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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Mats Wilander, Australian Open 1988

By Rex Bellamy, The Times, January 25, 1988

Mats Wilander took four hours and 28 minutes to beat Pat Cash 6-3, 6-7, 3-6, 6-1, 8-6 yesterday in an exhilarating climax to the first Australian championships played in the new National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park. Wilander became the first player since Ken Rosewall to win the men’s title three times and the only overseas player ever to do so. The final was a great match. It also had a satisfying, if slightly peverse outcome. A week ago most people fancied Wilander’s chances less than those of Ivan Lendl or Cash – the men who, with Stefan Edberg, grabbed last year’s Grand Slam titles. “It’s a long time”, Wilander said, “since I saw the four top guys so intense about winning a Grand Slam tournament.” And when Cash beat Lendl in a semi-final for the second year running, it seemed that the dramatic convention would insist on an Australian champion in the brave new world of Flinders Park. It almost happened. Cash came within two points of winning.

But Wilander fooled them all: and did so with a beautifully-crafted, unflinchingly resolute performance. Nor did the public seem to mind. They were mostly behind Cash, a Melbourne man, whose fighting heart accepts no compromise between a VC and a blanket. But they like Wilander, too, partly because he has a more engaging, less peevish personality and partly because of his tennis. They know him well. They should do – this was the fifth consecutive Australian title won either by Wilander or another Swede, Edberg.

Wilander also had a noisy and demonstrative following: young Swedes with faces daubed in the national colours. Australians responded in kind. The sunlit, packed stadium raised images of some tribal festival. The roars of 15,000 voices rang and rang across the Yarra River, the Melbourne cricket ground, and the tower blocks of the city. Even the silences were punctuated by the strange sound of wind gurgling through the amplifying system.

Yes, it was windy. Often cloudy too. And the match was twice interrupted by rain: for 33 minutes when Wilander was 4-1 up in the second set (which he lost) and for 18 minutes when Cash had a break point for a 4-0 lead in the fourth set. Yet those breaks added fuel to the excitement rather than dousing it. They were conversational pauses in a feast we had no wish to finish.

For the first set and a half (and often thereafter) Wilander played what he thinks may have been the best tennis of his life. Cash was not serving well enough to earn himself easy volleys. Wilander’s service returns were superb – they remained so – and with nimble cunning he contained, teased and frustrated the net -rusher. Often Wilander went to the net himself, once startling the incoming volleyer by advancing to meet him. Wilander’s technical soundness and tactical variety were exemplary. One spectator kept shouting “Get him, Pat.” He might as well have asked the fish to hook the fisherman. There was nothing Cash could do from the baseline, especially with a shaky forehand, and for a time there was not a lot he could do from the forecourt. Then came the first break, in which the rain transformed the court into a shining green pool.

When play resumed, Wilander volleyed too often – and not well enough to avoid damaging counters. By contrast Cash began to serve well and also found a better length with his approach shots. That meant he had higher volleys to play, and plenty of chances to exploit his astonishing quickness in the forecourt. At times his racket seemed impassable. What a match we had then. Each man in turn moved from the shadows into the sunlight and back again. They were cold-eyed, almost baleful, emitting waves of willpower before every point. Cash took the second and third sets but Wilander, who served consistently well, then won eight games out of nine. Cash seemed to be tiring. Wilander was probing his forehand and Cash was no longer as quick to respond.

Urged on by the crowd, Cash somehow pumped himself up again. The fifth set was a marvel in that, having given so much for so long, the players produced a set gloriously dominated by dazzling, hard-won points – rather than errors. The crux came when Wilander, with incredible physical and mental resilience, kept himself in a rally he twice seemed to have lost. That gave him a second chance, which he seized, to break 7-6. He held his service to love for the match.

“I played pretty well”, Cash said, “but Mats was too good on the day.” Somebody asked Wilander if he felt he had ruined an Australian party. “Such a great match,” he said, “couldn’t ruin anything.”

From Love Thirty: Three Decades of Champions, by Rex Bellamy

The summit of Everest has had many transient colonists since Hillary and Tenzing first “knocked the bastard off”, as Hillary put it. In the same way, Swedes have crowded the upper slopes of world tennis since Bjorn Borg showed them that it was possible. Wilander led the charge – succeeding Borg as French champion, grabbing the two major titles that eluded Borg, winning Grand Slam championships on four surfaces (clay, grass and two varieties of hard courts) and serving as the rock on which Sweden built a Davis Cup run only four nations have equalled. At the age of 24 Wilander had already won as many Grand Slam singles titles as John McEnroe. Yet somehow this quiet achiever manages to ghost his way through tournaments without attracting attention until the last two or three days – when there is hardly anybody else to attract it.

There is nothing spectacular about Wilander’s tennis or his personality. He just goes about his business in an unfussy way and, unless a Grand Slam event or a Davis Cup tie is in progress, sometimes conducts himself in such a casual manner that one would think the result of a tennis match was no more important than a row of beans. Wilander has to work hard for his points, physically and mentally. That kind of game is demanding: and he admits that he cannot give a hundred percent all the time, that he tends to reserve it for the big occasions. In all this – and in his playing method, too – he is much like Borg. But although Wilander’s game has more variety, he lacks Borg’s unquenchable thirst for winning.

Bjorn Hellberg, rare among Swedish journalists in that he was reporting Wimbledon in the pre-Borg era, makes interesting comparisons between Borg, Wilander and Stefan Edberg. “I watched them as juniors, when they were 11 years old”, Hellberg tells me, “and from the very beginning Wilander and Edberg have always been nice to work with: extremely pleasant young men. Always modest, helpful and generous. Wilander has kept his calmness, his controlled mood, during his whole career. Edberg was a little patchy as a junior, – more temper on court – but that disappeared very early. Two gentlemen. Borg is a different story but on court Borg, too, was a gentleman. What would have happened if they had all been at their best at the same time? Well, Borg always had trouble with attacking players and because of that I think it would have been extremely difficult for him to beat Edberg on fast surfaces. On the other hand I believe Borg would have beaten Edberg on clay, any time.

“With Wilander it is more difficult to say, because he has such a high standard when he is motivated. When he is really “on” he is probably the best of them. The highest potential. Wilander has changed his game all the time. When he beat Vilas in the 1982 final in Paris he won only on his patience, his youth, his willingness to work, and his safe ground strokes. After that he gradually improved his game. He still has his double-fisted backhand but he also has a one-handed sliced backhand, which won him the final of the 1988 U.S. Open against Lendl. He has also improved his attack – his approach game and his net play. On the other hand tennis meant more to Borg and means more to Edberg than it does to Wilander, who finds other values in life. He can have spells when he doesn’t look so interested”…

Wilander won a string of Swedish junior titles and, in 1978, the European championship for 14-year-olds. He left school in 1980 and earned good opinions a year later by qualifying for the German championships and winning the French junior event while Borg was taking the senior title which was to be his last Grand Slam championship. All that was impressive but hardly seemed an adequate basis for Wilander’s achievements in 1982. What matters about experience, though, is its intensity rather than its duration. Wilander had a lot of hardening competition and practice behind him when he went to Paris in 1982 and (at 17 years and 9 months) replaced Borg as the youngest French champion and became the only player except Ken Rosewall – 29 years earlier – to win the junior and senior titles in consecutive years. Wilander’s older brothers undertook an overnight drive in order to watch his semi-final, which ended with an incident that, after Hellberg’s comments, will not surprise you.

José-Luis Clerc, match point down, hit a shot that both players considered to be a winner. The line judge and umpire thought the ball was out: and Jacques Dorfmann, the umpire, announced game, set and match to Wilander and climbed down from his chair. Wilander protested that he could not win that way, that he wanted the point replayed. According to the rules the match was over. But Dorfmann decided that the prevailing climate of courtesy mattered more than the rules. The players were behaving like gentlemen, he told me later, so it was up to him to do the same. The point was replayed.

Wilander had previously played the first five-set match of his career, a four-hour win over Lendl, the favourite. The final was shorter but longer, because four sets with Guillermo Vilas took four hours and 42 minutes…The unseeded Wilander was not playing for fun. He was playing to win: and at that time the only way he could do it was by attritional warfare…What mattered was that on Borg’s birthday Wilander succeeded him as champion of France. In terms of length and quality the French final paled by comparison with the deciding match of a Davis Cup tie played that year at St Louis: John McEnroe beat Wilander 9-7 6-2 15-17 3-6 8-6 in an epic that spanned six hours and 32 minutes. The lad from Vaxjo was beginning to make a habit of playing more tennis in one match than most men play in two.

Wilander now had a status he could not consolidate. Like Boris Becker, who was to win Wimbledon in 1985, he tucked away one of the game’s two most important titles when only 17 years old and still learning his trade. In each case the evolution into genuine all-surface competence was to take a long time. But in 1983 Wilander sprang another surprise, this time on grass, when he competed in the Australian championships – largely as preparation for the Davis Cup final scheduled for the same courts a fortnight later – and beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to win the title…In 1984 we were reminded that Wilander still had much to learn, even on clay. Lendl was too smart for him in their French semi-final…Pat Cash stopped Wilander at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow but the tousle-haired Swede kept the pot boiling by retaining the Australian title. And in 1985 Wilander, now a match-hardened 20, beat McEnroe and Lendl in consecutive matches to regain the French championship. By this time he was a more versatile, positive and mature player: more competent and confident at the net and in his exploration of the short angles.

Four years running, Wilander had won either the French title or the Australian. His future looked rosy. But he was beginning to suffer from wear and tear – partly physical, partly psychological. In his next nine Grand Slam tournaments he could do no better than finish runner-up three times: once to Stefan Edberg (the 1985 Australian championships featured the first all-Swedish final of a Grand Slam event) and twice to Lendl. We began to wonder if Wilander still had it in him to make that last push to the summit. Would he, like Borg, be burnt out by the middle 20’s? But those paying close attention were aware that – with the help of his coach, Jan-Anders Sjogren – Wilander was still refining his game. He wanted to make it more interesting. So he worked on the one-handed backhand (which he had often used in emergency, for wide balls) so that he could use it more consistently as a variant to the two-handed shot. The one-handed sliced backhand is less strenuous than the double-fisted stroke: and more effective in dealing with low balls and hitting approach shots. That last point was an important component of another improvement – in Wilander’s net game. Thus it was that his tennis gradually acquired the technical and tactical variety that was the basis for what we may assume was Wilander’s finest year, 1988 (his 1989 recession bore ominous signs of ebbing motivation).

In 1988 Wilander mixed his game admirably, came through a bunch of five-set matches, won three out of the four Grand Slam championships, and was unquestionably the best player in the world. In the first Australian championships played at Flinders Park he won consecutive five-set matches with Edberg and Cash. The final, against Cash, lasted four hours and 28 minutes and was notable for a memorably dramatic fifth set. It was a pity there had to be a loser but Wilander’s was a superb performance in its tactical craft and unflinching tenacity. He was a popular champion, too, with a more engaging, less peevish personaity than that of Cash, a local man. In Paris, Slobodan Zivojinovic came within two points of beating Wilander (as Cash had done in Melbourne) but the Swede was never in such serious trouble again during his four remaining matches. A familiar bete noire, Miloslav Mecir, baffled Wilander at Wimbledon. Then came the U.S. championships and five set wins over Kevin Curren and, in the final, Lendl. That classic final, particularly exhilarating during the crises of the fourth and fifth sets, lasted four hours and 54 minutes. Wilander went to the net almost twice as often as Lendl and, ultimately, broke through by challenging Lendl to pass him with backhands down the line.

It had been a gloriously harrowing year: glorious because of what had been achieved, harrowing because of the mental and physical cost of achieving it. One suspects that Wilander cannot do it again, that (like Lendl) his only remaining ambition is to win Wimbledon. Should that ever happen, Wilander would doubtless put his marriage, his golf, his guitar-playing and his composition of verse way ahead of his tennis. The game is his job, not his life. Wilander just happens to be a sportsman, in both senses. Apart from that, he is a gently contemplative, stoically phlegmatic chap who enjoys winning but can do without the fuss that goes with it. And his common sense and his droll sense of humour will never desert him.

In the post-Wilander years we shall remember that he never quite made 6 feet or 12 stone, that his face was lined, his eyes tired, his hair curly and unruly, his shirts large and flapping loosely over his shorts. He has always had the weary but indomitable air one associates with marathon runners. We shall remember, too, the nimble tactician with wonderfully accurate ground strokes, an unflappable temperament, and a strength of mind that saw him through many a long match. There has always been an air of serenity about Wilander. He lacks the capacity to panic. Maybe that is why he is a single-handicap golfer.

Wimbledon champion Ann Jones

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

Adrianne Shirley Jones, an exemplary strategist and tactician whose tennis always made sense, had no big shot and was too down-to-earth to present an overtly striking personality. Consequently, as Billie Jean King asserted, Jones was the most underrated woman player of the 1960s – except by those who had to play her or had the expertise to fully appreciate what she was doing. The record speaks for itself. Up to a point, anyway. The Wightman Cup figures obscure the fact that, of all the women who represented Britain most often in the annual contest with the United Stats, Jones had much the best win-loss record in singles and was matched only by Christine Truman in doubles. She went to the top of the heap in Britain at a time when domestic competition was uncommonly distinguished: because her career overlapped those of Mortimer and Truman, Shirley Blommer, and Virginia Wade, all of whom won Grand Slam singes championships.

Tennis was the second sport in which Jones achieved worldwide distinction. Her parents were international table tennis playes and it was in this game that Jones, like Fred Perry before her, first made headlines. She played for the senior England team at the age of 15 (no other girl has achieved so much so soon) and later contested five world championship finals: one in singles and four in doubles. In 1957 Jones was runner-up in all three events. Table tennis sharpened her reactions, taught her the value of spin, and made her a tough competitor who could instantly identify the points that most mattered. The negative side of it was her tendency to lose, however narrowly, the big finals. That planted a seed of self-doubt often evident in her tennis. True, she won the first Grand Slam singles final she reached, in Paris in 1961. But after that Jones repeatedly had cause to suspect that she would usually be found wanting during the last sprint to the tape.

She played her first tennis tournament in 1952, at the age of 13, basically as a summer relaxation, and in the following year competed for the first time in the british junior championships on the shale courts at Wimbledon. In those early years she was simply playing a form of table tennis adapted to a tennis court. But the outdoor game began to assume more importance when she won the British junior title two years running, in 1954 and 1955. On her way to that second title she was reduced to tears by an opponent who lobbed everything. Jones was so distracted that she wanted to quit but was talked into battling on. The irony is that, years later, the soporific precision of her lightweight tennis was to have a similarly maddening effect on a legion of opponents who played well, worked themselves into the ground, and emerged with headaches and maybe one or two games.

In 1956 Jones competed in the Wimbledon championships for the first time. She was still dividing her year between table tennis in winter and tennis in summer, but the outdoor game was no longer merely a recreation. She was beginning to grow away from table tennis, partly because international tennis provided a far more comfortable life style. And in 1958, unseeded, she beat Maria Bueno to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals for the first time. Demonstrably, she was good enough to close the book on a gratifying table tennis career and travel the world more or less full-time as a tennis player, in the last decade of ‘shamateurism’.

In 1961 there was evidence of her maturing versatility when she won the French singles championship on slow clay and advanced to the United States final on the rather bizarre grass courts of Forest Hills. Then came the ‘mixed’ summerof 1962 in which she reached her first Wimbledon final, in the company of Dennis Ralston and promptly married an old friend, Pip Jones. This gave her off-court life stability and a new set of priorities: and as a player she was benefiting from the friendship and advice of the great Maureen Connolly. But the ultimate break-through was still some way ahead and from 1964 onwards Jones had to deal with nagging problems that arose from a slipped disc and affected her neck and the shoulder of her racket arm. It may or may not be relevant that although table tennis had in many ways been an admirable preparation for her tennis career, Jones had almost reached physical maturity by the time her body and her technique had to cope with the persistent stress of services, overheads and volleys.

Towards the end of 1966 Jones briefly considered retirement but Pip encouraged her to carry on: a specially designed programme of exercises did much to sort out the neck and shoulder trouble. At the age of 29 she acquired fresh momentum from the advent of open competition. Jones was not to know it at the time but this provided a basis for the finest tennis of her career. In April of 1968, the first month of the Open era, Jones (guaranted at least $25,000 a year for two years) was among four women to sign contracts with George MacCall‘s professional group. The others were Billie Jean King, Rosie Casals and Françoise Durr.

Durr was witty, charming, and smart – and delightfully Gallic. She gripped the racket with her forefinger pointed down the shaft, but her wildly unorthodox game was a joke that had to be taken seriously. When serving she waved her back leg in the air as if she did not know what to do with it. Her sliced backhand often took her down on one knee, with her bum almost touching the court. Virginia Wade suggested:

Playing with her is like being on a Saturday morning children’s show. I love to watch her hitting crazy winners with her mongrel set of strokes

But Wade rated Durr as an outstanding doubles player; and the record confirms that opinion.

Durr’s angled volleys were a prime feature of her game. Technically, her tennis was a smack in the eye for the purists. But the important thing was where she put the ball, not the way she did it. Her wits were sharp, her ball control sound. And she spiced the already piquant dish with sun-glasses, hair-ribbons, bightly busy dresses, shrieks and self-admonitory comments, and a habit of banging herself on the head with her racket. In short, Durr was a bundle of fun – and a far better played than she looked.

King and Casals were close friends. Durr enlivened the off-court hours of the Jones. But the four new professionals got on well together and also with the six men in the MacCall group, Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Richard Gonzales, Roy Emerson, Fred Stolle and Andres Gimeno. For Jones the match-player, the benefits of living and working in such distinguished company were exciting: not least the chance to practise with the men and learn from them. Most of all, she learned to play a more attacking game. That could never be the bedrock of her tennis but at least she could now use the serve-and-volley stuff more often and with more confidence. In any case she had reached a phase of her career in which the baseline style was no long, in itself, sufficiently gratifying. She was readier to take a few risks and go for winners.

It all came together at Wimbledon in 1969 when Jones became the first left-hander to win the women’s championship. In her last two matches she came back from a set down to beat Margaret Court and King in turn. The 10-12 6-3 6-2 win over Court demanded the finest tennis of her career and an outstanding feature was the persistence and confidence in which Jones attacked. That was her 14th consecutive Wimbledon. She had been runner-up in 1967 and had made six other advances to the semi-finals. Now she wom not merely one title, but two, sharing the mixed championship with Stolle. It was enough. Jones was a BBC commentator when she returned to Wimbledon in 1970. She has since combined that role with coaching the young, captaining British teams, refereeing, helping to run the women’s international circuit, and (most important of all) bringing up three children.

Jones had immense powers of concentration. She was shrewd and sound and stubbornly patient. She knew exactly what she could and could not do and, just as important, was remarkably cute in appraising her opponents and making the appropriate stategic and tactical adjustments in her own game. Jones never missed a trick. While respecting the odds and eschewing risk, she could usually come up with something special in critical rallies. Lacking raw power, she became adept at flawlessly controlled tactical manoeuvres incorporating a wealth of variations. Spin, a useful legacy from table tennis, was always a feature.
The forehand, looped o hit with sidespin, was her best shot. She was particularly effective in driving her opponents back with a looped forehand or a top-spun lob, thus opening up the court for the gently terminal nudge of a drop-shot. Her chipped backhand was secure but seldom a threat, though occasionally she indulged her sense of fun by taking the ball early and putting top-spin on a full-blooded drive. Mostly, her approach shots (like her services) were not penetrating enough to justify more than sporadic demonstrations of her sure touch on the volley.
Jones was, and remains, a witty and wise raconteuse with a refreshingly direct manner.

When he was king

Bjorn Borg

By Tim Pears, the Observer, Sunday 5 June 2005

They called him the ice man, but there was so much more to Björn Borg than cool detachment and a wispy beard. Twenty-five years after the Swede’s last and greatest Wimbledon triumph, award-winning novelist Tim Pears offers a remarkable portrait of the rebellious teenager who became an accidental Nordic mystic – and an all-time great.

‘I think Björn’s greatest victory was not the way he came to master his ground strokes, but the change he underwent, with terrible determination, to tame his passionate spirit.’ Lennart Bergelin, Borg’s coach

Was ever a great champion so misunderstood, even in the broad light of his glory, as Björn Borg? By the time of the Wimbledon championships of 1980, when he was 24, he had won the grass-court competition each of the four preceding years, as well as the French Open, on clay, five times. On contrasting surfaces that required radically different approaches, this was an achievement without precedent. And yet the calm young master was widely regarded as an automaton, a robot. The Swede had is i magen: ice in his stomach. In the British press he was the ‘Iceberg’. His admirers no less than his critics described a man with cold blood running through his veins.

How wrong they were. Borg was not blessed with abundant talent, but the talent he had he surrendered to, with the devotion of an instinctive faith, until he achieved liberation. Borg was an inspiration and I wondered how others could not see that his heart was filled with joy for this game and that he hid this joy not to deny it, but rather to nurture its presence within him.

Eyes

Born on 6 June 1956, Borg was brought up in Södertälje, an industrial town of 100,000 people 30 minutes drive south-west of Stockholm, the only child of Margarethe and Rune, a clothes-shop assistant. He first appeared at Wimbledon in 1972, winning the junior title, a lanky Swedish youth with a straggle of blond brown hair. He had blue eyes that were so close together they appeared slightly crossed. He kept them averted from other people, betraying the shy evasion of a teenager who believes everyone is looking at him – the one object he focused on was a tennis ball when about to hit it. He had a sharp nose in a thin, feral face, with a long pointed chin; his wide shoulders were stooped and he walked with a rolling gait. And yet everywhere he went he was pursued by mobs of schoolgirls. Less a Viking, really, than an Arthurian knight, Borg was embraced by England. We were drawn to his modesty.
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