With Rod Laver, it is the eyes that give away his viciousness on the court, the cold, hollow, dilated pale blue eyes of an anxious fighting cock. They are not difficult to notice despite the Australian flop hat that covers the shock of red-blond hair and sallow face, covers everything except the beaked, sunburned nose. He has the hard face and the wiry, bowlegged body of a freckled Aussie sundowner who would be more at home on the ranch his father once owned than on the center court at Wimbledon or in the stadium at Forest Hills. But mainly it is the eyes that you return to, especially when he is down a service break and begins to scatter heavy, top-spun passing shots from his position of controlled nervousness and anger.
Pancho Gonzalez was across the net from Laver two winters ago in the finals of a tournament in the dank, ill-lighted 71st Regiment Armory on 34th Street in New York City. The best-of-five-set match was even at five-all in the third set when Gonzalez, raging across the net, accused Laver of quick-serving. Laver was livid, and the eyes showed in the dim light. "I didn't know Pancho too well then," Laver says, "but I wasn't about to back down to him. I held serve and when we crossed over I told him, 'Pancho, if I'm serving too fast just tell me. I'll wait for you.' I think he had run out of equipment. He would have tried anything at that point."
It was not the right thing to try. Laver immediately broke Gonzalez' serve for the third set, then ran out the fourth at 6-2 for the match.
"I like the competitive pressure of a big match," Rod Laver has said. "In this game if you're not nervous, you're just not going to play well."
August 25, 1968
But the nerves do not show. In Laver, there is none of the extroverted fury of Gonzalez, nor the almost shy embarrassment that little Ken Rosewall displays when he breaks off a winner, then looks down at his feet as though he were ready to apologize for his skill. It is his disciplined, sure violence that will make Rod Laver (see cover), just turned 30, in his fourth year of almost total dominance of the game, the odds-on favorite to win the $14,000 first prize in the first $100,000 United States Open Tennis Championships that begin next week at Forest Hills. With it he will also take another giant step toward joining that elite and vaguely defined group of players who can justly be called the immortals of the game.
To accuse anybody of immortality is a tricky business. Tennis has no incontrovertible statistics with which to measure; few of the candidates ever played against one another in their prime. The one criterion that does hold up, however, is dominance of the game in a particular era, and it is for passing this test that the most familiar nominees can be rattled off: Gonzalez in the 1950s; Jack Kramer in the late '40s; Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry and Don Budge, each succeeding the other, in the '30s; at least one of the French Musketeers—Henri Cochet, René Lacoste and Jean Borotra—in the late '20s; Bill Tilden before that, and Australia's Sir Norman Brookes in the years prior to World War I.
Laver's own era began three years ago, in 1965. He turned professional in January 1963, and the following year Gonzalez came out of a two-year semi-retirement for one of his last magnificent flings. Laver took his knocks from both Gonzalez and Rosewall, but that year, 1964, won both the world professional championship at Wembley, England for the first of four times, and his first U.S. title, defeating Gonzalez. By 1965 he had begun to dominate Rosewall too, and has since been the top money-winner among the pros, as well as their most prolific titleholder.
To give Rosewall his due, he is still troublesome for Laver, especially on slower surfaces, as he demonstrated earlier this year when he defeated Laver in the first open at Bournemouth, England and in the French championships in Paris. Rosewall, however, is now nearing 34, and since he cannot hit outright winners on his service, usually he must hit one more shot per point than a stronger server, like Laver, does. Over a season the demand is telling.
Allison Danzig, for four decades the tennis writer for The New York Times, says, almost wistfully, "If only Rosewall had Laver's service, plus his own ground strokes, then you would have the all-time great player."
Other experts, if not ready to immortalize Laver just yet, will at least accept his candidacy.
Lance Tingay, the British journalist whose yearly world rankings are accepted as more or less official, names Tilden, Budge, Kramer, Vines and Laver as his top players of all" time, "not in any particular order. Laver is an outstanding match player, has outstanding all-round strength with a terribly good backhand."
C. M. Jones, editor of Lawn Tennis Magazine, says, "Vines, on the basis of one match, is at the top. Next in order is Budge. Then, in no particular order, come Laver, Tilden and Kramer. Laver's greatest asset is his very, very rapid speed of reaction and movement and his excellent personal attitude toward tennis. When he is in a tough spot, Laver doesn't in any way retreat. He gets bolder and bolder and uses his wide range of shots without fear. He has sheer bravery and a beautiful sense of play."
Fred Perry, the best player in England's history, puts Tilden "alone at the top." Behind him come Cochet, Vines and Budge—and Laver. "You have to put Laver in there," says Perry. "He's the best player since the war."
Kramer says, "I can't rate Tilden, because he was past his prime when I saw him. From what I have seen I'd put Budge, Vines, Perry, Gonzalez and Bobby Riggs in the first echelon. I lean toward Vines as the No. 1 man in any given match. For overall consistency you have to look at Budge. In another group, just a shade below, are Frank Sedgman, Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Ted Schroeder and, believe it or not, Pancho Segura. Laver is up among that second group and vying for the first. He has no major weaknesses."
Budge ranks Vines and Kramer together at the top, then lists Perry, Laver, Gonzalez, Rosewall, Sedgman and Hoad, not in any order.
"I don't get to sec very much tennis these days," Jean Borotra explains. "But I did watch Laver play briefly at Wimbledon. He was imperial!"
René Lacoste calls Laver's antagonist, Rosewall, the best ever. "He is a complete athlete who combines intelligence with dexterity. After him I'd put Tilden, with Laver third. The three are in a class apart. All the others come in at a good distance. Despite the handicap of his size and weight, he is tops in service, ground strokes and volleys."
Ken Rosewall, usually laconic, will talk at length about the mechanics of Laver's game. "He's exceptional, he's unorthodox and he's someone you couldn't copy," Rosewall says. "As a champion, his performances and court temperament could be held up as a fine model for young players. But his playing style certainly couldn't be, because he has shots that few other players can produce. I don't quite know how he does them myself, but it's those wristy strokes of his that win. He has so much power in his left forearm that it obviously gives him a feeling of strength and confidence to play those unorthodox shots.
"Lefties are generally expected to have a weakness in their backhands, but that's a weakness Rod doesn't have. And the strength of his shots. Very few players on the defensive, or when running to make a recovery shot, can play as powerfully or as quickly as Rod."
On a key point in his championship victory over Tony Roche at Wimbledon last month, Roche broke off a sharply angled forehand cross-court passing shot that appeared to have Laver beaten. Rod lunged for it, and not only made contact but hit a winner. As if to show that it was no fluke, he managed the exact same thing on the following point.
But most important, perhaps, is Laver's continuing enthusiasm for the game—despite the fact that this is his 13th year on a world circuit of one sort or another. He seems shocked at the suggestion that he might spend a lot of time doing calisthenics, roadwork and other exercises instead of practicing. "I'd rather hit for three or four hours a day," he said. "That's my practice. I love playing tennis, and I'm very fortunate to be able to make my living doing something I like. Practice has never been a chore for me."
Away from a tennis court, however, the ingrained nervous viciousness that distinguishes him so in action dissipates rapidly, and Laver becomes more like something out of a Boy Scout manual—shy, modest, honest, clean, thrifty, neat, kind, etc.—the very composite of the all-Australian boy.
Which indeed he was. His father Roy, now 70, was the 13th child of a Victoria farmer who moved to Queensland seeking more land for his brood, and when Rod was born, on August 9, 1938, Roy and his family were working a 23,000-acre cattle property called Langdale, about 90 miles from Rockhampton, in northeast Australia. Eleven years later the Lavers moved to Rockhampton itself, a town that is just north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Roy, as he had done at Langdale, built a tennis court in his backyard, using the sandy loam that is produced by the flooding of the silt-laden Fitzroy River.
All the Lavers played tennis, when they weren't fishing or playing a brand of homemade cricket, but Rod, being the youngest of three brothers, often had to wait his turn for the court. Says Roy Laver: "Funny thing, I always used to say we would send somebody in the family to Wimbledon one day. It was sort of a family joke, but I meant it. But I never for a moment thought it would be Rod. His oldest brother Trevor was the one who really was good in those days."
In Rockhampton, Laver came under the tutelage of a former player named Charlie Hollis, and Hollis, more than anyone else, molded Laver's basic game, especially the top-spin ground strokes that have become so characteristic. A member of the family remembers, "Two hundred times a training session you'd hear Hollis yelling at Rod, 'Get under the ball and hit over it—under and over, under and over.' "
Rod recalls, "When I was starting out I hit flatter, my backhand especially, but Charlie said, 'If you're going to be a great player, you've got to hit over the ball.' It's hard to do. The strain on the wrist and forearm is tremendous. I would end a practice session and everything would just ache, but the next day the pain would be gone and I would feel stronger."
Short and frail, Rod also suffered a bout of hepatitis as a boy so that it took foresight to even imagine that he would grow to 5'8½" and fill out to a lean 150 pounds, and he was almost 18 in 1956 before at last he was acknowledged as having superior potential. Although only the fifth-ranked junior in Australia, he was selected along with Bob Mark, the No. 1 junior, to make a private world tour. Young Laver reached the junior finals at Wimbledon, losing to Ron Holmberg, but a month later he won the U.S. junior title by beating Chris (whatever happened to?) Crawford. He was on his way.
"I could always feel myself getting better," Rod says. "Not gradually, but two or three times, almost overnight, my game would rise—take a tremendous jump when everything I was working on suddenly came together—then level off again, then take another big jump."
Laver was 21 in 1960 when he won his first major title, the Australian, and the following year he took his first Wimbledon. In 1962 he became, of course, the only player in history besides Budge to win the four major world singles titles. He came home to help Australia defend the Davis Cup for the umpteenth time, and then turned professional.
The pros then were still run by Jack Kramer, still played one-night stands like a traveling circus and desperately needed a new act. The last outstanding amateurs to switch had been Rosewall and Hoad in 1956 and 1957, and while the amateurs were not exactly turning on the tennis public, the pros were threatening to die on the vine. "If he hadn't joined us," said Hoad, "we might just as well have called it quits."
Laver signed for $ 110,000 to be guaranteed over 30 months. His debut in White City Stadium in Sydney was against Hoad, then 28 years old and at the peak of his game. Laver started well and won the first set at 8-6, but Hoad, playing with professional polish, ran out the match, 6-4, 6-3, 8-6. The match finished around midnight. Laver had to go right back on the court the next afternoon against Rosewall, the world's No. 1 professional. Rosewall won with dispatch, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4. The entire month was a disaster. Playing Hoad one night, Rosewall the next, Laver lost all eight of his matches to Hoad and lost 11 of 13 to Rosewall. Losing so consistently was not altogether unexpected, just continually demoralizing.
"I knew I was playing badly," Laver says. "I don't know what it was. After 1962 and the Slam and everything, I guess I felt there was nothing else left. I played five tournaments in December before the Challenge Round and won just one, and I shouldn't have won that. Newcombe and Roche beat me, and they were just kids. In the amateurs, especially my last two years, there just weren't that many good players around, and I could build up slowly to the last two or three rounds of a tournament and everything would be O.K. But that Australian tour—it was like playing a final every day.
"And I had to think more in the pros—like where a volley was going, instead of just hitting into an open court. For awhile it made me think about whether I had done the right thing. Deep down I knew I had, but sometimes I still couldn't help wondering."
In the years that followed, as Laver rose to challenge and at last supplant Rosewall, professional tennis itself foundered, as usual, on the waves of mediocre promotions in the face of a spectacularly disinterested public. Had not open tennis at last been approved this year, Laver might have, like Rosewall before him, reached greatness in obscurity. Laver, fortunately, is peaking at the exact time when open play is bringing a demonstrable resurgence and vitality to the sport.
Laver and his American family—in 1966 he married the former Mary Bensen, who has two children, Steven, 18, and Ann Marie, 17, by a former marriage—live now in Newport Beach, Calif., but either there or back home in Australia the game's new prosperity assures the Lavers a comfortable life.
Last year he signed a five-year $500,000 contract with the touring group headed by George MacCall. He has a host of solid investments—including a $1 million resort hotel he is building with Rosewall, Fred Stolle and Roy Emerson in Brisbane. He endorses his own tennis shoe and shirt, and he has promises of more offers. The possibilities for tennis are suddenly tremendous.
"I've always had a goal," Laver says, "not consciously, but in the back of my mind. The first was to make the Australian team, then to play, and win, at Wimbledon, then to win the Slam."
He could very well now become the first professional to win the Slam. Laver smiled. "You've got to be lucky. You've got to be healthy at the right time, not have a bad wrist or a sprained ankle or something like that. Let's say I'd be satisfied just to be able to play in the four tournaments next year. I wouldn't even hope for more than that."
With at least three good years still left, the chances are, however, that Laver may safely hope for much more. "He doesn't have a weakness, and I really wouldn't have any idea as to how somebody would set about beating him," Lance Tingay says frankly.
"If he goes on like this," René Lacoste adds, "Rod Laver may really become the No. 1 of all time."