Rocket pow­ered by a gen­teel hu­mil­ity

Rod Laver: A Mem­oir

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Gary Smith Gary Smith

By Rod Laver, with Larry Writer Macmil­lan, 416pp, $39.99 (HB)

C’ MON Rod, please. Just once. Re­peat af­ter me: ‘‘ I am one of the great­est ten­nis play­ers in the his­tory of the game. Per­haps the great­est.’’

No; all you will get from the diffident and hum­ble Rock­hamp­ton Rocket is an awk­ward chuckle, eyes averted, and the old chest­nut ex­plain­ing why it’s fool­hardy to com­pare play­ers from dif­fer­ent eras (think Don Brad­man).

A mod­ern great, Roger Fed­erer, writes in his fore­word to Rod Laver: A Mem­oir of Laver’s ‘‘ en­dear­ing hu­mil­ity’’. Oh, and also that he is a gen­uine ten­nis leg­end — sport­ing hyper­bole that for once ac­tu­ally fits.

Laver is the only player to have won the grand slam — all four ma­jor tour­na­ments in a cal­en­dar year — on two oc­ca­sions, in 1962 and 1969, a heady era in gen­eral for Aus­tralian ten­nis.

If that is not enough to con­fer leg­endary sta­tus, then add his gra­cious be­hav­iour on and off court — he ad­mits he oc­ca­sion­ally backed his op­po­nent on dis­puted line calls. As he points out, those were vastly dif­fer­ent days in ten­nis, be­fore John McEn­roe, Jimmy Con­nors and Ilie Nas­tase were un­leashed on the game to dis­play their boor­ish tac­ti­cal tantrums.

But even the 1960s fea­tured the oc­ca­sional flare-up, mainly in the shape of the iras­ci­ble Pan­cho Gon­za­les. Dur­ing a match in 1968, even Laver grew tired of the Amer­i­can’s febrile tem­per and promptly started abus­ing him back, to the shock of fans who al­ways re­garded the Rocket as the stan­dard-bearer for sport­ing good grace. Yet the most flak he ever di­rected to­wards an of­fi­cial over a de­ci­sion would be a mur­mured: ‘‘ Are you sure?’’

Here is a leg­end — yes, it bears re­peat­ing; af­ter all, he is an Aus­tralian Na­tional Liv­ing Trea­sure — who, in the adrenalin-fu­elled sec­onds af­ter hit­ting a match-win­ning shot, leapt over the net in his ex­cite­ment to shake hands with a van­quished ri­val, but soon re­gret­ted it as a sign of dis­re­spect.

In­evitably, this mem­oir is a rose-tinted and misty-eyed jour­ney through the golden days of Aus­tralian ten­nis: in 1969 there were six Aussie men in the world top 10, and in 1970 the top four places were filled by Laver, John New­combe, Ken Rose­wall and Tony Roche. In the 20 years to 1970, Aussies won the Wim­ble­don men’s sin­gles ti­tle 13 times and the Aus­tralian cham­pi­onships 18 times.

The Rocket — as he was iron­i­cally dubbed by coach Harry Hop­man be­cause he was so slow on court in his for­ma­tive years — first played the game in the back gar­den on a court fash­ioned from ant-beds, from which peb­bles were crushed into a smooth, hard grit and mixed with loam.

The ‘‘ short and skinny, freckle-faced, crooked-nosed, bow-legged and painfully shy blood nut’’, as Laver de­scribes him­self (‘‘a midget in need of a good feed’’, his first coach­ing men­tor Char­lie Hol­lis said), left school at 14 and, on a diet of steak and eggs, in time pro­ceeded to dom­i­nate the sport for much of his 22-year ca­reer.

Along the way he pi­o­neered the con­sis­tent use of hard-hit top-spin with fore­hand and back­hand, chang­ing the way the game was played and, af­ter turn­ing pro­fes­sional in 1962, helped pave the way for open ten­nis, fol­low­ing years of bick­er­ing and brawl­ing be­tween the rul­ing bod­ies for am­a­teurs and the pro­fes­sional ‘‘ out­laws’’. He would later be­come the sport’s first mil­lion­aire.

Laver, re­al­is­ing his top-spin was a po­tent new weapon, de­vel­oped a left fore­arm that was mus­cu­lar and in­con­gru­ous with his slight stature (at 173cm). His fore­arm was as big as heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion Rocky Mar­ciano’s, more than 30cm around.

In­sights into the ruc­tions be­tween

the tra­di­tion­al­ists and the break­away pros’ tour­ing ‘‘ cir­cus’’, which fea­tured a re­lent­lessly hec­tic jet-set­ting cir­cuit, with matches in dif­fer­ent cities and coun­tries ev­ery night (pur­pose-built courts in­cluded a can­vas stretched over an ice rink), are fas­ci­nat­ing as a sign of ten­nis’s emerg­ing brave new world.

Laver’s willpower while re­cov­er­ing from a brain aneurysm on the eve of his 60th birth­day and his sub­se­quent role as long-time carer for his wife Mary, who died last year , show, at times poignantly, the hu­man vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of a once-great sport­ing hero.

But don’t ex­pect Laver to beat his chest and trum­pet his ground­break­ing achieve­ments. The clos­est you’ll get to that is the ac­knowl­edg­ment that he was lucky enough to be a lit­tle bet­ter than his op­po­nent on the day.

Fed­erer was re­duced to tears when Laver pre­sented him with the Nor­man Brookes Chal­lenge Cup af­ter he won the Aus­tralian Open in 2006. Who can help but get a lit­tle dewy-eyed when the cam­eras zoom in on the Rocket in the crowd at Rod Laver Arena, of­ten along­side another leg­end, Rose­wall? For they rep­re­sent a by­gone ten­nis hey­day when sport­ing he­roes were just that, in name and deed.

Rod Laver at Wim­ble­don in 1968

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