Rocket powered by a genteel humility
Rod Laver: A Memoir
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