Majors vs. Slams: A Minor Tennis Debate

There’s an etymological battle surrounding what to call sport’s four marquee tournaments; the late Bud Collins said ‘majors,’ Roger Federer says ‘Slams’

Bud Collins has departed us for the great round robin in the sky, which means two things for this year’s U.S. Open: The great American tennis tournament is no longer graced by the sport’s most beloved journalist and enthusiast, and there’s been a severe downturn in men’s style. Collins owned the planet’s most radiant slacks collection, and this year it appears that nobody has dared to step in and fill the colorful void. It’s all khakis and jeans and other uninspired buys at Old Navy and JoS. A Bank. The other day I wore cargo shorts. Cargo shorts! Bud, I am sorry. It’s worse than wearing a chicken suit to Wimbledon.

They’ve named the media center at the Open for Collins, which is nice, but his true legacy lives on in the spirit of people who care deeply about the game, and in particular about growing tennis in America. Jimmy Connors, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Björn Borg deserve plenty of credit, but if you fell in love with tennis in the ’70s and early ’80s, you probably owe Collins a royalty. And you absolutely should not be wearing cargo shorts to the U.S. Open. Again, Bud, I am so sorry.

I also apologize for slipping in an etymological battle that Collins cared deeply about: “majors” vs. “Slams.” To Collins, the four big tournaments of the year—the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open here in Queens—were “majors.” Only the completion of all four majors constituted a “Grand Slam,” a term borrowed not from baseball, but from bridge, as Collins himself noted in his essential history of the game. A handful of players have done it, but only one has pulled off two Grand Slams—the Aussie legend Rod Laver, first as an amateur and then as a professional.

“The Australian Open, despite all the trumpeting, is not a Grand Slam,” Collins once wrote. “Nor are Wimbledon, the French and the U.S. Opens. They are four majors. A true Grand Slam is winning all four within a calendar year. Alone at that summit: Americans Don Budge (1938) and Maureen Connolly (1953), Laver (1962 and 1969), [Margaret] Court (1970), [Steffi] Graf (1988).

“Connecting ‘Grand Slam’ with anyone else or any one championship is confusing to the public, and makes light of the rarest of deeds of the Quintessential Quintet—Budge, Connolly, Laver, Court, Graf.”

Collins could not stave off the trend. Today, virtually no one waits for somebody to win four majors before calling it a “Slam.” Now every tournament is a “Slam,” even though technically, it’s not a “Slam,” it’s a major. The players say “Slams” and coaches say “Slams” and the reporters and viewing public say “Slam,” too. In the modern usage, Serena Williams isn’t chasing her 23rd major—she’s chasing her 23rd Slam. Andy Murray is hunting for his fourth Slam.

Every time I hear it, I think of Bud Collins wincing like he broke a string. (Not really, he was too nice a guy. George Vecsey, the New York Times columnist, notes that Collins served as a historian and style authority for anyone who needed one. “We went to him for details and definitions, and he obliged,” Vecsey wrote in an email.)

I’m trying not to be a fuddy-duddy here. I’ve used “Slams” instead of “majors” countless times in stories and conversations. So have veteran tennis writers and friends of Collins like Tennis Magazine’s Peter Bodo. “Guilty on all counts,” Bodo says. “Bud is entirely right, but I’ve given it up…everyone is using it.”

This happens in every environment. Language evolves. Rules bend. Style changes. Tennis used to have strict fashion codes. Now everyone at the Open is in neon, dressed like an electric eel.

Roger Federer, who has won 17 majors, the most men’s singles titles ever, is widely seen as the classiest player in the modern game. If anyone were going to be traditional, it would be him. But Federer, too, uses “Slam.” Always has.

“I think it depends on where you come from,” Federer told me recently. “I call them ‘Grand Slams.’ I never called them ‘majors.’ To me, ‘majors’ comes from golf.”

A few feet away from Federer was Laver himself, who was in Manhattan to promote his 2017 Laver Cup tournament.

This was perfect. Right before me was the ultimate authority on the “Slams” vs. “majors” debate. It reminded me of the scene in “Annie Hall” where Woody Allen gets into an argument with a media professor rambling on about Marshall McLuhan, and says, “I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…” and fetches him from a corner.

Laver was philosophical about the change.

“There’s not much you can do about it,” he said, brightly. “They used to be called ‘majors,’ and the ‘Slam’ never existed. It’s a new take. And I think Bud was probably right, but people understand what a ‘Slam’ is.”

Laver said the first time he’d ever heard the term “Grand Slam” was at the U.S. Open in 1956, when he watched Australia’s Lew Hoad make an unsuccessful try to finish the feat versus Ken Rosewall. “Hoad was going for all four,” Laver said. “That’s where I understood what the ‘Grand Slam’ was.”

Tennis will always miss Bud Collins. But this sounds pretty authoritative, folks: Rod Laver is not mad if you call a major a Slam.

“It’s fine.”

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