When the Swiss tennis star Roger Federer won the French Open on June 7, he tied Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles and become only the sixth player in history to win all four Grand Slam events (the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. and Australian Opens). In the GOAT Debate Greatest of All Time Federer now has only one rival: Rod Laver, the Australian star who not only won all four Slams, but twice did so in a calendar year (in 1962 and 1969). Laver's total of 11 Grand Slam titles could have been higher had he not been forced out of major events from 1963 to 1968, when Slams were open only to amateurs. Now 70, Laver spoke to TIME from his home in California.
Did you get up early to watch the match on Sunday?
Yes. It was quite a match. I had nothing but joy for Roger. He's a great individual. But most of all, he's an enjoyable player to watch.
How often are you in touch with Federer?
I saw him at the Australian [Open] this year and had a chance to chat with him a little bit. When we talk, he always says stuff like "Tell me about 1962!" Or, "Tell me about those wooden rackets!" He's a great historian of the game and is always curious. There's such a contrast between our eras. When I took off in 1956, it took three days to get from Sydney to Rome. Now they do it in half a day.
How different is the actual tennis?
There's a huge difference. In my career, everyone used a little wooden racket. You see players today standing 10 feet behind the baseline and hitting clean winners. That's when I say to myself, "This is not a game I know much about." There's always a lot of talk on whether today's players could play with a wooden racket. I'm sure Federer could. But other players would battle just to enjoy the game with a wooden racket. They'd make so many mistakes.
Is that because Federer's strokes are better suited to a wooden frame?
He just has such natural talent. He would adjust.
Federer is such a misty personcrying whether he wins or loses, most famously when you presented the trophy to him at the Australian Open in 2006. What do you make of these moments?
I remember at Wimbledon a few years ago he was being interviewed by the BBC. They said, This is the fourth time you've won the tournament, and just hearing that he started welling up. That's just Roger. He's an emotional individual. He cares a lot about what he does and what it means.
When you were chasing the calendar Grand Slam, were you aware of the record books?
I remember watching Lew Hoad in 1956 in the U.S. Open he had three legs of the calendar Grand Slam but lost to Ken Rosewall in the final. I was in the stands, and in the back of my head I said to myself, "I want to try that, I want to win the Slam." But it wasn't anything to do with the record books, really. In 1969 [the second year in which Laver won the Slam], what really motivated me was just the thrill of being back at Wimbledon and these other great tournaments.
So now that Federer has won the career Grand Slam, let's set the record straight. Who is the greatest player of all time? You've said before that all a player can hope for is to be the best in his or her era.
To be the best in your era is important, but maybe when Roger is in retirement, people will say, "Look at all these things he's accomplished. He's got to be the greatest player that ever lived." That's the way I think most people would look at his accomplishments.
Well, let me ask you the same question in a different way: Who would win if you were to play Federer in your prime?
I'd pit myself against anyone with a wooden racket, I'll say that.