Tennis legend Rod Laver
“Last year I was the excuse to have a dinner,” Rod Laver says with a laugh, and then proceeds to tell me he’s getting an old bookcase converted into a cabinet to display the replica trophies collected on his grand slam 50th anniversary tour. The 81-year-old was feted in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York as the only player in history to twice win all four major titles in a calendar year. Only four other players have achieved the feat – and just once.
As one of Australia’s national treasures, Laver denies any onset of adulation fatigue. But his plan is for a far more low-key 2020, with a greater amount of time spent on the golf course near his home in California and less time in airport departure lounges and interview rooms. Still, with his career record, there always seems to be a milestone lurking or something to celebrate. So I ask him during our interview last weekend at his Melbourne hotel if he is aware of the particular significance of this year.
“The rat?” he fires back. “The Year of the Rat, isn’t it?” Which it is, according to the Chinese zodiac cycle, although the query was intended to be more tennis related. Specifically, the fact that it is 20 years since the centre court at Melbourne (originally Flinders) Park was renamed Rod Laver Arena. Informed of this forgotten anniversary, the man fondly known as “Rocket” wonders aloud if it really was 2000. He is not so much challenging the information as merely querying it, because memories from that time are hazy.
“I had a stroke back then,” Laver says matter-of-factly, referring to the health emergency that occurred during the taping of a TV interview in Los Angeles in 1998. “So I didn’t know the exact year. That sort of all drifted away. Back at that stage I was just happy to be sitting up again.” After six weeks in hospital, he was cared for at home by his wife, Mary, and took his first steps six months later. Rod, in turn, nursed Mary through breast cancer treatment and a heart attack and surgery before an aortic aneurysm claimed her life in 2012. They had been married for 46 years.
This series of events led to about a decade spent far from the spotlight for one of the candidates for GOAT (greatest of all time) status. Surprisingly it was Australia Post that helped lure him out of Carlsbad, near San Diego, and back into public life. Laver’s friend Stephen Walter was the instigator of a commemorative stamp shared with Australian women’s champion Margaret Court and, when he agreed to become Laver’s manager, Walter encouraged the widower to start accepting some of the many invitations he was still receiving, and to entertain a few other possibilities, too.
“We wanted Rod to enjoy the tennis again, go much more often. We wanted him to get some commercial arrangements, and we wanted him to have a greater legacy and recognition – so things like Laver Cup, statues, the highest Order of Australia award. But mainly it was about Rod enjoying himself. The commercial thing was secondary to that – although he is the greatest living Australian sportsman.”
Laver won 11 majors in his career. And while that number may seem dwarfed by the 20 and 19 won by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal respectively, Laver actually missed 21 opportunities from 1963 to 1968. At that time he was in his prime, but, having tired of earning “20 shillings a day” in the amateur era, he defected to the professional ranks populated by the likes of Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales, under promoter Jack Kramer. Only when tennis’s open era dawned in 1968, by which time Laver was nearing his 30th birthday, did the majors reopen their doors to the “outlaws”, as the champion likes to calls his renegade brethren. The following year, the bushranger from Rockhampton won all four – and thus the more significant of his two grand slams. But he has no regrets, saying he returned a far better player, having experienced five nights a week of hard-nut tennis against some of the greats of the game.
With Melbourne’s second-most famous sports stadium named in his honour, Laver says seeing Rod Laver Arena from various vantage points across the city – including his hotel room – never “gets old”.
According to former Australian Open tournament director and doubles great Paul McNamee, “When Rod arrived for the first time to see his name up there, he was just overwhelmed.” Before the completion of RLA, McNamee describes the appreciation for Laver’s achievements as “underwhelming”, and asserts “he’s far better known now than he was 20 years ago. Far, far, far better.”
McNamee describes his one mixed doubles match against Laver as a career highlight, and is always struck by Laver’s humility. “Rocket said, ‘To think it’s named after me when you’ve got other guys like Lew and Ken and Newk [John Newcombe] and everyone else’ … He just didn’t feel like he should be singled out ahead of other great Australian players of that era. But the record speaks for itself and he’s such a humble person.”
As for the GOAT debate, Laver expects Novak Djokovic – currently on 16 grand slam titles, including seven Australian Opens – to eventually overtake Federer and Nadal on the ladder of majors by which the pecking order of success is mostly judged. Asked how he thinks he would fare in the current era, with the same benefits of equipment and technology, Laver replies that he knows fitness would not be a problem, but quips that he would need to regain the couple of inches he has lost in later-age shrinkage. Hence his admiration for pocket-sized Argentinian Diego Schwartzman, who stands (officially, anyway) at a relatable 170 centimetres, and who lost to Djokovic on RLA in the fourth round last Sunday.
Does he think any man currently on the tour can emulate his grand slam achievement?
“Yes, it’s possible, but you’ve got one ingredient in Rafa. Who’s gonna beat him at the French? Which means he’s got to retire and be off the ticket. Unless he does it himself, and he certainly could. But he’s getting to be a little older now and so playing on grass is not his best surface, but he’s done well there [at Wimbledon], he certainly has. I would say that Novak, probably when you’re looking at it in the next three to five years, I’d have to put his name in there. But you have to be very fortunate: don’t have any injuries, don’t have any sickness, don’t have anything wrong with you, because just one day can knock you out of it.”
Which, even given the impossibility of comparing eras, and the unprecedented depth in this one, puts Laver’s achievements into some perspective. His first calendar year grand slam came as a youthful amateur in 1962; the second as a hardened pro in 1969. He is now an elder statesman of tennis, still and always a gentleman, a pale-skinned diminutive figure who jokes about the days when he was a redhead, wanders off the conversational track occasionally but still immediately knew he wanted to get on court at Roland Garros last year when Ash Barty became the first Australian winner there since Margaret Court in 1973. From courtside on that Saturday in Paris, Laver said to tournament director and former world No. 4 Guy Forget that he would like to offer his congratulations in person.
“When she won, I thought, ‘Oh, I want to go and shake her hand,’ ” Laver recalls. “Guy Forget said, ‘Well, go out there and do it’, and I was, ‘I’m not going out there on my own, are you kidding me?’ He said, ‘Well, come out with me.’ So I did.” Barty was thrilled to see her fellow Queenslander, and Laver in turn has great admiration for the gracious 23-year-old and her clever, powerful, varied game, including the old-style slice that is a key point of difference.
As his son, Rick, waits to whisk him off to his eponymous arena, there is just time to ask what Laver would like his legacy to be. “Oh, I don’t know. I enjoyed the game,” he says, smiling and knowing he’ll be pressed for a fuller answer. “I think my reputation of being a player that competed on all surfaces. And my record. Just leave that out there. Whatever people think. Winning the grand slam certainly was a feather in my cap.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Rocket power". Subscribe here.