20 September 2018

Rocket Man

There has never been a champion quite like the legendary leftie, Rod Laver. Created in his honour, the Laver Cup, which begins today in Chicago, is the latest in a long line of tributes to the skinny kid from Queensland who grew up to break every tennis record in the book 

This evening in Chicago, 6 of the top men from Europe will start their battle against 6 top men from the rest of the world in the second-ever Laver Cup. Tennis’s answer to golf’s Ryder Cup, the Laver Cup was Roger Federer’s idea of paying tribute to the great ‘Rocket’ Rod Laver, the greatest player of the 20th century (and possibly of all time if Federer himself, Djokovic and Nadal were not also in the running).

Never mind who is the GOAT. Any list of tennis greats will always include the self-styled "short and skinny, freckle-faced, crooked-nosed, bow-legged and painfully shy bloodnut [redhead]” who, when it was hot, used to play with a wet cabbage leaf under his hat – “nothing like a green salad on your head” - and was originally nicknamed the Rocket by his coach and Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman “because he wasn’t. He was one of the slowest lads in the class.”

Laver’s fame rests on many records. He has more singles titles than anyone in history (200) and he won all four Grand Slams in the same calendar year – twice. He won them first as an amateur in 1962 and again, in 1969 as a pro when the Open Era finally dawned. As famous for his reserve as he is for his tennis, the closest he ever came to abusing an official was to ask, "Are you sure?"The BBC's Dan Maskell called him "technically flawless".

Laver was born in Queensland, Australia in 1938 and was from what he calls sturdy stock (his grandmother rode a horse until she died aged 90). As was common in the outback, his father fashioned a tennis court by knocking over a hardened anthill and grinding the grit into the ground. When his older brothers were having a lesson, the young Rod, still in his pyjamas, snuck down to watch. “Let the little bugger have a hit,” said the coach, Charlie Hollis.

Rod, according to Charlie, had "an eye like a hawk" and while he also thought the kid was “a midget in need of a good feed", he knew if he could add a killer instinct to the child's natural talent, Laver could become a champion.

When Laver began playing, the slams were for amateurs only. But to secure both his future and that of the professional game, he turned pro in 1963. It was a difficult time.  The All England Club revoked his membership and forbade him from wearing the tie, and the outlawed pros lived a ‘ragtag’ life, playing in venues like La Paz where the 12,000feet altitude gave the players nosebleeds. “We’d go anywhere for almost anything,” wrote Laver in his memoir, The Education of a Tennis Player, but it made them stronger. The “hardships we pros shared made us proud of our skills and perseverance”, and by the time they were re-embraced into the warmth of the grand slam fold, they were tough and determined – and grateful. Walking back into Wimbledon in 1968, he says they felt like “pardoned men”.

Laver’s quiet personality and modest demeanour belie a ferocious will and work ethic which became evident in 1998 when, just before his 60th birthday and during a television interview in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles, he had a stroke. As he later wrote:

“Suddenly my fingers got numb. I didn’t have control. I know a lot of crazy things happened to me including explosive vomiting and collapsing. There were seizures, awfully high blood pressure, a fever they had trouble controlling – 106 degrees for a few days – swelling of the brain. I had to be restrained at times, they tell me. I guess I wanted out. Sometimes I ripped out the IVs. I was rough on everybody. I do remember being aphasic, blurring, slurring words. I looked terrible, lost 30 pounds to 130. I couldn’t form words. One of the toughest was 'dog'.”

A long period of convalescence followed and a great deal of therapy. Laver’s wife Mary said the therapists had never worked with anyone so determined to recover. And recover he did.  Now he is often asked to address stroke patients. “I’m happy to do it. I tell them, don’t accept. You’re a viable entity. Try.”

Find out more about the Laver Cup here. The Laver Cup is broadcast in the UK on Sky Sport.

Laver’s top tips for any player

  • No lead is as big as it looks. Don’t compose eulogies to yourself when you are ahead. Concentrate on staying there.

  • A good punch on the nose, that’s the volley.  

  • You can’t change the last point. Forget it. Get the next one.
  • Carry a tennis ball around and squeeze it when you have nothing to do.  You will be amazed how this will build up strength in your racket wrist and arm (he did this himself).
  • Patience and legs. You’ll go a long way with those assets on clay. You’re going to be on court a while. Bring your lunch.
  • You’ve got to get that lead shoulder all the way round for a back hand (the right shoulder for a right hander). Get the shoulder round, hit the ball in front of the front foot, let your arm unwind and you’ve got it. Repeat after me. The backhand is a cinch. Look at it that way and you’ll see I’m right.
  • Don’t change a winning game; always change a losing one.
  • Always go hard for the first point of a game, and the first two games of a set
  • Concentration is the hardest part of tennis. To concentrate you have to wipe everything from your mind except the match and the ball. Nothing but the ball. Glue your eyes on it. Marry it. Don’t let it out of your sight. Never mind your opponent, the weather, people watching or anything. Nothing but the ball. If you can get yourself into that trance, pressure won’t intrude. It’s just you and the ball.
Photo Photographer: Evers, Joost / Anefo reproduced via  Wikimedia Commons