Great, Greater, Greatest: Laver’s Legacy Endures

Great, Greater, Greatest: Laver's Legacy Endures By Steve Flink, 01/31/2003

Photo by Evers, Joost / Anerfo, 22 May 1969

“The Rocket” sparkled with a shot making virtuosity no one could match, winning his first Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur, securing an even more astonishing 1969 Grand Slam in the second year of “Open Tennis,” thriving under pressure over and over again.

Left-handed, Australian, slight of frame, but large of (left) forearm and heart, Rod Laver had such a sterling career that many authorities believe he is the greatest player in the history of the game.

Not that he would ever argue his case. “Some reporters want to know if I could beat this person or that person,” Laver begins, “and I say, ‘Hey, it’s a different world out there with the way today’s players have learnt the game, the strokes they are producing, the equipment they have got. The game has changed.’”  

Laver, having recovered from a stroke suffered in 1998, appreciates being remembered for his role in the game and the high honors that have recently come his way.

In 2000, the Australian Open named its Centre Court “The Rod Laver Arena.” At the end of last year, he was inducted into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame. And weeks ago, he was saluted again by the Australian Open, along with Margaret Court, in a ceremony for the only Australians ever to capture the Grand Slam.

Laver, 64, takes none of these accolades in stride; to the contrary, he is almost overwhelmed by all of the recognition. “I left Australia when I was very young,” he says, “and my wife is American. We have spent all of our time in the U.S., so I am thrilled to be remembered not just as a player but for being an Australian. I feel very honored that this is happening in my lifetime and I am around to see it.”

Everywhere Laver, an 11-time major champion, goes, fans shower him with heartfelt applause, and there is almost always some award or honor. At the French Open in 1999, he presented Andre Agassi with the champion’s trophy after Agassi became only the fifth man in history to secure all four Grand Slam tournament titles in the course of a career. The following year, Laver attended the gathering of 20th Century champions on Centre Court at Wimbledon. Most poignantly, he conducted the pre-match coin toss at the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi U.S. Open final last September.

“Being asked to do that,” says Laver, “was a real highlight for me, especially being out there with Pete and Andre, who have both accomplished so much. They were both very nice to me after I had my stroke, and I feel good that the current people remember some of the past players.”

Laver, a 1981 International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, has had a deep impact on this generation of players, with his quiet dignity, flamboyant playing style and enviable record as a big-match player. Sampras speaks in glowing terms about Laver the man and competitor. “I see myself like him,” Sampras says. “Both of us are uncomfortable talking about what we have done or how good we are. It is overwhelming for me to be compared to Laver and for some people to think I am better than he is. He was a truly great player.”

Asked how he assesses Sampras, Laver, in turn, responds, “Pete is equal to anyone who has played the game, and I don’t necessarily put myself in there. But you are looking at Don Budge, Jack Kramer and all the way down the line. Pete’s performance in being No. 1 for six years in a row and his record at Wimbledon is uncanny.

“His serve is outstanding. He reminds me of Pancho Gonzalez. His action is beautiful and you don’t see the speed coming out of the swing because his timing is so good. His placement is incredible. It was a great tribute to him that he won this last U.S. Open, coming back after the press wanted to wash him up. He is going to stay in the annals of tennis as one of the best players, and that can’t ever be taken away from him.”

Turning his attention to the resurgence of Australia as a force in men’s tennis, Laver effusively praises Patrick Rafter and Lleyton Hewitt, the two men who have given their nation so much to celebrate over the past six years. “Patrick was great for Australia with his unique demeanor on the court,” Laver says. “It is a shame he is not playing anymore. He had such an attractive game.

“I practiced with him about eight to 10 years ago in California, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Patrick had one of the best backhand volleys I have ever seen. He was a great net rushing competitor. Winning two U.S. Opens just proves the point.”

Does Hewitt, with his hard edges and backcourt style, still fit the mold of the traditional Australian competitor? Laver responds, “He fits the mold, but not in the same way as past champions. Lleyton doesn’t yet have that one big shot that can help him end points a little quicker, but he tests his opponents every time by saying, ‘Hey, you have got to beat me fellas.’

Lleyton winning Wimbledon from the baseline was an incredible effort. He just has that air about him, that championship caliber. When I look at Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Frank Sedgman – and all the way down the line – they were the ones that instilled in me the drive to play better. Lleyton is a great asset to Australian tennis and he has a big influence.”

Laver, of course, was not simply influential; he was a pioneer of sorts, becoming the first great player to take the ball on the rise and produce topspin off both sides. “The other players didn’t do it off both sides,” he recalls, “but I just liked playing that way. I couldn’t play a consistent, safe game. I had to go for it off the ground, and I used the topspin to keep the ball in play.”

With his left-handed wizardry, Laver revolutionized the game. Today’s players have taken the topspin elements of his style to heart. But Laver grew up in the era of grass court tennis, when three of the four majors were on that low-bouncing surface, and his continental grip was a product of his time. “The continental was the one grip for forehand and backhand,” he explains, “and it was great for playing the serve-and-volley game. But today the ball bounces so much higher that I would have to use an exaggerated eastern grip. Would that change the way I played, who knows?”

Who could doubt that Laver would have made the necessary changes to succeed in any era? He was a champion of the highest order. Moving swiftly, playing with imagination, going for audacious shots when the chips were down…These were all qualities that set Laver apart. He was unflinching in the tight corners of his biggest contests. A classic example was his stirring recovery against Marty Mulligan in the quarterfinals of the 1962 French Championships. Laver trailed two sets to one and was serving 4-5, 30-40, match point down. He missed his first serve, but came in behind the second delivery.

More than 40 years after the fact, Mulligan recollects that crucial moment. “Rod played a very gutsy point,” he says. “I ran around my backhand on that return. I banged my return hard up the line, but that was the one he covered, and he went crosscourt with his backhand volley and I had no play.” Laver won that match 6-2 in the fifth set, then bested Neale Fraser in the semifinals, 7-5 in the fifth. In the Roland Garros final, Laver ousted Roy Emerson 3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 9-7, 6-2.

Having already beaten Emerson in the final of the Australian Championships, Laver went on to crush Mulligan in the Wimbledon final before overcoming Emerson again in a four-set final at Forest Hills. He had concluded his amateur career by becoming the first man since Budge in 1938 to sweep the four majors in a single year.

To be sure, Laver’s opposition in 1962 was not as daunting as 1969, but the fact remained that he stopped Emerson in three of those four 1962 title matches, which was no mean feat against a man who won 12 major singles titles between 1961 and 1967, a record that stood until Sampras broke it in 2000. As Laver now assesses his 1962 achievement, “In those days, if you played lousy, you could get beaten. But if you played reasonably well, there were only about 30 to 40 guys that were going to test you. Overall the players in 1969 were better, but beating Roy Emerson in all those 1962 finals was very difficult. Roy was very happy for me when I won my first Grand Slam. But at the same time he was trying to beat the hell out of me.”

Following his triumphant journey though 1962, Laver essentially had to start all over again. He turned professional. Waiting for him on that rigorous tour were Rosewall, Hoad, Butch Buchholz and other polished players. Buchholz, now tournament chairman at the Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami, was Laver’s doubles partner, and the two formed a lasting friendship. In fact, Buchholz couldn’t help but think of Laver 18 years ago while presenting the winner’s check for the first Lipton International Players Championships (as the Nasdaq-100 Open was known in 1985).

“I gave a check to Tim Mayotte for winning the tournament, and he got $112,000 for two weeks of tennis,” Buchholz recalls. “Rod Laver, maybe the best player ever, was sitting there in the stands and when he turned pro he signed a three-year contract for $110,000. That gave me chills because Rod made such a big contribution to pro tennis. When he turned pro, we were on life support. Hoad and Rosewall were thinking about retiring. Tony Trabert was ready to retire. Gonzalez was in and out. So there was not a lot of momentum for pro tennis. Rodney turning pro kept us all going.”

Laver took some hard knocks in his first six months as a pro, particularly against Hoad and Rosewall. Gradually, inevitably, he got his bearings.

“I knew I was going to have to improve my game,” Laver reflects. “The amateur world was a lot easier. In some ways, we were just show ponies playing for the crowd. But in professional tennis, I found out I had a weak second serve and I didn’t hit deep enough volleys. Against Rosewall, I always had to play my best tennis to win. Hoad was my idol. He had the charisma, the power, everything. I had trouble playing him. In pro tennis I was playing against world champions nightly, and I thought, ‘Hey, I am not going to be a pushover in this pro world.’”

Clearly, he was not. Laver won the prestigious U.S. Pro Championships in 1964, 1966 and 1967. There were no official rankings during his pro tour years (1963-67), but he was surely the best player in the world over that span. When Open Tennis commenced in 1968, he was almost 30, but after five years of being barred from the Grand Slam events, a revitalized Laver won Wimbledon that year to reestablish his superiority at the majors, then erupted in his 1969 Slam season.

No one could halt Laver when it counted. He overcame the left-handed, burly Tony Roche 7-5, 22-20, 9-11,1-6, 6-3 in a bruising four-and-a-half hour battle in the semifinals of the Australian Open, then routed Andres Gimeno to take that title. At the French Open, he toppled Stan Smith, Gimeno, Tom Okker and Rosewall to rule on the slow red clay. As Laver recollects, “The consensus was that I wasn’t going to beat any of those guys. I would hear things. But all I needed was incentive, so I said to myself, ‘Hey, you guys, I am not out of this bloody thing.’ I probably played my best ever sustained clay court tennis against Rosewall and won in straight sets. I remember thinking, ‘I lost to this little bugger here last year. It’s my turn. I am going to win this one.’”

At Wimbledon, Laver beat John Newcombe in a superb four-set final. And at the U.S. Open, as if by design, he ousted Roche again, this time in a four-set final on the damp grass at Forest Hills.

As Laver says, “When I turned professional, I didn’t see another left-hander for five years. Tony was playing great tennis in 1969. I always had a tough time with lefties. But I felt great about winning that second Grand Slam. I guess I was poking my chest out a little far, but I knew that the next week someone would be gunning for me.”

When he completed his 1969 Grand Slam, Laver was 31. He had peaked propitiously and yet remained a major force in the game through the first half of the 1970s. But after his stupendous 1969 season, Laver played the big ones only sporadically and never made it past the quarterfinals in his last eight Grand Slam events from 1970 through 1977.

Nevertheless, Laver still secured 12 tournament titles in 1970. The next year, he put on a dazzling display to win 13 consecutive matches in an indoor event called “The Tennis Champions Classic,” earning $160,000 for his efforts – an exorbitant sum in those days. That all-star indoor event was held all over the U.S. and Laver took apart virtually every top name of that time – Roche, Newcombe, Rosewall, Dennis Ralston, Arthur Ashe, Emerson and Okker – demonstrating his enduring greatness. “I was proud of that performance,” says Laver. “I knew my time was coming to an end and there weren’t going to be too many more opportunities to do something like that.”

The following year, Laver lost an epic encounter to Rosewall in the final of the 1972 WCT Championships in Dallas. He was proud to be a part of one of the greatest matches in tennis history, but dismayed to lose 4-6, 6-0, 6-3, 6-7, 7-6(5) after leading 5-3 in the fifth set tiebreak. “I let a match slip away that I had in my pocket,” Laver recalls. “I knew I had played some good tennis, but I had been in a position to win; so I was very disappointed.”

Laver never stopped working assiduously at his craft. In fact, he moved almost seamlessly from the men’s tour into senior tennis, helping to establish the “Legends Tour” in the 1980s and remaining a senior competitor until the mid 1990s. Remembering why he decided to compete in the senior events, Laver says, “Ken Rosewall, Fred Stolle, Roy Emerson and I were all looking at each other and saying, ‘These young guys [on the men’s tour] are beating up on us. Why don’t we form our own tour?’ So we had the Legends Tour. It was not just the thrill of competing that had us out there, but it was also financial.” Laver was amply rewarded for his efforts in those years, although the money in the senior game was not anything like what John McEnroe and company makes these days.

But as Buchholz contends, “Knowing Rodney’s personality, money was never his main motivation. He wanted to play against the best players at every stage of his career.”

Those who competed against Laver celebrate the Australian unabashedly. Cliff Drysdale, the distinguished anchor of ESPN tennis telecasts and a 20-year veteran of the broadcast booth, was a world Top 10 player in the 1960s and ’70s and upset Laver at the first U.S. Open in 1968. He muses, “When Rod played, no matter who he faced, no matter what the round, the players were all out there to watch him. Nobody else had his variety: the sliced backhand, topspin backhand, hook continental forehand, everything. We all would always go out to watch him. He epitomized that you don’t have to be a jerk to be a champion. Rod is a gentle giant who spoke only with his racquet. That sounds like a cliché but it is born of his accomplishments, his personality and his era.”

Drysdale makes a penetrating comparison between Laver and Sampras, the two men inextricably linked in the minds of most experts as the best ever. “The issue of Laver or Sampras as the best ever is clouded by so many things. Laver in his prime missed more than 20 Grand Slam tournaments. If numbers and figures are your judge, then Laver is unbeatable, since he is the only player to win two Grand Slams. But if the two of them ever got out on the court in their primes, Sampras would have beaten Laver eight out of 10 times in a head-to-head series. There is no question about that in my mind.

“The bottom line is I believe Laver is the greatest ever. His record speaks for itself. [It] sets him apart.”

That is still the case. When Laver had his stroke, the recuperative process was not easy. He had physical, occupational and speech therapy for months. But his wife, Mary, and 33-year-old son, Rick, kept Laver believing in himself. He recalls, “You just have to believe you can do something about getting back on your feet again. Whatever you did before the stroke, you should attempt to accomplish it after the stroke. I haven’t forgotten about what happened to me. Being left-handed, my left side wasn’t affected but my right side was. You can get into a habit of protecting the way you walk. My family has been very aggressive in helping me.

“I still enjoy working with various corporations like Nabisco, Kraft and Prudential Securities. It is good for me to keep doing those things and pushing myself, but it is at a different level.”

Laver plays golf “a couple of days a week” and picks up the tennis racquet with some regularity as well. In January, he joined countrymen Owen Davidson and Fred Stolle for a three-day Congressional Pro-Am in Washington. “When I do an event like that,” says Laver, “I practice for three or four days in a row.” But above all, Laver is a roving ambassador for the game, improving any event he attends by just showing up. He goes to Miami each spring for the Nasdaq-100 Open and relishes the annual Saturday morning doubles match he plays with Buchholz.

Right after Rocket had the stroke,” Buchholz recalls, “I spoke to him as soon as he could talk, and he said, ‘Butch, I am not going to miss our Saturday morning doubles match.’ Rod worked for months to be sure he could be ready to play. And he made it. We still have that match every year, and Rod still has it on the court. He handles all of his fame with great humility. [Rod is] an Aussie through and through. That is his legacy.”

Senior correspondent Steve Flink is author of “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century.” His last article for Tennis Week was “Big Brother or ‘Oh Brother?’” in the Dec. 2002/Jan. 2003 issue.

Original article appeared in Tennis Week Magazine, Issue:  February 11, 2003.