Three quarters of a century ago this month, one of the greatest players ever, Rod Laver, was born. Rod ‘the Rocket’ was born in the Queensland town of Rockhampton on August 9th 1938 and went on to become the best male player of his era, setting a host of records along the way.
Laver’s achievements are legendary. He is the only player to have won the one-year Grand Slam twice, once in the amateur era in 1962 and again in the professional era in 1969. No male player since then has won a one-year Grand Slam, although some have come close winning three of the four titles. Along with the great American, Don Budge, he shares the record of holding a one-year Grand Slam, no mean achievement given all the pressures to perform at these events. Great and all that current stars, such as Federer and Nadal are in both having won career Grand Slams, no one has achieved the one-year Slam since Laver. One of the key metrics in measuring a player’s career success, it stands strongly to Laver’s favour and places him firmly in the top echelons of the game.
With 200 career titles, he also holds the all-time record as well as holding the record of 22 titles in one season (1962). For seven consecutive seasons (1964-70), he won more than ten titles per season – another stand-alone record.
He was part of an era of outstanding young Australian players who came out of the 1950s, including Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Roy Emerson and Neale Fraser and later to include his close rivals John Newcombe and Tony Roche – the golden age of Australian tennis and he was their ‘golden boy’. Australia has not witnessed a host of such outstanding talent since then.
Having won 11 Grand Slam titles in his career, he lies fifth in the all-time rankings tied with Bjorn Borg. Many have speculated over how many Grand Slams Laver could have won had he not turned professional in 1963 when the ‘big four’ events were out of bounds to the pros. He was at the peak of his career then with the clear ability to repeat his triumphs.
Entering the pro ranks, he eventually dominated that tour by succeeding the previous top pro of that era, Ken Rosewall in the No. 1 spot. Other close rivals at the time included Lew Hoad and Pancho Gonzales, but Laver became the top pro with a prolific tally of pro tour victories.
A sign of his longevity and sticking power was his ability to regain his former Grand Slam crowns, in particular that remarkable achievement in 1969. The 1970 season was not as successful as he failed to win any of the big four that year. At Wimbledon that year, he ceded his title to John Newcombe after going out in the last 16 to young aspiring Briton, Roger Taylor – a major upset at the time and a feather in the cap for the Yorkshireman . The latter part of his career was marked by his participation in team tennis, at which he excelled, but 1969 proved to be the high point of his career
Laver was described as having the flawless game. He adopted the classic ‘serve/volley’ game with a ‘kick’ serve which was very difficult to return. His ground strokes were played with a vicious topspin, most notably his backhand, a rarity for a southpaw at the time. As well as speed and agility, he also had tremendous touch and subtlety with his drop-shot and lob. His left wrist was like cast iron and with all the training, noticeably thicker than his right. Equable of temperament, he retained a majestic calm on court. To many, it might be a surprise to hear that he was considered a little ‘flashy’ until this tendency was ironed out of his game by coach and mentor, the great Aussie tennis supremo, Harry Hopman. Modesty and graciousness were his hallmarks, characteristics which he exudes to this day. If ever there was a role model for the aspiring young player, it was Rod Laver.
Not long after his retirement from the game in 1976, he was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the small lead time reflecting the very high esteem in which he was held. After suffering a stroke in 1998, he has recovered well, continuing to take a keen interest in the game. He lives in Southern California and was recently bereaved on the sad death of his life partner, Mary to whom he was particularly close. Only a month ago, he was in attendance at the annual Enshrinement ceremonies at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island (which the writer also attended). He was there to accept enshrinement on behalf the great Australian player of the 1950s, Thelma Coyne Long, at 94 unable herself to travel to receive the award. All those great Laver personal qualities were on display at the ceremony, in the company of many contemporaries for whom Laver was the undisputed greatest ever.
Comparing players across the eras is a fraught exercise. What is certain is that Laver was among the best players ever to grace a tennis court and for many, the greatest ever. Others, however, on the basis of career stats, may have surpassed him. The breach between the amateur and professional games in the early part of his career certainly affected his career stats, but he still went on to amass considerable records during his pro career pre the Open era and during open tennis. In this, he was like Don Budge, his fellow Grand Slammer whose career was certainly affected by the advent of WW2 and which cut short his own likely Grand Slam tally.
Such is the esteem in which Laver is held in his native Australia that the main stadium at the Australian Open venue in Melbourne is known as the Rod Laver Arena and Laver himself is often there to present the winner’s trophy. Added to that is the Queen’s recognition of his services to the game through the award of an MBE and the high regard he is held in in his current home, the US. One of the true icons of the game, a prodigious talent, an inspiration to many and a proud ambassador for the sport.