Less than a decade after he won all four of tennis' major championships in 1969 to complete a single-season Grand Slam, Rod Laver was convinced that an indefatigable kid by the name of Bjorn Borg would match the feat.
Later, Laver saw Boris Becker emerge and was convinced once again: OK, this guy is going to do it.
Well, here we are, more than 40 years later, and no man has been able to equal Laver's accomplishment. Not Borg or Becker. Not John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors. Not Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi. Not even Roger Federer, who won the Australian Open in January, and so can continue to pursue a true Grand Slam when the year's second major tournament, the French Open, begins May 23.
"It's surprising no one has quite pulled it off. I thought there were people who might," Laver said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "But all it takes is one bad match, anywhere along the whole year. You've got to stay fit. Can't have injury or illness. Can't have a bad draw."
Undeniably great as Federer is — he owns a record 16 major titles, at least one each from the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open — the calendar-year Grand Slam has eluded him. There's no shame in that, of course. Consider: Only two men in the history of tennis have managed to do it, Don Budge in 1938, and Laver in 1962 and '69. Three women have won true Grand Slams; the most recent was Steffi Graf in 1988.
"They've been talking about it for many years: 'Laver was the last one; maybe someone can do it.' But all the great players have been trying to do it, and so far, no one has," Borg told the AP. "If there's anyone who can do that, it's Federer. He's kind of an artist on the court. He has no weaknesses. He makes unbelievable shots. He can play on all kind of different surfaces."
Indeed, Federer has come quite close.
He won three of the four major tournaments in 2004, 2006 and 2007, falling short at the French Open each year. In 2006 and 2007, Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in four-set finals at Roland Garros, meaning he was a mere two sets shy of finishing the Grand Slam.
Since 1969, two other men also have won three-fourths of a Grand Slam: Connors in 1974 (he was barred from competing at the French Open that year because he signed to play in World Team Tennis), and Mats Wilander in 1988 (he lost in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon).
In a postmatch news conference after Federer won this year's Australian Open, the 28-year-old from Switzerland was asked about the possibility of chasing the ever-elusive milestone.
"I won't just put the entire calendar just around trying to win the calendar Grand Slam. I mean, it's something if it happens, it does, it's great; but it's not something that's, like, my No. 1 goal. Not at all," Federer said. "It's the same as I haven't put a number on how many (major titles) I want to try to win. Whatever happens, happens."
Why hasn't it happened — for him or any other man — since Laver?
"I put it down to the competition. That's one big reason no one's won a Grand Slam," Laver said. "Not that there weren't a lot of good players when I played, but you're looking at just so many more players in the world, whether it be from Argentina or Serbia or France or Spain. There's just a whole new era of young, talented players popping up all the time."
In explaining why he thinks a Grand Slam is "quite improbable" these days, International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti also points to the depth in the men's game and notes that "the season is much more taxing."
Plus, in Laver's time, the four major championships all were contested on either grass or clay. More versatility is required now: Wimbledon is played on grass, the French Open on clay, and the Australian Open and U.S. Open use different types of hard courts. There are players who excel on a certain surface, tailoring their games and focusing their efforts, and therefore can present obstacles at a particular place.
Like Federer, Serena Williams won this year's Australian Open, so she heads to Roland Garros as the only woman with a chance at a Grand Slam in 2010. Like Federer, Williams already has won each of the major tournaments at least once (her total is 12).
Unlike Federer, however, Williams already has won four major titles in a row, albeit over two seasons, capped by the 2003 Australian Open. And unlike Federer, Williams does not shy from saying she thinks about going 4 for 4 this year.
"Of course it's in my mind," the American said at this month's Italian Open. "I would be lying if I said it wasn't."
Count Laver, Borg and Ricci Bitti among those who think it would be a boost for tennis if Federer or Williams were to end the decades-long Grand Slam drought — or even come close, drawing extra attention to the sport by heading to New York this September already having secured victories in Melbourne, Paris and London.
"I hope one day that someone will do it," said Borg, who won six titles at the French Open from 1974-81, and five at Wimbledon from 1976-80. He lost four U.S. Open finals and only once entered the Australian Open, which was held at the end of the year back then.
Laver, don't forget, did not compete in the four major championships from 1963-67 because he turned professional, and pros weren't allowed into the Grand Slam events until 1968. So he completed two Grand Slams in a span of three seasons in which he entered those tournaments.
Perhaps precisely because he made the remarkable seem routine, Laver was not presented with much in the way of hardware to commemorate his accomplishment.
"It's not like I ever got a trophy that said, 'Hey, this is a Grand Slam.' That doesn't change anything, because I still did those things in '62 and '69," said the Australian, who lives in California. "I don't have a lot of trophies that show I've won these four tournaments. The little, tiny thing from the French championships — you could hardly put an egg in it. And the U.S. Open gave me a little, tiny gold ball, the kind of thing you would put on a key chain for a lady."
U.S. Open organizers have had informal discussions in recent years about how to recognize the historic moment if someone were to wrap up a Grand Slam at their tournament.
Laver has been keeping tabs on what happens, too, and would consider Federer a worthy heir.
"If he could pull it off," Laver said, "I'd like to be the first to shake his hand."
AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this report.