles finals appearances, Roche lost to a compatriot each time]. In those days, the Aussies were dominating. It wasn’t unusual for three of the four semifinalists to be Aussies in all the Slams… It all sort of fell into place for me I guess. So, when François Jauffret beat Roy Emerson, whom I was due to meet in the semis, I told myself that I couldn't afford to let that title get away. It was meant for me."
"I was in the singles final – which in those days was played on a Saturday, and the women’s on Sunday – and on the Friday evening John Newcombe and I were playing in the doubles semifinals. We were up against an American pair [Clark Graebner and Dennis Ralston] and I was serving, running to the net, and something in my ankle just went. I had to forfeit the match; I couldn’t walk. I was rushed off to hospital and the doctor said there was no way I could play the final the next day. So Australia’s official selector and team manager went to the tournament’s management committee and asked if there was any way the final could be postponed. They said they’d have to speak to my opponent, who was Istvan Gulyas; he was a Hungarian, 34 years of age, and the final meant a lot to him obviously, he wasn’t going to get too many more chances to win a Slam. He said, yeah, no problems. And then they had to get the women to agree to play their final on Saturday."
"It all fell into place – I ended up playing on Sunday. I had to get injections of painkillers in my ankle. And anyway, I went on and I won this final I shouldn't have played. But it was only through the generosity of Istvan, which was something very special. I couldn’t imagine a similar scenario playing out in today’s game. I have an extreme respect for Gulyas, a player who up until then I knew little about because he spoke no English, and he hailed from a country with a position behind the Iron Curtain that made international travel difficult for its athletes. But he was a real gentleman on the court. He was just one of those guys who would never ever question a call. I will always remember that he would always talk to himself. And whenever he would miss a shot, he would mutter to himself: ‘pardon Vischy’. That must’ve been his nickname, and he would say sorry to himself for making a bad error. He was a very special person."
Roland-Garros 1966 campaign (3rd seed)
Round of 128 : d. Andrzej Licis 7/5 4/6 6/1 4/6 2-0ret.
Round of 64 : d. Giuseppe Merlo 6/4 6/4 6/2
Round of 32 : d. Ronald Barnes 6/2 3/6 6/0 7/5
Round of 16 : d. Juan Gisbert (#14) 6/4 6/1 6/2
Quarter-finals: d. Alexander Metreveli 5/7 6/3 6/1 7/5
Semi-finals : d. François Jauffret (#10) 6/3 6/4 6/4
Final : d. Istvan Gulyas 6/1 6/4 7/5
His memories of clay
"Roland-Garros is special from point of view that I won there and was in three finals, and in the semis. So for four years, between 1965 and 1969, I played pretty well there; three finals and a semifinal, so that stands out as something special for me. I was a pretty decent serve-and-volley player, but I had a pretty good slice which was effective on clay and I was able to hit with quite a bit of topspin, even with the old wooden racquets in those days. If you combine all of those things, you can put a lot of pressure on your opponents, making them go for shots that they weren’t comfortable playing."
"Having become a coach very soon after the end of my playing career, I've missed very few editions of Roland-Garros since the early 1960s. I must have a good 50 under my belt, and I believe it's the Grand Slam tournament that's stayed truest to what it is, to its identity and history. It's never moved venue, it's never changed or modified its surface… Even though the game has evolved, largely due to advances in equipment, there is a sense of continuity between today's Roland-Garros and the one I knew as a player."
"What makes Roland-Garros a particularly difficult tournament, perhaps even the toughest of the four Grand Slams, is that the weather has a fundamental impact on the playing conditions. From one year to the next, depending on whether the tournament is played in humid conditions because of rain or, on the contrary, it's very sunny and so the courts are really dry, the clay reacts differently and the playing conditions are extremely different. And, because Roland-Garros is played in springtime, you never know in advance what the weather's going to be up to, and so what sort of tournament you're going to have. Every player has got to be prepared for and accept this unpredictability – which isn't easy for elite sportspeople who like to have everything under control – and just hope that their preferred weather conditions come about!"
His memories of tennis
"I was Rod Laver's last opponent en route to his Grand Slam in 1969. We met in the US Open final, some months after having faced off in an Australian Open semi-final played over five long sets in crazy heat [7/5 22/20 9/11 1/6 6/3, and the temperature on court was 45°C!]. He won that day and hadn't lost a Grand Slam match since. The final at the US Open was tight to begin with and I won the first set 9-7, but I was carrying a leg injury and I wasn't able to go the distance [7/9 6/1 6/2 6/2]. The American public didn't understand it at the time, especially as I didn't say anything [about the injury] back then because that match was so important to Rod… In any case, even if I hadn't been injured, frankly I'm not sure that I could've taken another two sets off Rod. I was happy for him to complete his Grand Slam: he deserved it. He had won all his big matches that year: after our semi in the Australian Open, while I was wiped out, he still went on to come out on top in a gutsy final against John Newcombe."
"I was 16 years old the first time I faced Rod Laver. It was in 1962, the year of his first calendar Grand Slam. I didn't come up against him after that until those two matches in 1969 – Laver had turned pro in the interim. While he was already strong in 1962, he was something else in 1969. His shots were more powerful and his game was more mature. But I always enjoyed playing him. For a competitor, it's always interesting to test yourself against the best, and I still take a measure of pride out of the fact that I was never embarrassed by him."
"I'm a bit too young to have known Lew Hoad during his heyday. I was only around by the time his numerous injuries had diminished the great champion he had once been. However, every time I've spoken to people who saw him in his prime, they've all told me that peak Hoad was even better than peak Laver. But Hoad's peak was very brief, whereas Laver stayed at the top for a long time."
"I have such a love for the game. Right from the beginning, from eight or nine years of age, that’s what I wanted to do. I was just lucky enough to achieve a lot out of the game and it’s given me so much in life, and I’m just happy to be able to give back a little bit."
Tony Roche won 15 Grand Slams as a coach : 7 with Ivan Lendl (US Open 1985, 1986, 1987; Roland-Garros 1986, 1987; Australian Open 1989, 1990); 2 with Patrick Rafter (US Open 1997, 1998) and 6 with Roger Federer (Wimbledon 2005, 2006; US Open 2005, 2006; Australian Open 2006, 2007).
Record at Roland-Garros
Singles : winner in 1966 ; finalist in 1965 and 1967 ; semi-finalist in 1969
Doubles : winner in 1967 and 1969 (with John Newcombe)
Mixed : semi-finalist in 1966 (with Judy Tegart)
Finalist Wimbledon 1968
Finalist US Open 1969 and 1970
Semi-finalist Australian Open 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1975
Winner of the Davis Cup in 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967 and 1977
Doubles : winner Australian Open 1965, 1967, 1971, 1976 and 1977; Wimbledon 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1974; US Open 1967
Mixed : winner Australian Open 1966 and Wimbledon 1976