Rod Laver

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy, published in 1990:

Rodney George Laver was the most astounding player I ever saw, and may have been the greatest ever. His record is without parallel. Consider what that record might have been but for his exclusion from 21 Grand Slam tournaments when he was, presumably, at his physical peak, between the ages of 24 and 29. Had professionals been eligible for those events, Lew Hoad might have had the better of laver for a year or so and Ken Rosewall would always have been worth an even-money bet. But one has to believe that from 1963 to 1967 Laver would have collected another bunch of major championships and perhaps a third Grand Slam. Laver overlapped and dominated two Grand Slam eras separated by seven years. He did so because he had it all. Because he was adventurer and artist in one. Because he could raise his game to any level demanded of it.

Laver was only 5ft 8 1/2in tall and usually weighed around 10st 71lb. But he had gigantic left arm and his speed and agility were breathtaking. The circumference of his left forearm was 12in and the wrist measured 7in. The strength of that wrist and forearm gave him blazing power without loss of control, even when he was on the run at full stretch. The combination of speed and strength, especially wrist-strength, enabled him to hit ferocious winners when way out of court – often when almost under the noses of the front ow of spectators. And he was a bow-legged, beautifully balanced, and as quick as a cat. He had some glorious matches with Rosewall – and with Tom Okker, who could match Laver’s speed and panache but was second-best in terms of strength and technical versatility. Laver also had the eyes of a hawk and fast anticipation and reactions. Like Budge, he was feckle-faced and had copper-coloured hair. Another distinguished feature was a long nose that, in spite of the kink in it, gave a false impression of hauteur. For much of his career Laver was confessedly shy and self-conscious, but there was no ‘side’ to him. He was easy going – except on court.

Marty Riessen once summed up Laver admirably: “To look at him walking around, you wouldn’t think he was world champion. He doesn’t stand out. His stature isn’t something you expect, like a Gonzales or a Hoad. Off the court, his personality seems almost retiring. But it’s as if he goes into a telephone booth and changes. On court he’s aggressive. Such a big change of personality – when a lot of players play the same as they act. What impresses me is his quickness. Speed enables him to recover when he’s in trouble. And the thing I learned from playing Laver is how consistent one can be with power. It’s amazing how he can keep hitting with such accuracy. He combines everything. There are a lot of good competitors. But he’s fantastic.”

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From Rod Laver’s book The education of a tennis player

Three of the Grand Slam tournaments are held in English-speaking countries, and an Australian gets along all right. The fourth is on alien ground – Parisian clay. The first time I saw Paris, in 1956, I had a few phrases ready in my atrocious French, so that I could eat and get to my hotel room. Bob Mark, who was my doubles partner, and I got taken for a few elaborate rides by the cab drivers, and we had trouble with the money, our pockets stuffed with francs that didn’t mean much. This was when the exchange rate was 350 to the dollar. The French seem less sympathetic to foreigners than other people, and the masterpieces of French cooking don’t do much for me, since I’m a typical Aussie, a steak-and-eggs man. You don’t need Maxim’s to fix that for you.

So Paris, as such, isn’t one of my favorite places, but I look forward to it because the French Championships is the tournament I enjoy the most from the standpoint of emotional involvement. I love to watch matches in Paris, grim struggles on that slow clay, beauties for the spectators.

When an Australian is playing, the rest of the Aussies show up for moral support because you know, if the opponent is European, and especially if he’s French, the gallery will be very anti-Australian.
That’s Europe. The crowds make more noise, they take it to heart, they cheer and boo. My introduction to Roland Garros, the tennis complex in the Bois de Boulogne, was a shaky experience in 1956. Bob Mark and I were playing a Davis Cup style junior match against a French team of Christian Viron and Mustapha Belkodja.
In the doubles, the crowd went all out for their countrymen, hissing us and even throwing some stones. They weren’t angry at us, but they didn’t leave any doubt about their sentiments. They really psyched us out, but you get used to that in Paris and Rome and Barcelona and Mexico City where the national pride seems to ride with every shot. When you realize this, the French tournament becomes great fun.