Rod Laver

The Rocket 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.”

Laver’s power came from his strength, his balanced set-up, his full, free swing, his timing, and his penchant for taking the ball early and (as he used to put it) “giving the loose ones a bit of a nudge.” Understatement was a key component of his humour. The accuracy arose largely from top-spin.
From the age of 10 he was coached at Rockhampton by Charlie Hollis, who taught the short and scrawny lad that he was not big enough to hit the ball flat, that he must hit over the ball. Later, Laver was influenced in the same direction by Hoad, who was similarly strong in the wrist. Such men could give a fierce drive a modest dose of top-spin and thus ensure that the ball cleared the net with a margin of safety and landed in court. Both Hoad and Laver used to spray the ball over the place in their early years but were to demonstrate the advantages of building accuracy on power, rather than the other way round.
Laver could also chip the ball on both flanks and his heavily underspun backhand was a profitably intimidating approach shot. In the forecourt he could be murderous when volleying above net height, had a delicate touch on volleyed drops, and was difficult to lob because of his springing agility and his quickness in retreating, when necessary, and coming up with a violent counter-punch. The touch was equally evident when he was playing post-bounce drop shots or lobbing. Laver used the lob a lot. Sometimes it was underspun but he was also one of the pioneers of the attacking, top-spun lob. As for the service, Laver was not big enough to invest heavily in the cannonball stuff. But he had the left-hander’s usual command of swing and spin, used the kicker for variety (notably on the dodgy grass courts of Forest Hills, where the kick could be bizarre), and, to sum up, served remarkably well for a comparatively small man.

Laver took immense pains with his racket grips, whittling away to make sure they fitted his fist perfectly. Technically, he was a virtuoso. His most spectacular shot was the screaming top-spun backhand which flirted with the law of probability and, yes, was often jilted. When he teed off with it, everyone was aware that one way or another the point was over. But Laver, though sometimes florid, was always foxy. He knew when to take chances, when to play safe. He tended to be a slow starter: loosening up, going for his shots and gradually finding the range. Then the bullets began to sing into the targets. Often, Laver jumped into the zone and was unplayable. His response to adversity was to play, or try to play, the kind of shots most men would not even dream of attempting. Laver was always exciting, even alarming, when he had his back to the wall and was giving the ball a bit of nudge. And all the time he was incrustable, unemotional – a supreme professional going about his business supremely well. Laver was too inimitably mercurial to be a great doubles player. But his opponents in singles often felt that they were playing a doubles team.

Rod Laver

Laver was the youngest of three sons (there was an even younger daughter) of a cattle rancher. They were tennis enthusiasts and, as the family moved around, always had a court of their own. The first Laver played on, home-made by father and sons, was a converted ant-hill. The boys played tennis with their father and Charlie Hollis, or hunted kangaroos. In 1951 Laver was driven to Brisbane and won the state championships for boys aged 14 or less. In 1952 he went back to Brisbane, where Harry Hopman was giving coaching clinics. Laver’s running muscles were less precocious than his tennis and he was so slow that Hopman gave him the ironic nickname ‘Rockhampton Rocket’. The ‘Rocket’, but not the irony, was to stay with Laver throughout his career. A year later Dunlop engaged him as an errand boy and from the age of 15 he earned his living from tennis.

In 1956 Laver had his first tour overseas – Hopman decided that Laver and Bob Mark should benefit from the financial backing of an industrialist, Arthur Drysdale – and won the United States junior championship. Laver did his Army stint in 1957 but, after that, showed no inclination to hang about.
Having warmed up with two Grand Slam doubles titles in 1959, he won his first major title at Brisbane, in his home state, in January of 1960. Laver finished that Australian championship with five-set wins over Roy Emerson, who served for the match, and Neale Fraser, who won the first two sets and had a match point. That was the year, too, when a 5ft4 1/2in Pole, André Licis had a match point against Laver at 5-2 in the fifth set during the French championship. Laver was finding out about people like Licis – and a lot of players were finding out what kind of tennis Laver could play when he was supposed to be taking a shower as a loser. Even so, we had our doubts. By the end of 1961 he had played seven Grand Slam singles finals but had won only two, at Brisbane and Wimbledon. Impressive, yes. But difficult though it is to believe, Laver was gaining something of a reputation as a runner-up.

Within a year Laver had wrapped up his first Grand Slam. True, Hoad, Rosewall and Gonzales were not standing in the way. But plenty of good players were: and Laver’s only five-set matches were his last three in Paris. Martin Mulligan had a match point (the only match point against Laver in either of his Grand Slams), Fraser was serving for the match at 5-4 in the fifth, and Emerson won the first two sets and led 3-0 in the fourth. Paris was always likely to be the supreme test. Once it was behind him, Laver had a little more to spare on the grass of Wimbledon and Forest Hills.

Rod Laver, Wimbledon 1962

After the 1962 Davis Cup challenge round, Laver joined the big boys on the professional tour and learned the facts of life, from Hoad and Rosewall in particular. Laver could neve quite break away from Rosewall (their personal rivalry, like that between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, was the equivalent of a long-running soap opera) but by 1967 Laver was usually the man in charge. That was how it was when Wimbledon staged an experimental eight-man professional tournament on the centre court in August, 1967. Laver beat Rosewall 6-2 6-2 12-10 in the final. If we add his three wins in that event to his 31 in the championships, Laver won 34 consecutive singles at Wimbledon between two defeats inflicted on him by other left-handers: Fraser in 1960 and Roger Taylor in 1970.

Open competition happened too late for the 1968 Australian championships. Laver won Wimbledon again but was beaten by Rosewall in Paris and by Cliff Drysdale at Forest Hills. In a French quarter-final Laver had a prolonged, educational interview with Ion Tiriac, a large, swarthy, shambling Romanian with so much hair on him that it was as if he had been zipped into a rug. Tiriac’s lobs and looped drives, his crafty assortment of arcs and angles, lured Laver into a strange world that recognized few of the conventions of his own. At times Laver was almost running in circles. Tiriac lumbered and lunged, scrambled and stumbled. He took two sets and three falls. His clothing was coated with shale, his right leg with blood. Then Laver began to wok out the puzzle and, under increasing stess, Tiriac began to tire. Laver won the three remaining sets at a cost of only six games. He was a winner and a wiser man but was having second thoughts about the brave new world of open competition. That summer, too, he hurt his wrist in a fall and probably began to put more stress on the elbow. That mighty left arm was to demand treatment for the rest of his career.

Laver was also 30 years when he began what was to be the greatest year of his career, 1969. His wife Mary was pregnant and the baby was due on the last day of the Grand Slam series (but turned up almost three weeks late). The expectant father had plenty to think about when he was not winning tournaments. In becoming the only man to achieve a Grand Slam in open competition, Laver played 26 matches. Five of these went to five sets and he won two of them from two sets down. By the end of the Slam his weight was down to 10st 31lb but, to use Rosewall’s quote, he was “heavier in the pocket”. That year, Laver won 31 consecutive singles matches and $124,000, which was a lot of money in those days. He was the first man to exceed $100,000 in prize money during one year.

The Slam began in Brisbane, where Laver took four hours and 35 minutes to beat Tony Roche 7-5 22-20 9-11 1-6 6-3 in a semi-final. The match was played in remorseless heat, 105°F, the players kept their towels in the ice box, and Laver – not for the first time – draped wet cabbage leaves inside his sunhat. The second set alone lasted more than two hours. The critical point came when Roche, serving at 3-4 and 15-30 in the fifth, was on the wrong end of a surprising line decision and lost his composure. But the butcher’s son from Tarcutta had come awfully close to stopping Laver at the first station on the line.

Another, less renowned Australian, Dick Crealy, was to give Laver a scare in Paris. It was rather like the Tiriac nightmare all over again. Crealy was 6ft 4 1/2in tall, with Santana-style teeth, long sideburns, and a rooster-like way of jerking his head forward as he walked. Crealy was also garrulously self-critical and had a reputation for occasionally going bananas. He was always fun to watch and on this occasion his big forehand plundered the high bounces Laver offered him. Crealy won two sets, Laver the next. The rain enforced an overnight break and, next morning, Laver had a long work-out with Emerson and finished the job – though Crealy came within a point of leading 5-4 in the fifth set. In the final Laver played the finest clay-court match of his career to overpower Rosewall by 6-4 6-3 6-4.

Premjit Lall, an elegantly accomplished Indian, won his first two sets with Laver at Wimbledon but then began to think about it. So did Laver, who blazed through 15 consecutive games for the match. Stan Smith also took Laver to five sets and in a semi-final Arthur Ashe briefly reduced Laver to the role of practice partner and ball boy. John Newcombe, the thinking man’s John Wayne, worked out a good strategy for the final – less of the heavy stuff than usual, more of the lobs and soft, subtle angles. The cocktail was pefectly mixed and, for a while, hit the spot. Laver was interested. Impressed, too. But he mixed stronger drinks than Newcombe did. On court, anyway.

Laver’s Grand Slam, like Mary’s pregnancy, did not have much farther to go. The grass courts of Forest Hills gave rise to sardonic humour at the best of times and this was not the best of times. Heavy rain made the courts muckier than ever, though the organisers rented a monstruous spin-drier – a helicopter. The tournament was a bog-trotter’s paradise, without the tussocks. But there was some good tennis. Dennis Ralston won two of his first three sets with Laver, who then had to quell lively challenges from Emerson and Ashe. The final, against Roche, was no more than a shadow of their great match in the tropical heat of Brisbane eight months earlier. This was no great match. Roche was having as good a year as anybody except Laver and had won five of their eight previous matches in 1969. Roche’s left-handed spin tended to give Laver trouble and he had a useful knack of swinging his service to Laver’s body. But on this occasion Roche had been softened up by five sets and almost three hours in Newcombe’s company the previous day, whereas Laver had played only four minutes of singles. Moreover, after nine games Laver put on spiked shoes whereas Roche, who was less familiar with them, did not. Roche won the first set, but only five more games. Laver was all over him. Whereupon Lave borrowed a dime, hurried to a pay phone behind the press seats, and called Mary to find out how the maternity tournament was going. Final postponed.

After all that, there was only one way for Laver’s career to go. Downhill. His only remaining Grand Slam championship was to be the 1971 Wimbledon doubles, with Emerson. But the only big title to elude Laver was that at stake in the annual eight-man tournament promoted by World Championship Tennis in Dallas. That event did not happen until he was coming down from the clouds. He qualified for the first five showpiece events in Big D, from 1971-1975, but was stopped twice by Rosewall, twice by Smith, and once by Bjorn Borg. On the other hand Laver demonstrated that he could still play great tennis. Early in 1971 most of the top men were assembled for a series known as the Tennis Champions Classic, a tour spread over seven American venues and more than two months. Laver won all his 13 matches and $160,000. That year he became the first player to exceed a million dollars in career winnings. And in November of 1973 Laver joined Newcombe in a breathtaking 5-0 annihilation of the United States in the Davis Cup final in Cleveland. Laver was then 35 but, the way he played, going on 25. He was still “giving the loose ones a bit of a nudge”.

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