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Rod Laver: The modest champion at the heart of the Australian Open

Marianne Bevis looks back at the career of Rod Laver, the modest champion at the heart of the first Major of the year

Marianne Bevis
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The Rod Laver Arena in MelbournePhoto: Johnny Jet, via Flickr

rod laver

It is the name that – eventually – no-one argues about. In the debate about which man is the greatest of all time, Rod Laver is invariably the yardstick.

Even those who never saw him play, who have only heard tell of his achievements, bracket him with Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, with Don Budge and Pancho Gonzalez, with Bill Tilden and Jack Kramer.

Were it not for the five-year hiatus before the arrival of the Open era, most believe that Laver would have put the ‘GOAT’ question – who is the greatest player of all time – beyond argument. Had he remained an amateur, and so been allowed to play in the 21 Grand Slams from 1963 through to 1968, who knows what Slam target Federer might yet have to reach?

For in the years either side of that five-year ‘black hole’, Laver notched up 11 Grand Slam titles from 17 finals. He was in his prime, reaching his full potential. If he had won just half of the Slams available to the amateur tour, he could have exceeded 20 titles. But as Laver told the Telegraph:”I only worry about the ones I did win.”

Laver’s chief opponents during his golden decade were both Australian and both formidable. Roy Emerson took the amateur route in 1963 and Ken Rosewall pursued a professional career with Laver.

While Emerson won the first two of their Slam finals in 1961, Laver went on to win the other three. And against Rosewall, it was a similar story. In the first couple of years of their professional rivalry, Rosewall had the upper hand, but by 1964, the balance had switched.

A modest man with modest beginnings

Rodney George Laver was born on 9 August 1938, a date that is interesting not just because one month later, Budge became the first man to win the calendar Grand Slam. Laver’s birthday falls within the same four-day period as those of his GOAT rivals, Federer and Sampras: the 8th and 12th respectively.

Laver, the youngest of four children, began playing tennis at six on a court his father had built at their ranch and soon, all the children were taking part in local tournaments.

At 15, Laver missed two months from school with jaundice and, feeling left behind in his studies, decided to get a job so he could work at his tennis. He was small – he grew to just 5ft 8in – but he quickly developed his strength and speed, and was spotted by coach Harry Hopman (after whom the Hopman Cup is named). It was Hopman who christened the left-hander “the rocket”, not because of his speed but for his determination and work ethic.

At 17, the young Laver won the US Junior Championship. At 20, he helped Australia win the Davis Cup against the USA and reached his first Wimbledon final. At 21, he won the Australian Championship – his first Slam. But it was not until he won his first title at Wimbledon that Laver felt he had proved himself: “I was looked on as a bit of a hackerthere was still a lot to prove and it was not until I won Wimbledon that I felt I could look people in the eye.”

That was in 1961, his third straight Wimbledon final, and it launched him into his first record-making year: 1962.

The record-making begins

Laver had an attacking style and lightning-quick movement, but controlling his game had not come easily: “I used to like to give [the ball] a bit of a nudge,” he has since admitted, with characteristic understatement, in The Observer.

Technically, he had excellent timing, great disguise on his swinging left-handed serve and was formidable at the net. His ground strokes on both sides were hit with topspin, quite an innovation in the 1960s – especially his attacking lob – and his huge left forearm became the stuff of legend. But alongside his full-blooded ball striking, he now learned to play percentage tennis, too. He was ready to take on all-comers.

So 1962 became the year in which Laver matched Budge’s calendar Slam. Along the way, he won 22 tournaments on three different surfaces, ranging from hard in Venezuela, to clay in Houston, to grass in England. From the end of March until the end of the US Open, he played every single week: 16 tournaments, three Slams.

Yet this was the amateur era when players had to pay their own way, so with the complete Grand Slam to his name, Laver was ready to turn professional.

Laver the pro

His success continued unabated, and between 1964 and 1967, he reached the final of all three major professional tournaments every year: the US, Wembley and French Pro Championships. He won on wood, on clay and on grass, and he won indoors and outdoors.

Between the beginning of March and the beginning of May, he travelled from Puerto Rico to Miami, Montreal to Paris, and back to California, and yet he is the first to admit that the pressures on players are very different now.

He told Deuce magazine: “Today’s game is much more physical than when we played. The ball is hit so much harder, the players generate so much speed and spin. I’d have to play differently if I was out there today.”

Yet the pressures under which Laver played were also demanding. The rewards were slim and the travelling constant – he drove himself to his Major finals. There were no chairs at the change of ends, no roofs if the conditions got too hot, no tie-breaks when matches were tight.

Laver’s win over Gonzalez in the 1967 US Pro Indoor Championships final went to 7-5, 14-16, 7-5, 6-2. His win over Rosewall in Paris a few weeks later was 6-0, 10-8, 10-8. Laver has said of the current tour: “It’s tough out there today.” It was pretty tough back then, too. Laver was renowned for his fitness, and the arduous pro tour certainly needed it.

Laver’s second coming

With the coming of the Open era came Laver’s second calendar Slam – he is the only player to have won two, the only one to have managed it as an amateur and as a pro. Things may have started slowly with just two Major finals – the French Open followed by the Wimbledon title in 1968 – but come 1969, he won all four Slams.

The first, on the grass of Brisbane, marked the first Australian Open and one of the home nation’s most noteworthy tournaments.

Laver met fellow Aussie, Tony Roche, in the semis in one of the most gruelling matches ever played. It took 90 games, a break to take a shower after three sets and, it is said, cabbage leaves inside their hats for relief from the 1050 heat. The final score was 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 – and Laver had already beaten another home player, Fred Stolle, 6-4, 18-16, 6-4 in the quarters.

The most successful Australian woman, Margaret Court, won her eighth singles title and went on to take the women’s doubles and mixed doubles, too. Laver, meanwhile, also won the men’s doubles with Roy Emerson – yet another Australian.

As he approached retirement, and aged 35, another event gave Laver particular pleasure. After an 11-year gap, he was able to join the Davis Cup squad again (professionals had been banned from participating until 1973). He won all his rubbers in the semi-final and final to take Australia to victory over the USA in a repeat of that 1959 title: the fifth time Laver had played for his country and the fifth time he had been on the winning team.

In all, his 23-year career yielded at least 183 titles-some say it is 199: stats are hard to pin down during the pre-Open era. Either way, it gives Federer’s 70 and Sampras’s 64 titles some perspective.

Many, though, claim that it was easier to win a Grand Slam in the pre-Open era than it is today: There were fewer players on the tour and tennis did not have the same depth. Laver is the first to admit – again in Deuce – that the pressures are very different now.

“Coming into the US Open, the importance of it all wasn’t that big because tennis itself wasn’t as popular; Everything a player does now is put under a microscope; it is so much more popular, there’s so much more money, attention – everything is bigger.”

43 years and counting…

Still, then, no-one else has managed that illusive calendar Slam, though Laver thought Federer could do so – and tips him to win in Melbourne this month: “It seems to me he’s serving a whole lot better, he’s getting to the net a lot more and he’s got a drop shot that works pretty effectively; I think Federer has a chance to come back and, if anywhere, I think the Australian is a good place for him.”

As for the GOAT debate, he will not be drawn: “The most he will concede is that Federer is the best of his era, but I’ve always thought that if you’re the best in your era, that is a pretty good compliment to your game and your tennis. It’s hard for anyone to come out and say who’s the best ever.”

Laver now spends most of his time in the USA, and has done since he retired. He remains an informed and enthusiastic follower of the game and, despite the setbacks of a stroke, knee surgery, and a new hip, he still, on occasion, knocks around a tennis ball with his son.

Laver was never the handsome one nor the charismatic one – not the attention-seeking type. But he was the one whose tennis rocketed to the greatest heights and, in 2000, the Australian Open authorities renamed Melbourne Park’s centre court in his honour.

“For something like that to happen in your lifetime; it’s very special and I consider it to be the crowning moment of my career. You only have to look up at the name on the magnificent stadium court to realise how truly privileged I am.”

Surely it could not have happened to a more deserving man.

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