The Rocket Rod Laver

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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1973 Australian Davis Cup team

From Rod Laver‘s autobiography The education of a tennis player:

“The ITF, in a rare burst of sense and forgiveness, announced in 1973 that all pros were now eligible for Davis Cup. She’ll be apples! That’s an old Aussie expression for good days ahead.

And I got the Davis Cup itch again after years of feeling it was no longer for me. Why not? But, realistically, I was 35, not at my very best, and for a very long time hadn’t been involved in the most stifling of tennis pressure, Davis Cup – yes, greater than a Wimbledon final. Especially in Australia where so much success had raised expectations to the clouds. I hadn’t been on the team for 11 years, a lark, overrunning Mexico in 1962. But I was getting itchy to prove myself since the 1960-61 Cups were also romps, over Italy. The lone tough encounter of my four winning teams was the U.S. in 1959, and I lost both singles, to Barry Mac-Kay and Alex Olmedo. Only the presence of Neale Fraser, winning both singles plus the doubles with Emmo, saved us.

Now I had to talk to Fraser, the successor as captain to Hopman. A good friend, but very practical. Was I up to it? And how would the other guys feel about a newcomer at this stage? They had won two series to lift the team to the semis. Happily, I was accepted by my mates: Newcombe, Rosewall, Geoff Masters, Ross Case, Mal Anderson. They just wanted to win for Australia. If I could help, fine.
But could I? Fraser wasn’t at all sure. The acid test prior to the semifinal against Czechoslovakia was the Australian Indoor Championships in Sydney. Captain Fraser made it clear that I’d have to do well to have any chance to play against the Czechs.
I worked my bum off to get fitter than I’d been in almost a year. The lineup of would-be Laver-flatteners was daunting. In the quarters, it was Raul Ramirez, the quick, sharp-volleying Mexican, and I got him, 6-3 6-4. Next, world No. 6 Rosewall. Where did they find him? I barely escaped, 6-4 3-6 8-6. Finally, it was No. 2 Newcombe, in a roaring five sets, 3-6 7-5 6-3 3-6 6-4.
Captain Fraser shook my hand with, “Rocket, welcome to the team.”

It couldn’t have been a nicer setting after gloomy, rickety Hordern Pavilion, site of the Indoor. We were in Melbourne for the semi, plenty of November sunshine heralding the onset of summer on the famed grass courts of Kooyong. The Czechs would have preferred clay, but Jan Kodes, a future Hall of Famer, could handle the lawn. He’d won Wimbledon and was finalist to Newcombe at Forest Hills only months before.
For the last time, my parents saw me play, and fortunately I didn’t let them down. Or Fraser and the country. It was extremely difficult, though. After I stopped Kodes, 6-3 7-5 7-5, Jiri Hrebec, wildly erratic, put it all together to stun the crowd as well as Newcombe – on grass! – 6-4 8-10 6-4 7-5. Now Rosewall and I were on the same side for a change, and we needed each other in a long, demanding go-ahead doubles over Vladimir Zednik and Kodes, 6-4 14-12 7-9 8-6. That left it up to me to tame Hrebec (seldom heard from again) 5-7 6-3 6-4 4-6 6-4 settling it.

We were on our way to Cleveland, a quartet called, by my co-author, “Captain Fraser’s Antique Show”Rosewall, 39; Laver, 35; Mal Anderson, 38; Newcombe, 29. Rosewall had been away from Cupping for 17 years, Anderson for 15, Laver, as I said, for 11, Newcombe for six, Fraser for 10. Never been anything like it.

We were old enough to go out alone, but nobody wanted to in the December chill of downtown Cleveland. What a place for a Cup final. Old, vast, drafty Public Hall, attracted few people to see us do our stuff: a 5-0 triumph that ended the U.S. streak of five years and a record 15 encounters. A terrible promotion. Some writers were calling us the greatest of all Davis Cup teams, yet nobody wanted to see us (maybe 7,000 for three days) or the home heroes.
It didn’t matter to us. We wanted Yank heads to show that the, shall we say mature, Aussies were still breathing. And we got them on an overly drawn out Friday night and a brief Saturday afternoon. Newcombe led off with a mixture of uncharacteristic spins, soft stuff, plus his usual muscle to overcome Stan Smith in five 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Then Tom Gorman and I went at it furiously, charging the net, serving and-volleying for five more sets. A bit of revenge for Wimbledon ’71 was mine, 8-10 8-6 6-8 6-3 6-1.

Fraser decided he wanted two forehands down the middle plus troublesome serving in picking me and Newc to conclude the assignment. We fast-finished the Yanks, Erik van Dillen and Smith, 6-1 6-2 6-4. How pleasant to have the company of our old friend, the Cup, again, and swill victory grog from it. Long time no guzzle for all of us. My Davis Cup itch had been unexpectedly scratched.”

Watch out Australia’s winning team of 1973 reflect on their famous 5-0 victory over the United States in Cleveland.