Australian tennis player
Rod "Rocket" Laver has been called the greatest tennis player of the twentieth century, and for good reason. He is the only player in the history of tennis to win two Grand Slams—taking the singles titles of the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open in a single year. His first Grand Slam came in 1962, while he was still an amateur, but when later that year he turned professional, he was no longer eligible to play those tournaments. With the advent of the Open era in 1968, however, pros like Laver were once again allowed to compete in the Grand Slam tournaments, and the Australian wonder once again scored the Royal Flush of tennis, winning his second Grand Slam in 1969. Tennis historians contend that, had Laver been able to play in those intervening years, he may have won as many as nine Wimbledons in a row and no telling how many Grand Slams.
A small man, Laver is credited with bringing power to the game, turning his left-handed topspin into an offensive weapon, and influencing future generations from John McEnroe to Pete Sampras . His blend of aggressive play and rapid movement makes him one of the first truly modern players in the sport, and his record of 11 major titles held for many years into the Open era. Laver was the first tennis millionaire, earning almost $300,000 in tournaments in 1971, an unheard of amount up to that time. When he retired in 1978, he had earned over $1.5 million on the courts, thus paving the way for other tennis professionals to make a living from the sport from winnings, sponsorships, and endorsements. In both his style of play and his earnings as a professional, Laver thus became a model for later players and helped pave the way for modern tennis.
An Aussie Upbringing
Rodney George Laver was the product of a tennis family. The third of four children, Laver was born on August 9, 1938, in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. His father,
Roy, a cattle rancher, was one of 13 children, all tennis players. When Roy went looking for a wife, he found Melba Roffey, another tennis player, at a tournament in the Queensland town of Dingo. Married, the couple had a tennis court next to every house they ever lived in, and it was not untypical for the father to cook dinner while his wife was outside playing tennis with the kids. Melba and Roy played singles and mixed doubles in every tournament they could in and around Rockhampton, winning them all, and soon their four children were following in their footsteps, winning in a variety of age categories. Rod Laver began challenging his older brothers when he was six, using a hand-me-down racquet with a sawed-down handle to fit him. When he was thirteen, Laver, small for his age, took on his brother Bob in the junior final of the Central Queensland championship. As the match was an all-Laver event, it was held on the Laver's court, and Rod—barely able to see over the net—narrowly lost to his older brother.
Shortly thereafter, Laver was selected for inclusion at a tennis camp sponsored by a Brisbane newspaper. At the camp his play won the attention of the legendary Harry Hopman, "and the lid was nailed on his future," as Rex Lardner wrote in a Sports Illustrated profile of Laver. Hopman, captain of Australia's Davis Cup team for many years and an influential player/coach who developed a number of Australian players, took the young Laver under his wing and began refining his left-handed game. It was Hopman who dubbed Laver "Rocket," and not because of his speed but because of the youngster's grit, determination, and work ethic. It was soon apparent to this genius of Australian tennis that the teenager he was working with had more talent than all the other Australian players of his day. At 15, Laver, suffering from jaundice, missed two months of school and feeling left behind in his studies decided to stop his formal education and work at his tennis. His father agreed with the decision, and with Hopman's help the boy got a job with a sporting goods firm in Brisbane, "the kind of job that pays a tennis player whether he is there to punch a time clock or not," remarked Lardner. Three years later, Laver stormed onto the American tennis scene when he won the United States junior championship.
|1938||Born August 9 in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, to Roy Stanley and Melba Laver|
|1944||From the age of six Laver begins competing against his older brothers in tennis matches|
|1951||Loses to his older brother Bon in the Central Queensland junior final|
|1953||Quits school to devote full time to tennis, coached by Harry|
|1956||Wins the U.S. junior championship|
|1957||Serves in the Australian Army|
|1958||Upsets American Barry MacKay in the second round of Queen's Club Tournament and gains international notice|
|1959||Playing with the Australian Davis Cup team, Laver helps to beat the United States|
|1959||Loses in the finals of the U.S. singles championship at Forest Hills|
|1960||Wins his first Australian singles title|
|1961||Wins his first Wimbledon singles title, but loses at Forest Hills in the finals|
|1961||Offered $33,000 to join Jack Kramer's pro tour, but refuses|
|1962||Scores his first Grand Slam, winning the singles championships in Australia, France, England, and the United States, the first tennis player to do so since America's Don Budge in 1938|
|1962||Turns professional, signing a three-year, $110,000 contract, and is thus barred for the next five years from participation in amateur championships|
|1964||Wins U.S. Pro singles title|
|1966-70||Wins 19 consecutive titles in the U.S. Pro circuit|
|1968||With advent of Open era in tennis, Laver resumes play in Grand Slam tournaments, winning Wimbledon in a final lasting less than an hour|
|1969||Wins his second Grand Slam, a record no other tennis player has equaled|
|1971||Earns a record $292,000, boosting his overall tennis earnings to over a million, the highest of any tennis player|
|1972||Plays in finals of first World Championship of Tennis|
|1973||Allowed to play Davis Cup again, helping Australia to win the cup away from the United States|
|1976||Signs with World Team Tennis and named Rookie of the Year at age 38|
|1978||Retires from tennis|
|1981||Inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame|
|1999||Suffers a stroke and has to re-learn how to play tennis|
|2000||Center court at Australia's Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, is named Rod Laver Court in his honor|
After serving a year in the Australian Army in 1957, Laver was again back in the amateur rankings, and in June of 1958 surprised one of America's top-seeded players, Barry MacKay, knocking him out of the second round of London's Queen's Club Tournament, 6-3, 6-3. This victory was an announcement to the tennis world: Laver was at the gates. At the time of his victory over MacKay, Laver was ranked only eighth in Australia, demonstrating the depth of tennis talent Down Under. In 1959 Laver, who had to wait his turn until older players either retired or turned pro, was finally selected for his country's Davis Cup team, along with Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson. The Australians defeated the Americans that year, and though Laver lost twice—one of the losses in 66 games to Alex Olmedo—his performance did not go unnoticed. Arthur Dale of the New York Times noted that "Laver's performance in defeat made the victory of The Chief [Olmedo] all the more noteworthy. The twenty-one year old left-hander [Laver] made chalk shots that would have discouraged anyone less hardy." Already Laver was developing his reputation for risky play and line shots that sent the chalk spitting. Laver lost again to Olmedo at Forest Hills, going all the way to the finals.
Lead Up to First Grand Slam
The year 1960 was pivotal for Laver. In the first major tournament of the year, the Australian National championships, he faced his Davis Cup teammate Fraser in the finals. Down two sets, Laver came back to win his first major title, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6, 8-6. Laver did not have a perfect tennis body. Relatively short, at only 5'8" and weighing about 155 pounds, his speed and agility on court made up for his lack of height. In his playing years, Laver was compact, and his left forearm had developed, after hitting thousands of tennis balls, into Popeye dimensions, as big as that of Rocky Marciano , boxing's heavyweight champion. In addition to his wristy, topspin forehand, Laver combined strength of will and determination on the court. He had no weaknesses for his opponents to attack. Though his serve was not huge, he could disguise it well and place it in the corners of the service box. He also was good at net, learning an aggressive game from Hopman, but particularly excelled from the backcourt. Hopman had also schooled Laver in behavior on and off the court. A true sportsman, he played a generally quiet game, and was an intensely private individual, giving few interviews.
That same year, 1960, Fraser avenged his defeat at the Australian singles by beating Laver in the finals at Wimbledon and at Forest Hills, though Laver was able to take home a trophy from the United States championships that year, in mixed doubles. From rivals, Laver and Fraser returned to being teammates to beat Italy in the Davis Cup finals in December of 1960. Laver failed to defend his Australian championship in 1961, losing in the finals, as he did at Forest Hills, as well. But he was more successful at Wimbledon, defeating his American opponent, Chuck McKinley, in a mere 55 minutes. Following the matches at Forest Hills that year, the former player and now organizer of professional tennis, Jack Kramer, offered Laver $33,600 to come on his pro tour, but the Aussie refused. He had his sights still set on the Grand Slam tournaments to which he would be barred if he turned pro.
Related Biography: Tennis Player/Coach Harry Hopman
Harry Hopman's name is synonymous with Australian tennis in the two decades prior to the Open era. As captain of the Australian Davis Cup team from 1950 to 1969, he gathered a group of players around him who he groomed in the finest aspects of the gentlemanly game of tennis. Called Hop by his friends, his "genius," according to E. Digby Baltzell in Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar, "was to take a wide variety of boys and mold them into a cohesive team of gentlemen…. Harry Hopman was a great organizer, disciplinarian, and believer in the virtues of the gentleman." Among the players he groomed were Frank Sedgman, Ken McGregor, Lew Hoad, Kenny Rosewall, Mal Anderson, Ashley Cooper, Neale Fraser, Roy Emerson, John Newcombe, Fred Stolle, Tony Roche, and most famously of all, Rod Laver. He gave his name to a tennis epoch, the Hopman Era, the decades in the 1950s and 1960s when the Australians dominated amateur tennis.
Born August 12, 1906, in Glebe, New South Wales, Hopman played tennis himself, and was a singles finalist in the Australian championships in the early 1930s. He was also a fine doubles player, winning the Australian doubles in 1929 and 1930, and twice a runner-up in the French doubles title. He and his wife, Nell, won the Australian mixed doubles twice. However it was as a talent spotter, coach, and captain of the Australian Davis Cup team for which Hopman is best remembered. Childless, Hopman and his wife poured their energies into tennis and the young men coming up through the ranks in Australian tennis. Hopman led his team to 16 Cups between his first captaincy in 1939 and near the end of his reign in 1967. Hopman emphasized fitness, pride, and most of all, gentlemanly behavior.
Hopwood last served as Australian Davis Cup captain in 1969, and after the loss to Mexico, he immigrated to the United States and became a successful teaching pro. With his wife, he opened his own camp, the Hopman Tennis Academy, in Largo, Florida. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1978, and died on December 27, 1985. The Hopman Cup tournament was named after him, the first competition held in 1989.
Laver began the tennis year of 1962 with a bang, beating Roy Emerson in the finals of the Australian championship. He beat Emerson again consecutively in Paris and Rome, though his was two sets down in the French championships, and then at Wimbledon he demolished his fellow countryman Martin Mulligan in less than 52 minutes, 6-2, 6-2, 6-1. With three of the four majors under his belt coming into the U.S. championships, Laver was all the buzz at the 1962 Forest Hills tournament. As Lardner noted of that year's tournament, "this hawk-nosed, freckle-faced, bowlegged Australian is a prime product of the almost unbeatable Australian system of spotting, nurturing and financing its best tennis players from the cradle." The world's press, fans, and other tennis players were wondering if Laver would be able to repeat Don Budge 's accomplishment of winning all four majors in one year. Laver tore through the early rounds of the tournament, and then faced one of his usual Australian rivals, Emerson, in the finals. Laver hit "wildly spinning, hard, shoe-top-high shots almost impossible to volley," wrote Lardner of the match. "Very often he hit the ball so fast that Emerson could merely watch as it skimmed by." Laver won in four sets and after tossing his racquet in the air, finally cracked a smile, his first of the tournament. Later that same year, Laver teamed up with Emerson in Davis Cup to defeat Mexico, bringing the Cup home for their country for the eleventh time in 13 years. It would be his last Davis Cup competition for over a decade.
Laver announced in late December of 1962 that he was joining the International Professional Tennis Players Association, whose members had chipped in to guarantee him $110,000 for the next three-year period. In the early days of pro tennis, such a contract was very lucrative, indeed. In his first pro match, Laver lost to fellow Australian Lew Hoad, and went on to lose his next three professional matches, as well, until settling into the pro ranks. A long and vigorous rivalry began between Laver and Australian Kenny Rosewall, another of Hopman's students. Rosewall beat Laver in the 1963 U.S. Pro singles, but in 1964, Laver turned around to beat Rosewall and Pancho Gonzalez to win the first of five of those titles. Life in the pros was, however, far from romantic or even illustrious. In those days it meant long drives in a station wagon from one gym to another across the country, playing exhibition matches in front of a few hundred spectators at best. Once the evenings double match was finally concluded, perhaps as late as one in the morning, the players piled into their cars and drove a few hours in the darkness toward their next destination, then stayed at some roadside motel, got up in the late morning, and continued on their way to the next venue. The 1964 final, in which he beat Gonzalez, was indicative of the difficulties of the early pro tour. Laver and Gonzalez played in a raging storm that turned Boston's grass courts into a swamp, but the show had to go on and Laver managed to pull off some amazing shots to win the title, even under such inclement conditions.
Disappointingly, Laver's decision to turn pro eliminated him from competition in the world's major titles, still amateur affairs. Thus he missed the years 1963-1967 at any of the Grand Slams. Only when open tennis began in 1968 could he attempt to reproduce his former greatness at those events. That year at Roland Garros, Laver again lost to Rosewall in the finals, 6-3, 6-1, 2-6, 6-2. Returning to Wimbledon for the first time in five championships, he took the tournament, defeating Tony Roche in under an hour. The advent of open tennis also increased prize money available to the players. Whereas in 1968, there were only two prize-money tournaments in the U.S., with combined winnings of $130,000, by 1969 the U.S. Open alone offered a larger purse, and all the U.S. tournaments combined were worth $440,000. Worldwide, prize money had grown to $1.3 million, and Laver garnered $124,000 of that, becoming the top money winner. But Laver was after an even bigger prize than money in the 1969 season.
Wins Second and Historic Grand Slam
Laver's first strong competition in his run for a second Grand Slam came early in the year at the Australian Open when he and Roche played 80 games over four hours under the melting Brisbane sun in the semifinals. The second set alone was a 22-20 marathon lasting longer than many full matches. Both players resorted to the old Australian trick of sticking cabbage leaves in their hats to avoid sunstroke. Surviving that, partly as the result of a questionable line call against Roche, Laver had a relatively easy final, defeating Andres Gimeno in straight sets. There was another scare at the French open when another Australian, Dick Crealy, took a couple sets off him in the second round, but Laver came back to win that one and ultimately beat Rosewall in straight sets in the finals. Laver was again challenged at Wimbledon, two sets down in the second round, but went on to win that match and subsequent rounds against Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe , and John Newcombe to take Wimbledon for the fourth time.
Laver moved on to the U.S. Open, still played on grass in 1969, ready for a repeat of his 1962 amateur Grand Slam. Record crowds greeted this first hyped U.S. Open, until the rains set in. Still Laver prevailed, cruising through opponents, and ultimately having to wear spikes on the slippery court in the final against Roche, which he won in four sets. The prize money presented him that day—a check for $16,000—took second place to Laver's elation at his second slam. This one, also, was sweeter than his first, for in 1962 some of the best players in the world had already turned pro and thus had not been allowed to play. In 1969, Laver met the best in the world, amateur or pro, and bested them all.
Awards and Accomplishments
|Davis Cup: 1959-62, 1973; 16-4 in singles and 4-0 in doubles.|
|Retired in 1978, Laver won 47 titles and was runner-up 21 times in his 23-year career both in amateur and pro tennis, and was in the World Top Ten for 13 years between 1959 and 1975, ranked number 1 in 1961, 1962, 1968, and 1969.|
|1959||Australian doubles; Wimbledon mixed doubles|
|1960||Australian singles; Australian doubles; Wimbledon mixed doubles|
|1961||Wimbledon singles; Australian doubles; French doubles; French mixed doubles|
|1962||Australian singles; French singles; Wimbledon singles; U.S. singles|
|1969||Australian Open singles; French Open singles; Wimbledon singles; U.S. Open singles; Australian Open doubles|
Sets the Pro Example
For Laver, 1970 was a letdown after the glory of 1969. Not only was he unable to retain any of his Grand Slam titles, but he also lost the U.S. Pro title for the first time since 1966. One consolation, however, was the fact that he became the first player to exceed $200,000 in annual earnings in the pro ranks, winning more prize money than
golf's leading money earner that year, Lee Trevino . The following year, though failing to win any major tournaments but the Italian Open, Laver was victorious in six of 25 smaller tournaments, winning 78 of 86 matches. His prize earnings for that year escalated to $292,717, making him the first career millionaire in professional tennis. The World Championship of Tennis was held in 1972, in Dallas, Texas, with Rosewall and Laver once again doing battle in what some observers have called the greatest match of the century, a five-set battle that has been "credited with establishing tennis as a sport worth televising," according to Mike Lupica in an Esquire article.
In 1973, pros were allowed to compete in Davis Cup for the first time, and Laver teamed up with John Newcombe to end the United States' five-year stranglehold on the cup. Laver also played a big part in Australia's victories in the 1972, 1974, and 1975 World Cups, a team competition which has since been discontinued. Laver continued to play on the pro circuit until 1978. As late as 1976, at 38 years of age, he signed with San Diego in World Team Tennis. When he finally decided to call it quits in 1978, he left behind an illustrious career including two Grand Slams, 11 major titles, 47 pro titles, and 13 years in the World Top Ten. Additionally, he had earned over $1.5 million in his career, making him the all-time money winner of his day.
In Laver's 23-year career, he won four Wimbledon titles, three Australian, two French, and two U.S. singles, and led Australia to five Davis Cup victories. It is doubtful that his record of two Grand Slams will be matched, especially with the heightened level of play in the competitive Open era. "Laver is widely rated as the best tennis player the world has seen, both for his 1962 and 1969 Grand Slams and the powerful style that won them," wrote Lisa Clausen in a Time magazine retrospective of the 100 sports greats of the twentieth century. "He was master of a left-handed topspin that overwhelmed his opponents, who also struggled to counter his tremendous speed around the court."
But it is not simply his play for which Laver will be remembered. He was truly one of the last gentlemen in the game as tennis spun out of the amateur ranks and into its professional stage. However, Laver was also realist enough to know that you could not be too much of a gentleman on court. "Sportsmanship is the essence of the game," he wrote in The Education of a Tennis Player, "and yet you do not want to be too good a sport. Or what I call a false sportsman." This middle ground was characteristic of the understated Laver style. Somewhat unassuming and quiet on court, Laver yet brought a love and intensity to the game of tennis that attracted and inspired a new generation of players, from McEnroe to Sampras. Through his personal model he showed players that an honorable living could be made in professional tennis, and in his career, spanning both amateur and open tennis, he became the epitome of the modern player-turned-businessman.
Address: Rancho Mirage, CA.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY LAVER:
(With Jack Pollard) How to Play Winning Tennis, Mayflower, 1970.
(With Bud Collins) The Education of a Tennis Player, Simon & Schuster, 1971.
(With Bud Collins, editors) Rod Laver's Tennis Digest, Follett, 1973.
(With Roy Emerson and Barry Tarshis) Tennis for the Bloody Fun of It, Quadrangle, 1976.
228 Tennis Tips, DBI Books, 1977.
Baltzell, E. Digby. Sporting Gentlemen: Men's Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar. New York: Free Press, 1995.
Bartlett, Michael and Bob Gillen, editors. The Tennis Book. New York: Arbor House, 1981.
Christopher, Andre. Top Ten Men's Tennis Players. Hillside, NJ: Enslow, 1998.
Collins, Bud and Zander Hollander, editors. Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis. Detroit: Gale, 1994.
Danzig, Allison and Peter Schwed, editors. The Fireside Book of Tennis. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.
Flink, Steve. The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century. Danbury, CT: Rutledge Books, 1999.
Laver, Rod and Bud Collins. The Education of a Tennis Player. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971.
Lorimer, Larry. The Tennis Book: A Complete A-to-Z Encyclopedia of Tennis. New York: Random House, 1980.
Phillips, Caryl, editor. The Right Set: A Tennis Anthology. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000.
Vecchione, Joseph J. The New York Times Book of Sports Legends. New York: Times Books, 1991.
Berry, Elliot and E. H. Wallop. "Love-50." Forbes (May 9, 1954).
Daley, Arthur. New York Times (August 31, 1959).
Dillman, Lisa and Larry Stewart. "Laver Suffers Stroke, Taken to UCLA Medical Center." Los Angeles Times (July 28, 1998): 3.
Lardner, Rex, "Rod Rockets into Orbit." Sports Illustrated (September 17, 1962): 51.
Lupica, Mike. "The Conscience of the Court." Esquire (January, 1988): 37-39.
Mravic, Mark and Richard O'Brien. "Rocket Refit." Sports Illustrated (April 5, 1999): 36.
"The Rocket's Slam." Time (September 21, 1962): 57.
Shmerler, Cindy. "The Road Back." Tennis (September, 1999): 94-98.
Stambler, Lyndon. "A Tennis Great, Felled by a Stroke, Makes a Stirring Return from the Brink." People (October 26, 1998): 153.
Clausen, Lisa. "Time 100 Sports Stars: Rod Laver." Time.com http://www.time.com/ (October 25, 1999).
Contemporary Authors Online. http://galenet.galegroup.com/ (July 4, 2002).
"Crowning Achievement: Australian Open Honors Rod Laver." Sports Illustrated/CNN http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/ (January 14, 2000).
"Harry Hopman, Class of 1978. International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennis.fame.org/ (September 26, 2002).
Hyundai/Hopman Cup. http://www.hopmancup.com/ (September 26, 2002).
Muscatel, Cyndy. "Rod Laver Triumphs Again." World Tennis Ratings. http://www.worldtennisratings.com/ (September 18, 2002).
"Rod Laver." BBC Sport. http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (September 18, 2002).
"Rod Laver, Class of 1981." International Tennis Hall of Fame. http://www.tennisfame.org/ (September 22, 2002).
Sketch by J. Sydney Jones
Where Is He Now?
Following his 1978 retirement, Laver remained involved in tennis, playing on the senior tour. However, retirement from tennis did not mean an end to work for the Australian. For many years he worked for Nabisco Brands, acting as an ambassador for Nabisco's involvement in various worldwide sporting events. As such he ran tennis clinics, gave speeches, and shook a lot of hands. Three years after retirement from tennis, Laver was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.
Real retirement came later for Laver when he moved to Rancho Mirage, California, a suburb of Palm Springs, and took to playing golf as much as he did tennis. In 1999, during an interview, he suffered a stroke. Luckily the interviewer recognized the signs, and Laver was rushed to nearby UCLA Medical Center, getting immediate care. The stroke destroyed the sensory receptors on his right side. Laver, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, had to relearn how to play the game he loves. Tennis became, in fact, part of his therapy. Working with speech and physical therapists, Laver slowly recovered his speech and movement. "I still have a little way to go," Laver told a reporter for Sports Illustrated, "but I'm very happy with my performance. I feel I'm going to get all the way back." In 2000, Laver was honored by his native Australia when its tennis federation named center court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, after him. On hand for the naming ceremony, Laver said, "I am delighted to accept this wonderful honor. This is a crowning achievement to my tennis career."
Rod "Rocket" Laver (born 1938) is arguably the best tennis player ever. The Australian ace twice won the Grand Slam of tennis, one of the most elusive goals in sports, and paved the way for future generations of agile, powerful lefties like John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. Laver's two Grand Slams, in 1962 and 1969, were separated by a five year period in which his professional status rendered him ineligible for the tournaments that make up the Slam. Over the course of his career, Laver won four Wimbledon titles, and likely would have captured more had the "Open" era—which opened the major tournaments to professional players—begun a few years earlier. In all, he won 11 major singles titles, and 9 more in doubles and mixed doubles.
Rodney George Laver was born on August 9, 1938, in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. Everyone in the Laver clan played tennis. Laver's father, Roy, was one of 13 children, all of whom played tennis. His mother, Melba Roffey, was also a tournament–caliber player. Roy and Melba frequently played mixed doubles together, as well as singles individually, in Rockhampton–area tournaments, often emerging as champions. Every home the family lived in had a tennis court on the premises, and the Laver children all began playing competitively at early ages. The family was soon a local tennis institution. At the tender age of 13, Laver took on his older brother Bob in the finals of the junior division of the Central Queensland Championship. Naturally, the match took place on the Laver home court.
Discovered by Aussie Davis Cup Captain
At a tennis camp sponsored by an Australian newspaper, Laver caught the attention of Harry Hopman, longtime captain of the Australian Davis Cup team and a legendary coach and developer of young talent. Hopman tagged Laver with the nickname "Rocket," which stuck with him for the rest of his career. The moniker was actually ironic; Laver was not particularly fast on his feet. In fact, he was a short, scrawny, freckle–faced kid that looked like anything but a top–caliber athlete. He turned out, however, to have a rare combination of natural ability and fierce determination.
Laver burst onto the international scene in 1956, when he triumphed in the U.S. Junior Championship at the age of 17. He put his career on brief hold to serve for a year in the Australian Army in 1957, then hopped back onto the fast track to tennis fame. By 1958, Laver was ranked eighth in Australia, and the following year he was named to the Australian Davis Cup team, joining established stars Neale Fraser and Roy Emerson. He gained further notice that year when he made it to the finals at Wimbledon, where he was defeated by Alex Olmedo. This was the first in an amazing string of six straight appearances in the finals at Wimbledon, beginning before and ending after his five–year banishment from the tournament, which remained closed to professionals until 1968.
1960 was something of a breakout year for Laver. He won his first major tournament, the Australian Open, defeating fellow Aussie Neal Fraser in a five–set thriller. Fraser got his revenge later that year at the U.S. Open in Forest Hills, but by this time Laver was practically a fixture in the final round of major tournaments. In 1960 he was a finalist at Wimbledon in both singles and mixed doubles, and in addition to his match–up with Fraser at the U.S. open, he also appeared in the doubles final at that event.
Captured First Grand Slam Since Budge
Laver thoroughly dominated men's tennis in the early 1960s. He captured his first Wimbledon championship in 1961, dispatching Chuck McKinley in straight sets in a final that lasted less than an hour. The following year, he again won the Wimbledon final in straight sets, this time over Martin Mulligan. That victory followed earlier victories in the Italian, French and German championships.
Having claimed three of the four Grand Slam events for the year, Laver entered the 1962 U.S. championships with the eyes of the entire tennis world upon him. Nobody had won the Grand Slam since Don Budge became the first player to accomplish the feat in 1938. Laver waltzed through the early rounds of the tournament, leading to a face–off with countryman Roy Emerson in the final. Laver prevailed in four sets, completing the first Grand Slam in tennis in 24 years. No other male singles player has won a Grand Slam since.
In December of 1962, Laver announced that he was abandoning the amateur tour to join the International Professional Tennis Players Association. He was guaranteed earnings of $110,000 for a three–year period, good money for a tennis player at the time, but a far cry from the vast sums earned by top players today. While the money was attractive and the tennis was good—Laver enjoyed a lively rivalry with fellow Australian Kenny Rosewall during this period—Laver's decision barred him for all of the major tournaments. It is, of course, impossible to know how he would have fared in those tournaments had he remained eligible; but there is little doubt that Laver's record at the game's biggest events would have been even more impressive had he been able to participate in them during what were probably his peak physical years, between the ages of 24 and 29.
In 1964, Laver met his future wife, Mary, at fellow tennis giant Jack Kramer's country club in Los Angeles. Mary was there to watch a swimming exhibition, and had no idea that this fellow, who was so shy he needed an intermediary to ask her to join them for a drink, was a superstar. The pair married in 1966. In August of 1967, Laver defeated Rosewall in a weeklong, eight–man professional tournament on Centre Court at Wimbledon. The success of this tournament helped set the stage for a decision later that year by the Lawn Tennis Association to delete the language referring to amateur and professional players from its rulebook. This move paved the way for the dawn of the open era in tennis in 1968, a change the British tennis community had been clamoring for as a way of dealing with the steady exodus of name players from the big tournaments. This meant that major tournaments were now open to professional players. Approaching the age of 30, it appeared to many in the tennis community that Laver's best days were behind him. He managed to win the 1968 Wimbledon singles crown, knocking off Tony Roche in under an hour in the final, but that was his only major tournament championship that year.
Second Grand Slam Silenced Doubters
In 1969, however, Laver proved that his tennis obituary had been written prematurely. He was not only competitive, but he was as dominant as he had been seven years earlier. In fact, 1969 may have been the greatest season of his entire career. That year, he won 106 singles matches against only 16 defeats, and won 17 of the 32 singles championships in which he competed. Early in the Grand Slam cycle, Laver had to survive a marathon 80–game, four–hour semifinal match against Roche to survive in the Australian Open. He had another scare against yet another Aussie compatriot, Dick Crealy, in the second round of the French Open. After triumphing once again at Wimbledon, all that remained between Laver and his second Grand Slam was the U.S. Open. He prevailed in four sets against Roche to capture the $16,000 championship and become the only player in history to win the Grand Slam twice. In many ways, the second time around was more impressive, since it was accomplished against all of the world's top players, both pro and amateur, while his 1962 feat came at a time when many of the best players had already turned pro and were therefore ineligible to compete in the tournaments that make up the Grand Slam. One additional major event of 1969 in the lives of the Lavers was the birth of their son Rick.
While Laver was not able to repeat his glory of 1969 in the new decade, he remained among the game's top players into the 1970s. While he did not manage to successfully defend any of his Grand Slam tournament titles in 1970, Laver nevertheless earned more than $200,000 in prize money that year, the first player to reach that mark. In 1971, Laver claimed the Italian Open title and six lesser tournaments. The $292,717 in prize money he won that year made him the first tennis player to break the million dollar barrier in career earnings.
When professionals were allowed to play in Davis Cup competition for the first time in 1973, Laver answered the call to play for the Australian team. He teamed up with John Newcombe to end a five–year period of Davis Cup domination by the United States. Laver also helped Australia to three World Cup championships during this period, in 1972, 1974 and 1975. As his tournament career began to wind down, Laver signed on with the San Diego squad in World Team Tennis in 1976, and was named the league's rookie of the year at the un–rookie–like age of 38.
Laver retired from competitive tennis in 1978, leaving a career record unmatched at the time: two Grand Slams, 11 major singles titles, 20 major championships in all (including doubles and mixed doubles), 47 total pro singles titles, 21 times runner–up. He was ranked in the top 10 in the world during 13 years between 1959 and 1975, and collected career earnings of more than $1.5 million. Laver was inducted into the Tennis Hall of Fame in 1981. At 5 foot 8 and 145 pounds, Laver was hardly the prototypical power player. But so thick and strong was his left arm that it appeared to some that it had been nabbed from a much larger man and grafted onto his body. Laver played an attacking style of tennis that often overwhelmed less aggressive opponents. He applied topspin to a much greater degree than other players of his time, a style that did not become popular until the 1970s, as exemplified by such champions of that decade as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas.
In July of 1998, the 59–year–old Laver was taping an interview for ESPN at a Los Angeles hotel when he suddenly felt his legs and fingers go numb. What he thought was a dizzy spell turned out to be a major stroke. Laver spent 13 days in intensive care, during which at one point his temperature rose to 106 degrees and the prognosis was grim. He began physical therapy two weeks after the stroke, and had to relearn how to speak, walk, write, and even dress himself. Gradually, he regained use of the right side of his body. Laver left UCLA Medical Center after seven weeks, and within a couple more weeks he was puttering around the golf course using a club as a cane. Soon after, he began to reacquaint himself with tennis, assisted by local pro Tommy Tucker. By May of 1999, Laver's recovery was thorough enough to allow him to present Andre Agassi with the trophy for his victory in the French Open, a triumph that made Agassi the first player since Laver—and only the fifth male player in history—to win all four Grand Slam events in his career.
Collins, Bud and Zander Hollander, editors, Bud Collins' Modern Encyclopedia of Tennis, Visible Ink, 1994.
People Weekly, October 26, 1998.
Sports Illustrated, April 5, 1999.
Tennis, September 1999.
"Rod Laver, Class of 1981" International Tennis Hall of Fame, http://www.tennisfame.com/enshrinees/rod–laver.html (December 13, 2004).