Laver at 82… still charming the game he once dominated

There cannot be too many more glowing accolades left to be attributed to one of the world’s greatest tennis players, Rodney George Laver, who celebrated his 82nd birthday earlier this week.

The legend lives on, and with it, the remembrance of times gone by, way before the days when tennis was a profession, for professionals!

His longevity, recent presence on the tour and friendship with many of the current greats makes him one of the few people in tennis who can straddle its past, its present and even its future.

That his birthdate (9th August) sits snugly between Roger Federer and Peter Sampras is fitting, probably more for the Swiss and the American, than for ‘Rocket’ Rod.

For while he is a great admirer of today’s tennis champions, it is to Laver who todays pros look to try to grasp something of the pioneering years gone by.

It is Laver, as their living predecessor, who, along with the likes of Lew Hoad, for example, first introduced power as a weapon into the game in the 60’s and 70’s. And it was Laver who, for those two decades, led the Australian charge which led to its dominance of tennis in a way that has, sadly for that great tennis nation, seen only sporadic success since.

Laver is, as Konrad Marshall put it just a year ago in the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine, “the one who reminds Australia of its history in the game.”

You could add to that he reminds the world of the bygone age of tennis.

A twice Grand Slam winner (that would be ‘proper’ Grand Slams, the kind you won before the game’s administrators invented ‘roll over’ Grand Slams) , the Queensland born left-hander now enjoys latter day legendary status, appearing on the same big stage podiums as the players who are winning today’s Majors.
He is belatedly feted by the sport he once dominated, and understandably so.

The game almost lost him 22 years ago, to a fearsome stroke. His formidable national contemporaries – Roche, Newcome, Emerson, Stolle, Rosewall, Hoad, Sedgman and Ashley Cooper et al – would all have admitted that his tennis strokes were fearsome enough, but this was the real deal.

Death was calling back in 1998, but it didn’t claim him. There was more to come from this reclusive champion.
Six weeks after that stroke, he was back at his Californian home, being cared for by his wife Mary, but it took another two years for his motor skills to recover and even longer for him to venture out into the recognition that his career in tennis deserved. It wasn’t that tennis had forgotten him, but his flirtation with death had side-lined him from the sport he never stopped loving.

It was one of Laver’s contemporaries and long-lasting friends, Fred Stolle, who would say, “Rocket was never more dangerous than when you backed him into a corner. He was always going to fight the stroke.”
And he did.

By the turn of the century, Laver was back on his feet, albeit tentatively. He was, however, functioning well enough physically to face the next major challenge in his life, the debilitating illness and deterioration over a decade of his wife of 46 years, Mary, who finally succumbed to an aneurism in 2012, aged 84.

For a decade or more, family illness had taken Laver out of the picture, away from the game he cherished. It was a long absence. Laver was gone, but not forgotten.

Invitations to attend some of the game’s Majors continued to arrive at his California home, a factor which allowed him back on to centre stage. More importantly, it allowed the more inquisitive of us among the generation that never saw him play the opportunity to rediscover something about the pre-Open Era he dominated.
Fans of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray and others, who took the trouble to research this man on the podium alongside their present day heroes, would discover that his career spanned both the amateur and professional game. He was the No. 1 ranked professional for seven years, four years before the Open Era and three years after it. By then though, Laver already had his first Grand Slam under his belt, won six years previously.

The game may have become professional in 1968, but Laver was earning money from it well before then. As the top player in the world, he was a big draw. And there were bills to pay.

By the time of his second Slam in 1969 he was a professional playing in a professional game, earning money, and becoming, three years later, the first player to earn $1million in prize-money in a single year. He won 11 Grand Slam singles titles, but unlike those who have won so many more today, he played doubles (winning 28 career titles, 6 of them in Grand Slams) and played Davis Cup relentlessly for his country, helping Australia win it on five occasions. His 200 career singles titles have never been surpassed. He won 10 or more titles for 7 consecutive years between 1964 and 1970, a remarkable record. No wonder the game and its 21st century champions wanted him back.

Today, age and arthritis have slowed the Rocket down somewhat, but not the attraction. Rod Laver is history walking, and while there are many other greats of his era who live on, it is Laver who epitomises that which preceded the Open Era. We need to look after our history makers. Belated Happy Birthday Rod!

Rod Laver holds up the Wimbledon Trophy in 1968, the first year of the Open Era.

Rolls Press/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images



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