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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Manolo Santana Roland Garros

From Love Thirty, three decades of champions – published in 1990

One of the craziest anomalies of the 1960s, a decade in which the great champions were bared from the great tournaments, concerned two Spaniards born within nine months of one another duing the Civil War. There was nothing to choose between their levels of performance. But Andres Gimeno turned professional in 1960 and played his best tennis in the proud, exclusive environment of Jack Kramer‘s tour. Towards the end of the 1960s, only Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall were better players.
But superficial historians may recall Gimeno only as the chap who, at the age of 34, won the 1972 French championship from an unusually modest bunch of challengers. By contrast Santana stayed in the ‘shamateur’ ranks, picked up an impressive array of Grand Slam titles, had a wonderful Davis Cup record, became a national hero, and captivated everybody in sight. So Santana received far more publicity and achieved a bigger reputation, except among the cognoscenti. Santana played no better than Gimeno did but had the more spectacular game, the more crowd-pleasing court presence, and probably a greater depth of competitive self-belief.

First a word about Gimeno, who was Santana’s Davis Cup teammate from 1958 to 1960 and 1972-1973, winning 17 out of 22 singles and breaking even in ten doubles. Gimeno was 6ft 1 1/2in tall but looked even bigger because he was straight-backed, held his head high, and had a tiptoed style that suggested he was wary of damaging the court. His bearing was patrician, his manner courteous, his game elegant. Gimeno stroked the ball with the teasing flourish one associates with the bull-fighting breed. The forehand was his stronger flank and although it was sometimes said his backhand couldn’t break an egg, he placed the shot shrewdly.
Gimeno had a sure touch and made effective use of the lob. There was a purpose behind every shot he played and his game was as tidy in detail as it was sound in conception. But he had nothing that could really hurt his opponents and on big occasions he tended to be too highly strung, too diffident, to do himself complete justice. Gentleman that he was, Gimeno may have had too much respect for the likes of Laver and Rosewall.

Would Santana have done any better in that company? One doubts it. He turned down a professional offer because he considered he could more tournaments and more prestige, make more money, and have a more congenial lifestyle by remaining in the ‘shamateur’ ranks. There came a time when Santana and Roy Emerson, as the biggest fish in a thinly stocked pool, could command $1,000 to $1,500 a week. They had no illusion. They knew that they would be smaller fish in the professional pool. An embarrassing decision was forced upon them and they chose the course that suited their circumstances and their natures. It worked out pretty well for them and it worked out pretty well for Spain, too. By winning two Grand Slam titles on clay and two on grass, and twice guiding his country to the Davis Cup challenge round, Santana did even more for Spanish tennis (and the nation’s sporting reputation in general) than Severiano Ballesteros was to achieve via golf.[…]

Santana was the Ilie Nastase of the 1960s: less of an athlete, true but more disciplined in his conduct and his match-play, and in the same class when it came to artistic wizardry. An example of the shots they had in common what that rare flower, the chipped forehand, which both played with such facility that they might have been picking daisies. The joyous feature of their tennis was a common ability to mask their intentions. Their dextrous powers of deception were such that they consistently pulled off the tennis equivalent of the three-card trick.

Santana used every hue in the box during the 1961 French championships, in which he beat the top three seeds – Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Nicola Pietrangeli – to win his (and Spain’s) first major championship. Santana beat Laver 3-6 6-2 4-6 6-4 6-0. Laver led 4-1 in the fourth set but, emmeshed in a beautiful network of shot-making, could not win another game. In the final, Santana beat a kindred spirit, Pietrangeli, by 4-6 6-1 3-6 6-0 6-2. It was a sunny afternoon and the arena was as much an artists’ studio as a tennis stadium. Each man in turn stepped up to the canvas while the other was, so to speak, taking time off to mix his colours. The vast assembly could hardly believe their luck. Ultimately Pietrangeli, champion in the two previous years, had to admit that he was the second best. […]

They met again in the 1964 final but by that time Santana’s star had waxed and Pietrangeli’s was beginning to wane. On clay, Santana had proved all he needed to prove. So he concentrated his attention on the grass-court bastions: and had luck on his side in that, at Forest Hills and Wimbledon in turn, the most fancied contenders never turned his path. At Forest Hills he played only two seeds, Arthur Ashe (5th) and Cliff Drysdale (8th), and at Wimbledon he played only one, Dennis Ralston (6th). Never mind. Santana beat everybody he had to beat. He had conquered the ‘shamateur’ world on the two extremes of clay and grass.

There was an engaging but frustrating appendix to the years of glory. In the 1969 French championships Santana and Gimeno, both 31, clashed after a nine-year beak. It was Madrid vs Barcelona plus, for watching players, a leftover battle between the now united ‘shamateur’ and professional armies. For two sets, Gimeno was too nervous to play his best tennis, whereas Santana’s shot making had a subtle splendor about it. Then Gimeno settled down and in the stress of combat santana pulled a groin muscle and eventually had to retire. Gimeno won 4-6 2-6 6-4 6-4 1-0.

Santana and Gimeno had explored different avenues in their pursuit of fame and fortune. Their joint achievement was to lift Spanish tennis to a level it had never reached before: a level that was consolidated by Manuel Orantes and to some extent Jose Higueras. Orantes was runner-up for the 1974 French title and in 1975 he won the first of the three US Open contested on a gritty, loose-top surface.
That was a memorable triumph for two reasons. In a semi-final Vilas led Orantes by 6-4 6-1 2-6 5-0 and had five match points. Orantes won, but he was up half the night because he could not tourn off the bathroom tap and had to find a plumber. Then he went back on court and, in the final, gave Jimmy Connors a lesson in the craft of clay-court tennis.

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

“No matter how many times I played the French Open, it was still startling to come into Stade Roland Garros. You walked down through a tunnel. It was so dark that you were practically feeling your way, and then suddenly you were in the arena with 12000 people surrounding you, responding excitedly to your appearance. Maybe it’s like being the girl who pops out of a cake at a stag party.

From the minute we began, I couldn’t miss. Usually I was the one on the string as Kenny played me like a yo-yo. Not this time. I had perfect control, and everything I hit was going so deep that Kenny didn’t have much chanceto do anything but chase and scramble. I could get to the net all the time, and i was moving quickly either way to cut off his passing shots. I don’t know of any match I ever enjoyed more because I just kept getting better, and the points rolled in.

I never took Rosewall for granted. He never got his due. I thought about it before the match. He’d won this title in 1953, at the time I was deciding tennis would be my career. I was fifteen. Fifteen years later, he won it again. In 1971, he won the Australian title that he first won eighteen years earlier. In 1974, at the age of 39, he reached the final of both Wimbledon and the US Open, losing both to Jimmy Connors. He even won a pro title at age 43 in 1977. There are no comparable feats in tennis history.
I wondered if, having won the French for the first time in 1962, I’d even be playing it in 1977. How many times would Kenny have won it if he hadn’t turned pro, or if open tennis had come sooner?

Kenny and I have brought the very best out of each other, but the day of the 1969 French Open final was not one for sentimentality. 12000 people wanted to see us do it again. After leading 3-1 in the first, I fell behind 3-4 as he won three games in a brisk streak. I held for 4-4 and broke him to take the first consequential step;

The first set was mine at 6-4 and my confidence was soaring. If I couldn’t keep my shots near his baseline, I was in trouble with Kenny because he took anything short with his backhand, ramed it into a corner while he dashed to the net. He may not have been a heavy hitter, but when he got position at the net his volleys were crisp and well angled.

But my groundstrokes were working so well and landing so deeply that he was having trouble getting to the position he liked. He couldn’t swoop in on the short balls simply because I wasn’t offering him that many. I kept him pinned behind the baseline and you can’t hit an approach from back there. Sometimes he tried, but he had too far to go to reach the net, and I was passing him.

My volleys were charmed, and I spent most of the points finishing off points with them. My deep groundstrokes kept me at the net, and Kenny away.
Straight sets in a French final? I couldn’t quite believe it when I completed the 6-4 6-3 6-4 victory. Monetarily it meant $7000.