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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John Newcombe, Australian Open 1975

From John Newcombe’s autobiography Newk:

I was really in no mood to play in the 1975 Australian Open, which began in the last week of ’74 at Melbourne’s Kooyong. I wanted to relax and have fun with family and friends over Christmas, and for some time, I’d been arguing the point with the organisers of the Open. Many players were skipping the event because they refused to sacrifice Christmas. I argued that if only it could be put back a few weeks, till the end of January, there’s be a stellar list of competitors.

I told tournament director John Brown that I wouldn’t be playing. I was jaded, I wasn’t motivated, and not having played in a tournament for nearly two months I was rusty and about 4 kilos overweight. I told Brown that the only thing that could make me reconsider would be if Jimmy Connors was competing – and I was sure he’d be giving the Open a miss. Then, 11 days before the tournament, Brown rang me and said that Connors had decided to play, and asked whether this changed my decision. ‘Give me an iron-clad guarantee that Jimmy is definitely going to be there, and I’ll sign up right now,” I replied. Jimmy was coming, and it was on: the tennis championship of the world.

I struggled throughout the early rounds of the Open. In spite of my training regimen, I was uninspired and inconsistent. My fans despaired as 19-year-old German rookie Rolf Gehring took me to five sets in the second round. I was not playing well, but I was winning.
At the end of the first week, there was some rain, so the second half of the Open was concertinaed into three days, with the final of the singles to be played on New Year’s Day. I played Geoff Masters in the quarterfinals and he had me down two sets to one before I beat him 10-8 in the fifth. Then I played a doubles quarterfinal with Tony Roche, which we won, and the next day I had to face Tony in the singles semifinal. This was a gruelling program, so before I played Rochey, I went to see Stan Nicholes, our old Davis Cup trainer, and he massaged my legs for two hours, pushing all the lactic acid out of them, and when I squared off against Tony I felt good.

I needed to because this match was probably one of the hardest I ever played. As mentioned previously, Tony and I had a habit of going all out against each other, and this was no exception. Again, the match went to five sets. At one point in that deciding set, Tony had me 5-2 down. Then, somehow, I finished up beating him 11-9 in what became a marathon.
To this day, I have no recall of that fifth set. I was so physically and mentally exhausted I played on instinct alone. At the end, as the 12,000-strong crowd gave Rochey and me a standing ovation, Channel 7’s on-court commentator, Mike Williamson, came to interview me. I have no memory of that either, but he says I sat there on my chair with a towel over my head staring glassily ahead, reminding him of a boxer who’d just copped a 12-round hammering. Apparently I managed to quip:

‘I can certainly think of better ways to prepare for a final against Jimmy Connors. I feel as old as Ken Rosewall right now.’

But really, all I wanted to do was cry. That exhausting semi had taken me somewhere my brain and body had never been before.
Later, after I’d showered, I sat for a while with Tony and said:

‘Mate, I’ve got to play Connors tomorrow in the final. I can’t play in the doubles. Can we default?’

Like the true friend he is, Rochey didn’t hesitate to let me off the hook. Next, I returned to Stan and he pummeled my legs for another two hours. After that, I had the quietest New Year’s Eve of my life.

On 1 January 1975, I woke feeling fresh and not hurting too much, considering. I jogged 2 kilometres to loosen up, then went to the courts to play Jimmy Connors.
I wasn’t intimidated by him. Perhaps I should have been? The man who had been likened to boxer Joe Frazier – ‘he keeps coming at you’ – had waged a brilliant Open campaign, thrashing all comers on his way to the final. He was an unbackable favourite with the bookies, but not the crowd.
Throughout, his brashness had annoyed local fans, especially when he arrogantly dismissed the 37 Australian players in the tournament. ‘I don’t care how many they are,’ he boasted. ‘Bring them on one after another. I’ll beat them all.’

Connors and I played probably the greatest, certainly the most intensely fought, Australian Open final ever. It was a blazing hot day, the flies were terrible, the atmosphere electric and the crowd noisy and parochial, yet of my life so focused was I that I could have been playing on the moon. I knew I was in for the fight against a skilled and implacable opponent who’d destroyed everyone who’d crossed his path. Also, at 30 years of age and having just played that killer match against Tony, I wasn’t sure if my body could take it. I had to put myself into the zone and be in tune with everything that was happening inside me.

Against all the predictions, and to the delight of the fans, I won the first set 7-5, which led one character in the crowd to yell at Connors ‘What happened Mouth?’ Jimmy then broke me in the second set and easily held his service to win 6-3.

In the third I broke him, then he broke me, then I broke him again to win 6-4. That first break has gone down as a memorable moment in Australian tennis history. With Jimmy serving at 0-15 and me leading 3-2, three contested line calls in a row – the third one an ace – gave him a 40-15 lead. I was angry, and the crowd was angry, booing and catcalling at the injustice they reckoned I’d copped. Then Jim did an odd thing: he deliberately double-faulted in an attempt to pacify the crowd. It worked. The fans, so against Connors right through the tournament, suddenly cheered him for his good sportmanship. But he’d let me back into the game and I took ruthless advantage of what I considered was his patronising and overconfident benevolence. I couldn’t believe what he’d done. I’m all for playing fair, but not to the point of martyrdom. Every player gets bad calls and you have to live with them.

In the fourth set, I was on top 5-3 after a few aces (I served 17 in that final) and was serving for the match. At this stage I had some energy left but I was starting to feel totally buggered. Normally I’d train two to three months for a Grand Slam event and, having put in the hard work, my condition would always see me through. But this time, with just 10 days training under my belt, I was way underdone. From the first point of the final, I conserved every ounce of energy. I didn’t smile a lot, didn’t show much emotion. Between points I walked slowly and calmly and breathed deeply. I knew Jimmy would take me to the wire and I prayed I had enough left to accomodate him.

Connors didn’t disappoint me. At 3-5 down in that fourth set, when many other guys would have packed it in, Jimmyplayed like a tiger to try to save the match. He pulled off an unbelievable game to break me, clouting some tremendous winners. Racing around the court like a dervish, he got me to a tie-break. First I went ahead, then he went ahead and served for the set at 6-5 in the tie-break. I battled to tie the score 6-6, then Connors went ahead 7-6. Finally, I finished off his brave flurry: he lost three points in a row and I ended his agony with a serve to win the set 7-6. […]

After the match I was euphoric, and embraced Angie and the kids. It was an emotionally charged presentation at courtside, and not only because of the classic match Jimmy and I had played, or Evonne Goolagong‘s win over Martina Navratilova so soon after the death of Evonne’s dad, Ken, in a car accident. Just a week before the fianl, Cyclone Tracy had levelled Darwin, and the nation was bruised and hurting? I auctioned my racquet for $1400 to benefit Darwin’s homeless and then, even though I was wrecked, I played a fundraiser exhibition match at the Hodern Pavilion to raise more money.

Roger Federer interview by Arthur Pralon for L’Equipe, translated by Tennis Buzz

Q: How the idea of an association with Stefan Edberg was born?
After my split with Paul Annacone (in October), I finished the season with Severin (Lüthi), then he and I, we discussed. We asked ourselves if we needed someone else in the team. Who? Why? How many weeks a year? I only had a few names in mind , and Stefan was one of them.
I really did not think he would be available, because he’s been off the circuit for 15 years. But he is one of my childhood hero so I said: Why not try to contact him. He needed a lot of time to make his decision, he really was not sure of himself! (Laughs.) But he was very flattered and he finally agreed .
He came to Dubai and spent a week all three (with Severin), so that he get an idea of my daily life, because all the top players have their own arrangement. I wanted him to meet my family, my team, so that he feels the most comfortable possible. After that, I asked him again whether he wanted to work with me and he agreed.

Q: How will you organize?
Severin keeps travelling with me most of the time, and Stefan has agreed to accompany me at least ten weeks a year, slightly less than what my former coaches used to do. I’m really glad he could find time for it. I am very excited, and he also, even if he had never imagined to coach someone.

Q: What will he bring to you?
A: I’m sure he can bring a new perspective to my game. I see him more as a source of inspiration, a legend of the game who joined my team, than a full time coach. We’ll talk a lot. In fact, neither he nor I really know how it will happen. But we’re both excited to be back together in Melbourne (next week).
There is no real expectation, we just want to spend quality time together. I have always have former players by my side: Lundgren, Higueras, Roche, Annacone, Luthi. But I’ve never had someone as successful as Edberg. His generation is the one that impressed me most as a junior, so the priority was to find someone of his generation to help me.

Q: So, we guess you followed with interest the announcement of the collaboration between Novak Djokovic and Boris Becker…
A: Yes, I never thought Boris would embark into this, he would coach. But it’s great for them and great for tennis. I am pleased to see former legends try to help the next generation.

Q: To work with Edberg means that you will play a more attacking tennis?
A: You think if will resign if I don’t play serve and volley (laughs)?
It will be interesting to see if he thinks it is still possible to do many serves and volleys on today’s slower courts, or if there are other ways for me to go to the net. In any case, all Edberg will tell me will mean a lot to me.

Q: Let’s talk about your offseason. What about your back problems?
A: I have done more than what I expected, and it’s really encouraging. This year I haven’t played any exhibition, which allowed me to train extremely hard, and for a longer period of time.
For the first time for more than a year, I’ve been able to train three or four weeks in a row without any problems.
In 2013, every time I had small problems, pains, including back, and it cost me confidence.
For a few months now I can move again without problems and I can give myself fully, especially mentally. I completely recharged my batteries.

Q: Many people speculate on your chances of capturing another Grand Slam title? Where do you have your best chance?
A: If I play my best tennis, probably Wimbledon, then the US Open, the Australian Open and Roland Garros.

Q: We’ve seen you with a new racquet at the practice here
A: Yes, this racquet is different from the one I’ve tried last summer (in Hamburg and Gstaad).
Wilson worked over details that I notify them. They sent me the first batch of racquets after the US Open, and a second one after the Masters.
I chose a frame and I trained with it for two and a half weeks in Dubai. I feel very comfortable, more comfortable than with the racquet of last summer. This one is more like an extension of the one I used previously, with a futuristic look. I can not wait to see how it will happen in matches.

Q: Has the weight of the racquet changed?
A: In fact I don’t even know! Only my stringers and Wilson know that. I’m not controlling every detail.

McEnroe and Lendl, Roland Garros 84

Extract: Serious by John McEnroe

It was the worst loss of my life, a devastating defeat: sometimes it still keeps me up nights.

It’s even tough for me to do the commentary at the French – I’ll often have one or two days when I literally feel sick to my stomach just at being there and thinking about that match. Thinking of what I threw away, and how different my life would’ve been if I’d won.

Connors had two Wimbledon titles and five US Opens at that point, but he’d never won the French. Borg had won the French six times, and Wimbledon five but never the US Open. Besides the Masters – which, because of the limited field, was a different kind of test than a regular tournament – Lendl had never won a major. Lendl choked away majors. Everyone knew that.
I had two Wimbledons and three Opens. A French title, followed by my third Wimbledon, would have given me that final, complete thing that I don’t have now – a legitimate claim as possibly the greatest player of all time.
Looking back, I try to see the glass as half-full rather than half-empty – otherwise I’d tear out what little hair I have left, and work myself into a tizzy every day of my life, playing that match over and over and over again in my mind. I try not to do that, because? god knows, I’m an intense enough person as it is.

It was meant to be mine – even though the French is on slow red clay, which favors baseliners like Borg and Lendl, even though I’m a serve-and-volley player, and my best surfaces were always grass and hard-court, where my serve came off the ground fast and I had that extra fraction of a second to get to net and punch the volley. On red clay, the ball bites into the surface, and you lose that fraction, even with the fastest serve: the receiver gets extra milliseconds for a passing shot if you come in.
But I was at the top of my game that spring, and my game plan was this: don’t change a thing. Serve and come in. I knew my volley was the best in the business. I knew I couldn’t lose. Peter Fleming was planning a victory party even before the match began.

When I was introduced on Center Court at Stade Roland Garros, I got the greatest hand I’d ever received at the start of a match – a huge roar!

And by the end of the match, in my own inimitable way, I had somehow managed to get the entire crowd against me once again.

I had not only won the first two sets, I was ready to take over the third. Everything was perfect – it was astonishing how well I was playing – and then it happened. An NBC cameraman had taken his headset off, and it was sitting there, squitting, while I was trying to play. […] I know the squawking headset was an innocent technical glitch – it wasn’t as if anybody had said ‘Let’s screw McEnroe up’, but that’s how I took it – and, just like that, my concentration was shot.
I got very angy, because nobody was dealing with the situation. On the changeover, I went over to the headset and screamed into the little mike, ‘Shut the fuck up!’. Then , as I went over to my side, I thought, What the hell am I doing? If you start lashing out when things are going well, you may be letting your opponent think that you’re not as sure of yourself as you seem. […]

I went from two games to love in the third, to losing the set 4-6. But then I was up 4-2 in the fourth, serving a 40-30. And that, to me, is where I really lost the match.

Tony Roche had been coaching Lendl for a while , and they had worked on how to play me. They knew my left-handed slice serve in the ad court was a killer for most right-handers – the guy would be in the stands before he got his racket on it. Even Lendl, as good as he was, couldn’t drive that serve back.
So he and Roche determined that whenever I served wide to his backhand on the ad side, he was jus going to chip it crosscourt. The ball would be sinking, with backspin on it, and I’d have to hit my volley up instead of punching it deep. That let hil stay in the point and try to take back the offense with his big goundstrokes. That was his plan, and I knew it. So I served wide, and sure enough, he chipped crosscourt, and I was right there. My first inclination was to hit a drop- volley and go to the winner, but then I decided, no, no, just play it a little safe, because even though I’m known as someone with pretty good hands, a soft touch, the drop-volley is a low-percentage shot. I decided just to float the volley deep, make him pass me. I went against my gut. And I missed the volley. I pushed it the tiniest bit, and it floated out.

I don’t remember the points after that. It goes in a blur. It’s now eighteen years ago, but I’ve never watched that match once. I can’t bear to. So I can’t tell you the exact details of what happened next. It’s too sickening to me.

[…] Against most other guys, I would have won that French anyway. I have to give Lendl (grudging) credit for being who he was, and for being fit enough to be able to get better as the match progressed. It’s the only match in which I ever felt I was playing up to my capacities and lost.
But he didn’t beat me. I beat myself. Lendl got his first major, and I took his title, Choker-in-chief, away from him.
Temporarily.