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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Excerpt of Ilie Nastase‘s autobiography Mr Nastase:

“I remember being in a hurry to beat my first round opponent, the Venezuelan Velasco (6-0 6-2 6-0), because I had to rush off to meet Dominique at the airport that afternoon as she had flown in from Brussels.
My second round match against Roger Taylor was much tougher, and it all came down to 5th set tie-break. This was the third year that tie-breaks had been used, and at Forest Hills they played a sudden death, a nine-point version where the first player to get to five points won. This, together with the terrible grass courts where bad bounces were the nom, meant that the whole thing became a whole lottery. I won that tie-break 5-1, but it had been a narrow escape, especially since I had initially led the match by two sets to love, only to let Taylor draw back level to two sets all.

After that major scare, my path through to the final of the US Open was a lot easier. In successive rounds, I beat a lefthander from France, Patrice Dominguez, the South African doubles specialist Bob Hewitt, then Fred Stolle, who had earlier got rid of Newcombe in my half of the draw, and finally, Tom Gorman, against who I had a very good record.

In the final, I was due to meet Arthur Ashe, who had won the title back in 68 and who, as a player, possessed both power and finesse.
The all-white rule had been abandoned at Forest Hills that year, so I picked out a pale blue Fred Perry shirt and white shorts. I loved being able to do that. No more daily shirt washing. For the rest of my career, I would always play my singles matches in a new outfit and would use the older clothes for the doubles or the practice. Later on, when I signed with adidas, in 1975, I used to have enormous boxes of clothes in my house in France, one box for shirts, one for shorts, one for shoes, and so on. I think I was the first player to do that. […]

The grass courts favored my game, and their softness made my drop shots bounce very low, like in water, as Ashe said afterwards. I didn’t think that I was going to win, but I knew I could. I was thinking that getting to the final was not enough, but I knew that match was going to be difficult, because this was on grass and I was playing Ashe who was good on grass. If I had been playing him on clay, it would have been peanuts for me. I was quick and I remember getting some unbelievable balls back.

I recall one point in particular: at Forest Hills the Centre Court was actually three courts side by side. The one you played the final on was the middle one. This meant you could un wide on both sides. On this particular point, Arthur came to the net and played a cross-court volley onto my backhand but so far away that I had to run onto the next court to get it. I ran into the doubles lines on that court, hit the ball ound the net, and put it in the corner. I did that because I knew intuitively he was going to hit it there, so I started running in advance, ten metes onto the other court. That point stuck in my memory because it was so fantastic, and it gave me and the crowd such pleasure. […]

Ashe broke me at the start of the 5th set but, instead of crumbling, I immediately broke him back. I felt strong, mentally and physically, and carried on playing in the same risky way I always do, but at that stage everything was working. I broke him again to lead 4-2, then, keeping my nerve, finally took the set 6-3 and the US Open title with it. At the end I remember jumping around like a madman for something like five minutes, because I was so unbelievably happy to have won. I never thought I could win such a big tournament on grass because I still didn’t feel comfortable on the stuff, so to win against somebody as good as Arthur, and in such a tight match, that felt great. It also felt like justice was done, after Wimbledon. That’s what it was: vindication.”