Monday, February 7, 2011

Rod Laver: The Rocket Man of Tennis


“The time your game is most vulnerable is when you're ahead, never let up.”
Rod Laver

“The next point—that's all you must think about.”
—Rod Laver

“Laver is arguably the best tennis player ever to swing a racket.”
Christopher Clouser on inducting Rod Laver 
in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, 1981

Rod Laver at the 1969 Top Tennis Tournament in Amsterdam
Photo Credit: Joost Evers; Anefo

Many consider Rod Laver the greatest male tennis player of all time. Others would say that distinction belongs to  Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Pete Sampras—all great players. The choice betrays one's age and nationality, which is often the case when compiling lists of sports legends. Yet, Laver himself disputes such claims as the greatest ever, saying: "I don't think you can compare eras. You can be dominant performer of your time, but I don't think anyone has the title of best ever."

Point taken. Even so, Rod Laver's claim to tennis greatness is well-supported. He has won 11 major tournaments in his career, ranking him fourth with Bjorn Borg on winning the most major titles. But, a more important distinction is that Laver is the only male tennis player to have won the Grand Slam twice, in 1962 and 1969, the latter as a professional. The Grand Slam encompasses, in order, the major tournaments of the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open.

And here's the match point of my argument. Laver remains the last and only singles player to have won the Grand Slam since the Open era began in 1968. In the Open Era, professional players were allowed to participate in tournaments previously open to only amateurs.

And if lists count, and they do for many people, in a field of many greats, Laver ranks as no. 1:
Laver came out on top in various experts polls for the best of all time. In 1986, the US magazine Inside Tennis polled 37 experts, which resulted in a computerized tournament. Laver ranked first on this list ahead of John McEnroe, Don Budge, Kramer, Björn Borg, Gonzales, Tilden, Jimmy Connors, Fred Perry, and Lew Hoad.

In a poll by the Associated Press in 2000, Laver was voted "The Male Tennis Player of the Century", ahead of Pete Sampras, Tilden, Borg, Budge, McEnroe and Hoad (tied), Rosewall and Roy Emerson (tied), and Kramer.

In an article in Tennis Week in 2007, the tennis historian Raymond Lee statistically analyzed the all-time best players. Laver topped his list ahead of Tilden and Borg (tied), Roger Federer, Gonzales, Rosewall, Budge, Ivan Lendl, Connors, Sampras, McEnroe, and Kramer.
Laver, a 5 ft 8 in lefthander achieved a career record of 413-107, or a winning percentage of 79.49%, according to ATP statistics. He won 42 titles in total, and earned $1.5 million in his career, which spanned 23 years.  He also played on five winning Australian Davis Cup teams: in 1959 to 1962, and  in 1973 as a professional, where Laver's record was 16-4 in singles and 4-0 in doubles.

The Early Years

Laver: He was a fiercy competitive player, saying: “When you've got your man down, rub him out.”

Rodney George Laver was born to Roy and Melba Laver (nee Roffey) in Rockhampton, Australia, on  August 9, 1938. His father was a cattle rancher and a competitive tennis player and his mother a tournament-level tennis player, which explains the young Laver's early interest in the sport.

As the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography puts it: "Roy and Melba frequently played mixed doubles together, as well as singles individually, in Rockhampton-area tournaments, often emerging as champions. Every home the family lived in had a tennis court on the premises, and the Laver children all began playing competitively at early ages."

Laver left school as a teenager to play tennis. Laver was the U.S. junior champion in 1957 and the Australian junior champion in 1957.  He put his career on brief hold to serve for a year in the Australian Army in 1957, then hopped back onto the fast track to tennis fame. Two years later, in 1959, at Wimbledon in England, the 20-year-old Laver reached all three finals—singles, doubles and mixed doubles, winning the mixed doubles title with Darlene Hard.

When Australian Davis Cup team captain Harry Hopman took on Laver, he him the nickname "Rocket." It was out of irony, Laver pointed out later:  "Harry Hopman seemed to think I was pretty lackadaisical, always waiting to the last minute to get to the ball."

What was not disputed, however, was the power of his topspin shots, both forehand and backhands, the latter also one-handed. Much of that rocket power came from his over-sized wrists and forearms, which had a circumference of 7 inches (17.8 cm) and 12 inches (30.5 cm), respectively. To put things in perspective, Laver's forearms were similar in size to that of Rocky Marciano, a heavyweight boxing champ of the 1950s.

Laver's presence was domination  on the court, says the Association of Tennis Professionals, the ranking body:
An incessant attacker, he was nevertheless a complete player who glowed in the backcourt and at the net. Laver's 5-foot-8-1/2, 145-pound body seemed to dangle from a massive left arm that belonged to a gorilla, an arm with which he bludgeoned the ball and was able to impart ferocious topspin. Although others had used top-spin, Laver may have inspired a wave of heavy-hitting topspin practitioners of the 1970s such as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. The stroke became basic after Laver.
A Dominating Player

Laver dominated men's tennis in the early 1960s. He captured his first Wimbledon championship in 1961, defeating Chuck McKinley in straight sets in a final that lasted less than an hour. In 1962, he again won the Wimbledon final in straight sets, this time over Martin Mulligan. That victory followed earlier victories in the Italian, French and German championships.

Having claimed three of the four Grand Slam events for the year, Laver entered the 1962 U.S. tournament with a lot of pressure on him. Nobody had won the Grand Slam since Don Budge in 1938. Laver tore through the early rounds before facing his countryman, Roy Emerson, in the final. Laver prevailed in four sets, completing the first Grand Slam in tennis in 24 years.

Laver turned professional after completing the Grand Slam in 1962. His presence invigorated a professional game that had many different leagues and organizations running it. (It wouldn't be until 1990 that the Association of Tennis Professionals, or ATP, would become the governing body of men's professional tennis.)

Laver met his wife, Mary, at Jack Kramer's country club in Los Angeles in 1964. They got married in  1966.

His greatest matches in the 1960s were likely against his countryman, Roy Emerson.  In 1963, Rosewell was the better player, winning 11 out of the 13 matches against Laver. A year later, things reversed, and Laver defeated Rosewall 12 times out of the 15 times they faced each other. In 1966, when Laver was ranked the world's no. 1 player, Laver won 15 titles and 13 of the 18 matches he played against Rosewall. He was hitting his prime.

In 1969, the year he won his second Grand Slam, Laver won 18 out of 32 singles tournaments he entered, compiling a 106-16 win-loss record. He went on to set a record of 31 consecutive match victories at Wimbledon between the years 1961 and 1970. His winning streak lasted until 1980, only to be broken, by the ice man, Bjorn Borg.

Retirement & Honours

Laver retired from tennis in 1978. Many other honours followed, including being named a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE); being  inducted into The International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981; and being named an Australian Living Treasure.

In 2000, the centre court at Melbourne Park, which hosts the Australian Open, was named the Rod Laver Arena. In 2003, Laver, along with his fellow Australian tennis superstar Margaret Court, was honoured with his portrait on a postage stamp by the "Australia Post Australian Legends Award."

He suffered a stroke in 1998, spending 13 days in the intensive care unit. By dint of hard work, and the dogged determination taht defined his playing career, Laver recovered from the stroke sufficiently enough to present Andre Agassi with the trophy for his victory in the French Open. He lives is Carlsbad, California.

We might not agree on who's no. 1, but I am sure that we can all agree that Laver was an exciting player that did his nation of Australia proud, and brought the world of tennis much-needed attention and energy.