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Rod Laver’s historic Slam resonates as Djokovic closes in

Rain had beaten down the iconic West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, N.Y., game, set and grass-soaked match as it tried to tie a bow on the 1969 men’s final of the U.S. Open.

Drying in the wings? History, of the unprecedented and deliciously impossible kind. Rod Laver was trying to become the first person to complete a calendar-year sweep of the tennis majors in the everyone-plays-everyone Open Era.

Laver already had accomplished it seven years earlier, as an amateur under different competitive circumstances. The thought of doing it at all boggled tennis minds. Twice? Against every wooden racket at the ready? Did someone spike your strawberries and cream?

The final against Australian countryman Tony Roche was delayed a day and still, organizers had to rent a helicopter to hover above the stadium court to dry the surface.

While losing the first set, Laver also was losing his footing. He switched from sneakers to spikes, winning 20 of the next 29 games. The calendar Grand Slam complete, the sport’s measuring stick for class showed rare emotion by jumping over the net.

How did Laver, the greatest of his generation and arguably the best of all time, celebrate the sport’s Mt. Everest of achievements?

Hunting for change.

“At that particular time, my wife (Mary) was pregnant with my son, Rick,” Laver, a Carlsbad resident, recalled this week. “Back then, you needed a dime to make a phone call. I’m running around asking all the reporters, ‘I need a dime. I want to call my wife and let her know what happened.’

“I guess that’s how I celebrated.”

Laver has traveled back to New York, 52 years later, to see if the dusty feat can be accomplished again.

Novak Djokovic, who faces Alexander Zverev in a U.S. Open semifinal Friday, stands two matches away from running the withering tennis gauntlet. Winning also would mean lurching ahead of contemporary giants Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slam singles titles, at 21.

If Djokovic polishes off the quartet — after wins in the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon — Laver plans to be there to shake his hand.

“Maybe, ‘Hey, welcome to the club,’ ” said Laver, 83, when asked what he planned to say if Djokovic succeeds. “I’ve been through it, so I know there’s pressure all the time. You have to prove yourself again and again.

“It’s a tough, tough road. Hats off to him.”

The current era makes the calendar run uniquely difficult. That’s because Nadal is a clay-court ninja, winning the French Open 13 times among his 20 Grand Slam crowns. That makes him a massive roadblock on the way to history.

In this year’s semifinal at Roland Garros, Djokovic lost the first set to Nadal before rallying. In the final against Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, he trailed by two sets before a 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 flourish.

“I wasn’t really thinking about someone winning (the calendar slam), when you look at the people who have won various tournament,” Laver said. “The top players are so good that someone is going to knock you out. Unless you can beat (Nadal) at the French, you don’t have a chance at the slam.”

The combination of focus and fearlessness makes Djokovic so formidable.

“His consistency is certainly the big thing,” Laver said. “And his concentration level. He hardly makes an error when the chips are down. And he loves to compete. If he wins it, I’d be honored to present him with the trophy.”

So, so much has changed since hopping that net in New York.

The son-in-waiting, Rick, is in his 50s. Laver’s late wife Mary, who he lost in 2012, lived a 46-year marriage with the tennis star. The winning check of $16,000 in 1969, a little over $119,000 in today’s dollars, pales in comparison to the $2.5 million set aside for Sunday’s winner.

The words of storied late TV icon Bud Collins continue to ring true, though, more than a half-century later.

“He’s the slammer, the grand slammer …” Collins said as he called the match. “It’s undoubtedly the finest achievement in the history of this game.”

And it continued to be, decade upon decade.

“All I can say is that I’m the luckiest fella in this stadium,” Laver said then.

If Djokovic wins the Open, Laver no longer needs that dime.

But he might need a tissue.