Honesty is what gees with poor. As in "My friends were poor, but honest" (All's Well That Ends Well, Act 1) or "She was poor, but she was honest" (old Army ballad). Rodney George Laver learned honesty—also compassion, humility and a top-spin backhand—at his father Roy's knee and on the family's homemade tennis courts in the harsh bush country of Queensland, Australia. Roy Laver was a cattle rancher and poor enough, and you would have had to range far into the Outback to find a man more tautly honest than he. When Roy refused to accept his wedding portrait in 1919 it was because the photograph made him look too good. "I reckon that's not Roy Laver," he said. His wife Melba begged him to keep it. "It makes you look handsome," she said. "I reckon that's not Roy Laver," said Roy, closing off the debate.
Roy and Melba Laver came east for the first time the other day. They took leave from their home in Gladstone, near the Great Barrier Reef where the fishing is good, and the two of them came and discovered America as it is experienced by their son Rod, who is called "the Rocket." They lived in his new home in California, where they had a choice of seven bathrooms and where they learned to shoot a game of pool and where there is a faded wedding portrait of Melba on the wall but none of Roy, and they traveled with Rod to Miami and Dallas and New York, and they watched without comment as grown men fawned over their son and pushed maroon Cadillacs on him to drive around and tried to pair him with Elke Sommer for mixed doubles. And they listened to the shuffle of thousands of dollars changing hands (to Rodney's from somebody else's) as Rod the Rocket ground out a living being the world's greatest tennis player.
And wherever they went Rod Laver pulled the chair out for his mother and opened the car door, and in the elegant supper clubs and country-club dining rooms ate every meal with his parents and saw to their needs and drove them places and deferred to them in conversation, and if they had noticed they would have seen that he never appeared uncomfortable that they were old, and the look of the Australian country was on them, standing out against the slick tapestry of the buckled-and-bowed society in which Rod now often moves. And that when most of the beautiful people were busy in the afternoon trying to rub elbows with Burt Bacharach or Dina Merrill, Rod was down on the beach, more or less alone, giving his legs a red (the Rocket does not tan).
Then, of an evening at the Aventura Country Club in Miami, before the pro tournament there, the Lavers sat at dinner and listened without a word as Cliff Drysdale, the tennis player from South Africa, told his favorite Honest Rod Laver story. Drysdale delights in Laver and happens to be some of the things that Rod is not. Glib, for example. And tall. And handsome. He is also not the tennis player Laver is, and over that he has no hangups because he is in the select company of everybody else. When approached after a match with Laver, Drysdale is likely to say, "Well, what would you like to know about Rodney Laver?"
May 30, 1971
Drysdale appreciates the sound of his own voice as it artfully rolls the words over his tongue, and he launched into a vignette about a time in Bristol, England when he actually defeated Laver in a match. He said those were moments to treasure, like births and graduations, and he remembered every minute. The conditions, to begin with, were terrible. They were playing in the morning "out in the scrub" (a distant court), and the net broke, and there was a delay to find the groundsman, and the umpire acted as though he wished he were somewhere else and was so bad they suggested he "let us call the game and we'll just write in the score."
Boiled down, the punch was this: there were three calls the umpire made that Laver overruled. Each one cost him a point and, ultimately, the match. "He needn't have done it," said Drysdale. "He needn't have opened his mouth over any of them. But he did. I don't know anybody else who would have."
Old Roy Laver listened to this and nodded and maybe it was the slanting lights of the dining room but there was a glistening at the corners of his eyes, as though something had been nudged high up under his rib cage. And later, sitting in the stands watching the Aventura finals in which, ironically enough, Drysdale caught Rod Laver on an off night and defeated him for the third time in 10 years, Roy Laver reviewed "all this" that he had seen of his son's life in America and said proudly, "Rodney is the same as you see him. He's the same Rodney."
The moral of the story being, of course, that there is nothing that says you have to be poor to be honest.
Rodney (Rocket) Laver, age 32, professional tennis player, won 13 championships and $201,000 on the job last year, a figure roughly equivalent to what the President of the United States gets since his salary was doubled a Congress or so ago and a total unmatched even by those most affluent of international bourgeois sportsmen, the leading money-winners of professional golf. Except for Lee Trevino, there wasn't a golfer last season within the stretch of a $50,000 bill of Laver, and Trevino was barely that.
To keep the wolf further from the door of his home in fashionable Corona del Mar, Calif., Laver also collected on some investments and received compensation in varying amounts for endorsing tennis rackets, shoes, socks and shirts, a ball machine, a calibrated exercise device and a new plastic tennis court called Uniturf (soon to be marketed under the name Laverturf), thereby raising himself to even dizzier heights on the American income-tax scale. At one point Laver was advocating a wooden racket in some countries and an aluminum one—now his consistent choice—in others. It gives an inkling of the pretty pass professional tennis has come to since the gypsy days of one-night stands and prize-money checks bouncing as high as the balls and Pancho Gonzales racing stock cars to make ends meet. Laver has already won $195,000 this year ("Rude, isn't it?" he says), and Heaven knows what will prevent him from reaching $300,000 because there appears to be no one on Earth capable.
The Laver house, his third in five years, impresses a beholder as being auspiciously wolfproof. A sprawling split-level, terraced out of a California rock ledge and designed almost like a boomerang with the cutting edge facing west, it offers a number of Corinthian necessities, including fireplaces in the bedrooms, those seven bathrooms, a beautifully appointed bar in the billiard room downstairs and an unrestricted view of the Pacific near that roiling place surfers call The Wedge.
On a clear day you can see Catalina Island from the Laver patio or, in the opposite direction, rolling down the street in her Riviera, Mrs. Laver (Mary) as she heads for the antique shops of Newport Beach to pick up another Queen Anne period piece or a venerable Florentine painting or a 17th century clothes rack to hang Rod's underwear on in the master bath. "Rod's preference is to throw his underwear on the floor," says Mary Laver, in the way of defending her good taste and justifying her expensive ones. "It is a habit he picked up in hotel rooms."
Laver looked the rack over carefully (Mary had made the purchase while he was off having a payday in Florida) and said it was quite a pile of furniture "just to hang a sweat suit or a pair of socks on." He promised to curb Mary's appetites one of these days, but he is by nature a kindly, indulgent man. He thanked her instead.
As a boy without a clothes rack in the cattle country of Rockhampton, the third and least likely-looking son of the tiny plug-along Aussie rancher Roy Laver, Rod learned tennis with sawed-off hand-me-down rackets and his brothers' secondhand shoes on courts the family laid on the property by pounding smooth wheelbarrows full of creek-bottom loam and the red crust from Outback anthills. Wherever the Lavers lived, they always scraped up a tennis court. Rod remembers that his older brothers beat him regularly and preempted his time on the court and that the dust got in his throat.
Now Rod Laver is the touring pro and part owner of the Newport Beach Tennis Club, where the facilities are numerous and dust-free, and John and Pilar Wayne are listed among the membership, and where Rod's adventures—victories, mostly, because Laver seldom bothers to lose anymore—are tabulated on a huge bulletin board under the heading "Rod's Doin's." And his 18-month-old son Ricky, knowing a more modern deprivation (a traveling daddy), gets his pick of a closet full of $40 Laver autograph models. He rummages through until he finds the one he wants and drags it around by the hour, leaving trails in the deep pile rugs for his nursemaid to follow. When the mood strikes, Ricky is known to make determined, portentous swipes at a tennis ball (the Laver ground strokes seem to be in the blood) as he awaits the jets that bring his father home.
Unquestionably, Laver is the brightest of the 32-man constellation of touring stars that flies under the banner of World Championship Tennis. He gets invited to stay at posh hideaways like LeClub International in Fort Lauderdale, room and board on the house. Newly minted tennis patrons ply him with compliments and send wine to his room, and he aces the hearts of the beautiful people with his good humor.
Dinah Shore, his partner in a recent pro-celebrity at LeClub, calls him "such a dear. Oh, my, isn't he a fine person?" She was crestfallen when she couldn't play better for him. Spiro Agnew asks him questions about the game ("Intelligent questions, too," says Laver, "like, 'How do you handle Tom Okker's backhand drive?' "). Alan King, the comedian, invades his dressing room before a match to remind him, tongue half in cheek, how much the gang has riding on him in the doubles. King is a longtime tennis buff and thinks there is absolutely no one to compare with Rod Laver. He does an imitation of Laver missing a shot (being a rare thing, it is a rarely seen imitation) and, in a terse self-admonishment characteristically Australian, mimics Laver spitting at himself, "Bloody beginnah."
Missed shots were not what got Rod Laver to Corona del Mar and LeClub International and into all those lovely hearts, however. What got him there was an arsenal of winners—backhand drives blurring the lines with topspin, fiendish drop shots jumping back into the net, slicing returns, thumping volleys, looping forehand placements, unnerving dinks, chips, stop volleys and pardon me but isn't that a ball in your ear? There is little doubt he is the most awesome shotmaker the sport has ever seen.
It has become admissible, even popular, to call Laver "the best player in the history of the game," as Lance Tingay, the distinguished lawn-tennis correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, did in 1969 after Laver completed his second Grand Slam—a sweep of the French, Australian, English (Wimbledon) and American (Forest Hills) championships. He won 31 straight matches that year, a record. He had first swept the big four in 1962 as an amateur, and only Don Budge, another freckle-faced redhead, had done it before him: in 1938, the year Laver was born. "Budge's Slam," as it became known, had taken on an almost ethereal quality, like sainthood, before Laver started making it look routine. Tilden hadn't done it; Kramer hadn't; Gonzales hadn't.
The Laver nickname, Rocket, is apt enough considering his style of play—fast, offensive, deadly—and unlike the garden-variety alliterative sports-page labels (Galloping Ghost, Splendid Splinter), it is a viable one that his fellow players use naturally, as in "Pass the biscuits, Rocket," or "Wanta hit a few, Rocket?" It can be assumed that none of Red Grange's friends ever said, "Your shirttail is out, Galloping Ghost." Seeing Laver skirring across the baseline, his feet never quite touching down, his red hair suspended above him in a gossamer halo of flame, is to appreciate the value of a good nickname, and Laver accepts it willingly enough. But true to form, he is no perpetrator of illusions. He says the name originated as derision from his old Australian coach, Harry Hopman, in days when he (Laver) was more rookie than rocket, much as Ken Rosewall got to be called "Muscles" before he really had any.
Otherwise, to describe Laver is to risk cliché. That is because writers seeing him for the first time do not believe him at all—a pale specimen, just 5'8", bowlegged as a cowhand and thin except for a left arm (the business arm) so overdeveloped it appears to have been grafted on, a transplant from a stevedore. Efforts to detail the legions of freckles marching across his body, and the ears that jut out and the nose that arcs a path before him have moved typewriters to paroxysms of description. Obviously he is not Pancho Gonzales.
Laver takes it all in good humor. He says a head transplant is a chancy solution. He says he is pleased that son Ricky does not have the Laver nose, but "I understand you don't get all that's coming to you until you're 14, so he's not safe yet." He says the sun doesn't help his freckles any, only enhances their presence, leaving him paler still behind them, and if he eats a lobster tail or a crustacean of any sort he blossoms into hives, more or less proving that when God meant a man to be plain He meant him to be plain. Laver admits, however, to being a trifle weary of comparisons with various small animals and flying things. He thought "prehistoric bird," for example, was a bit much.
There is, despite some metamorphosis, nothing rocketlike in Laver's personality. "Steady" would be a better word for that. He is still a shy man, the honest reflection of his parents. He bites and tears at his fingernails until they look like shreds of coconut. The cocktail hour is liable to find him in bed watching Gomer Pyle. His speeches are marked mainly by the guts he shows in delivering them. At the Jordan Marsh department store in Miami, addressing a small crowd on the merits of his new Chemold racket, he dropped the racket. He seems completely at ease only in private or in his natural habitat—on the tennis court—and he will run to get there even if it is only to practice.
He celebrates with beer or a good wine. If it is Wimbledon, maybe champagne. The only time he orders a bucket of ice in a hotel room, says Mary, is when he has a sore elbow to pack, and at those times when there really was something to celebrate and he and Mary danced till dawn he admitted his dancing "was mostly faking it."
But expose yourself long enough to Rod Laver and a remarkable thing happens. He begins to look, well, better. Plain, he becomes almost handsome. Small, he appears to have grown. Character and strength, the major working parts of an attractive man, begin to stand out. Usually they stand out on the center court. At Forest Hills, say.
A friend, remembering Laver's victory there in 1969, the final leg of the Slam, said you could see it in the eyes. Sky-blue and softly lashed, they appear vulnerable to the smallest slight when he is off the court. On the court they narrow and grow hard, and the color drains. "He was playing Tony Roche in the finals," the friend recalls, "and we were all out together the night before, having a drink, relaxing, nothing special. John Newcombe had been quoted as saying, 'Laver would rather play anybody but Tony Roche,' probably because Roche was hot at the time and he is a lefthander, too, and Rod had had his troubles beating Roche. When the writer from The New York Times asked Laver about it, Rod said, 'When did Roche ever beat me when it was important?' I told Rod the statement was unlike him, and he said, 'Pretty cheeky, wasn't it?' He was almost apologetic. But he meant what he had said. You can't psych Laver.
"So the next day they were on the court at Forest Hills just before the finals and I caught Roche's eye. He smiled. Then I caught Laver's eye. Nothing. Instant shutout. Two steel beads looking out of an icebox. I remembered what Earl Buchholz told me. He said, 'Rod's a nice guy, all right, but he's no fun to play with.' Rod beat Roche in four sets. In less than two hours."
Laver says he has been getting a lot of good-sounding advice lately about how he should relax more. Not be so intense. Smile. He says he's been giving it a try. "It used to be I would never call to a bloke, 'Good shot.' Instead I would say to myself, 'I'm not going to give him the benefit of my saying it.' Now I find myself acknowledging good shots, and there's a little dialogue, and it is a good thing.
"But what is there to smile about? That's not what I do best. I like to play attractive tennis, not just bloop the ball over. I talk to myself a little bit and throw a racket occasionally, but I don't perform at the expense of winning. I never wanted to be the center of attraction, to be in the middle of anything. I think, as a breed, Australians are that way. Rosewall, Stolle, Emerson—they do not run around trying to make a show. Are you more popular if you're outspoken? Are you less popular if your color is the same through life, instead of red one minute and blue the next? Open your mouth too often and what you will probably reveal is your ignorance. I don't think of myself as shy because of that. Maybe I was shy as a youngster, but I don't think of myself as shy now. Quiet, maybe."
There is a phrase Australian tennis players use that has to do with caring. The phrase is "I'm all right, Jack," and it means not caring at all about others. As it is explained by Laver, "I'm all right, Jack" is what the guy who just drove off with the rental car shouts to the three guys left standing on the curb.
It is not likely that Laver has ever been called Jack, or sucker. Neither is he considered a practicing gamesman—he does not tie his shoelaces when the other guy is ready to serve or call time to change socks when he's tired. He has a reputation, rather, for being a sporting man who wouldn't know an alibi from an alligator. Andres Gimeno, the stylish Spanish tour veteran, remembers a time in Uganda when he had experienced a startling success against Laver. "I was beating him badly, and I began thinking to myself, 'My, you are playing well.' It is not until we get to the dressing room I see he has a very bad toe. I say, 'You should have told me, Rocket. You should have said, 'Don't make me look bad. I am injured.' Rocket replied, 'I thought I could beat you anyway.' "
Not everybody swoons at the drop of Rod Laver's name, of course. In Australia there are those who resent his success and declare he has become money hungry (Australians like to kick a guy when he's up) and tennis officials there knock him openly for not coming back more often to participate in Australian events, as valueless as most of them are to professional players. They say he owes it to the country. Laver says he paid back that debt with four Davis Cup championships. "When does a man get level?" he asks.
Occasionally, too, a linesman feels the lash of Laver's tongue—e.g., "If you're not going to pay attention, why are you sitting there?"—even though he is a devout non-complainer who believes it bad philosophy to challenge linesmen. Reporters who have failed to break his reserve liken him to a brick: "Take a brick and a saucer. Squeeze the brick over the saucer. See all that water in the saucer? That's what you get out of Rod Laver."
There are times when Laver's courtly manners crumble in the face of a dumb or routine question. At Aventura, after he had lost to Drysdale, a tall, thin young reporter who had apparently learned his tennis in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium asked such a question and Laver, alone at his locker, referred him to a knot of reporters surrounding Drysdale. "Don't you want to talk with him first, like the others?" Laver said. "I'm with an afternoon paper," said the young man, "and my questions won't be the ones they'll ask." Laver said, "I guarantee you that question you just put to me will be asked," and turned away.
Though a nonmixer, Laver gets along well enough with all the touring pros. He is especially close to his doubles partner, Roy Emerson, who also lives in the Newport Beach area. But there was a time when Laver did not get along with Pancho Gonzales. Bud Collins, a Boston writer with whom Laver has written a book to be published this month, says that it began with a typical Pancho ploy: "They were introduced, and when Laver reached out to shake hands Pancho gave him one of those Gonzales nods and left him there with an empty hand. Rod realizes now it was one of those psych things of Pancho's, a kind of gamesmanship, but it got to him."
Laver beat Gonzales for the first time at the Longwood Cricket Club in 1964. Pancho stormed off the court in a rage. After that, says Laver, they had their share of verbal locker-room battles, standing nose to necktie (Gonzales is 6'3") and shouting at each other, usually over some tactic of Pancho's that irritated Laver.
But one night in Bogotà, says Laver, "it was me who acted the idiot—I slammed the ball around, threw rackets, complained about calls. Pancho couldn't wait to tell me off. He said, 'You're the worst. You're worse than I am and you're always complaining about me.' I said, 'Pancho, I quit complaining about you because I gave up on you long ago.' We kept yelling at each other.
"But you learn to understand Pancho. He's a great showman. He's psyching you all the time. You're ahead 3-1 and he's saying, 'Take it easy on an old man,' or 'Are you ever going to miss a forehand?' And then he gets the crowd laughing with something he has said, and suddenly he has ruined your concentration. Before you find it again he's put three in a row past you.
"Fred Stolle would fall for it every time. He'd end up trying to clown with Pancho. Pancho would crack a few jokes and Stolle would join in and they were both very funny. A circus. I told Fred, 'You can't do that with Pancho. He's laughing and he's beating hell out of you. It's costing you money.' "
Those players who must face the swarm of shots that make up the Laver repertoire (the reader can only imagine that experience, but it is something like trying to fend off a hornet with a kite stick) are free to blame a wily Australian pro named Charlie Hollis for their discomfort. Hollis ran a sporting-goods store in Northhampton and gave lessons to the Laver boys, and for years carried on a running argument with Roy Laver as to which of the boys was going to be the best player. "Rodney was the freak of the family, the only lefthander," says Roy. "I always said Trevor would be the best because he had very nice strokes. Hollis said no, because Trevor had my disposition—he blew up a lot. Rodney was like his mother. Calm. Under control."
The brothers got up at five a.m. on school days, rode their bikes to town and sent Rod creeping into Charlie Hollis' room to lift some practice balls from the box under his bed. That way they could get in a few hits before the 6:30 lesson. Rod recalls a day when "Hollis told me if I was going to get anywhere I'd have to learn to put top spin on my backhand. I was too small to hit the ball flat. It's the one advantage a taller player has: the angle, especially on the serve. Even today if I serve as hard as I can it won't stay in without top spin. I can't see the baseline except through the net."
To get spin Laver became a very wristy player. "It doesn't bother me anymore, but as a teen-ager I would flick the ball so much in practice, trying for angles and spin, that my arm would ache for days. It's the basis of my game, spin. Not consistency, as some people have said. Consistency to me is putting 10 balls back to the same place, one after another. That's boring. I'd rather put backspin on one, top spin on another, drop-shot a third. If I had to spend all my time blooping the ball back like a puddler I'd give up the game. Spin keeps me excited.
"I was always close. Even at 12 or 14, I was never over the fence with shots. Watching the ball was a problem; hitting the ball too hard was a problem. Every shot cannot be a winner, but you eventually learn that. Arthur Ashe hasn't yet. Ashe will try to hit a winner every time. Even when it is not there to hit. He's brave enough to hit one at 15-40, and he does it. But you cannot do it every time. I play Ashe and I try not to give him easy points. I give him a lot of chips and I concentrate on returning service properly. The first time I played him he won the opening set 6-1. Zipped right through me in 12 minutes. Then he began to miss, and he never adjusted. I won the next set 6-2, and the last 6-0.
"I have found my size to be more an asset than a weakness. When you are small and reasonably quick you rarely get caught off balance. Big men like Gonzales get caught having to make a shot in half stride. Instead of a lot of little steps, they take great big ones. They use up more energy starting and stopping and starting again."
From Charlie Hollis, and those pleasant Sunday afternoons of tennis on the Laver courts when the folks would come from 20 miles around to forget their troubles with a beer and a set or two, Rod passed into the more somber province of Harry Hopman, the Davis Cup captain. Hopman taught him tactics; Hopman taught him discipline. Hopman imposed curfews ("I missed one by 20 minutes and he fined me $20"). Hopman forbade press interviews ("If a story quoting a player made the papers, he said he would fine the player and ban the writer"). Hopman insisted not only on a sound mind and body but a clean uniform at practice ("Come dirty and you ran extra laps").
Hopman treated the Australian stars like children. He made them practice when they did not want to. Run when they did not want to. The players said, "That bloody Hop. I'd like to choke him." Naturally, Laver loved every minute. What punishment was an extra half hour to him? He loved to practice. "It was a challenge to see if I could hit as well the last 10 minutes as I did the first hour," Laver says today.
With Hopman at the controls, Laver's amateur career was an express to the moon. An overseas tour at 18, and junior championships in America, Canada and Australia; Davis Cup squad in 1957; finalist at Wimbledon in 1959, at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1960; Davis Cup bellwether as Australia swept in 1960, 1961 and 1962; Wimbledon champion and ranked No. 1 in 1961; Grand Slam in 1962.
In 1963 Laver turned pro. Considering his burgeoning bank account, the decision would seem, from this end, academic. In truth, it required agonizing appraisal. "Quit the amateurs in those days and everybody thought you were over the hill," Laver said one afternoon as he sat in the middle of his bed at LeClub, rewrapping the grip on one of his aluminum rackets. Half a dozen more were fanned out on the bed around him, like fish to be cleaned, together with a surgical kit consisting of a small pair of scissors and a roll of friction tape. Laver was in a bathing suit, bare to the waist. Gomer Pyle flickered on the television screen.
"The pros had all the best players. The amateurs were called the best, but people didn't know better. Harry Hopman did not want me to turn pro. Neither did the Australian Lawn Tennis Association. It had a deal lined up with Philip Morris. A public-relations job. I couldn't see myself pushing cigarettes the rest of my life."
Laver hefted the racket he had been working on. Something in its bowels—the weight, the added tape—displeased him and he began to unwrap the grip again.
"They said I wanted to turn pro for selfish reasons. Fair enough. If I ran my business the way the Australian Lawn Tennis Association ran its I'd be bankrupt. Its idea of taking care of Davis Cup players was air fare and $5 a day. Go away from Australia and you lived like a nomad. You traveled on a shoestring, and when you won the Davis Cup and came home the association people would say, 'Good show, Rod, you're our boy, here's your five dollars. Go buy some ice cream.' I figured one day I'd wake up and be 45 years old and where would I be?"
Laver cut a strip of friction tape with the scissors and carefully wrapped a place on the handle, hefted the racket again and began once more to reapply the grip.
"You could make money in the amateurs if you were good enough. Roy Emerson didn't turn pro until he was 32 because he thought he could do better as an amateur. But you had to bargain around. Make agreements with promoters. Go through the back door. 'I'll need $1,500 to come to your tournament,' that's the way it was done. Everybody knew it. Nobody said anything because they all had something on each other. And maybe six or eight players could clear $500 a week. It wasn't spread around enough so it wasn't fair. The top players got what they wanted whether they reached the finals or not, and the promoter would say to the next guy, 'I'm sorry but there's none left.'
"So a lot of guys who made good money then wouldn't turn professional because they knew they would have to earn it as a pro. Some of them wouldn't get out of bed for less than $1,000. That was Sedgman's price. Santana picked up his rackets at five o'clock in Berlin one afternoon and announced he was leaving. 'Dinner will be ready at six,' he said.
"There is no meaning to that kind of tennis. And the amateur officials didn't try to help you any. All they cared about was keeping you from turning pro. 'You're a pro, you're a bad guy.' I didn't want to end up with my head in the toilet 25 years later. I wanted to make my living in tennis, and I wanted the challenge. I wanted to play the best, play Rosewall and Hoad and Gonzales and Trabert, though he was past it then. I wanted to know, 'Am I No. 1 or No. 4?' "
Laver hefted the racket again. This time it satisfied him. He picked up another. A friend who had been watching the operation stuck a piece of friction tape on top of one of the rackets and asked him to close his eyes and pick out the racket with the extra weight. "You ought to be able to find it," said the friend. "It probably weighs at least a hundredth of an ounce more." Laver closed his eyes and began to lift the rackets, one at a time, weighing each one in his mind. When he had felt them all, he reached back, eyes still shut, and said, "This one," holding up the racket with the tape on the end.
When he signed a three-year $110,000-guarantee contract with Jack Kramer's professional group in 1963, Rod Laver was the first top amateur to join the Philistines in four years. The professional game had been dying on the vine. Unconvinced fans were staying home in droves. Laver's coming was supposed to be the shot in the bank pro tennis needed.
Laver discovered a few things as a professional those first months. He discovered losing, for example. Hoad and Rosewall may have been on the vine but they weren't dying. They beat him 19 of the first 21 times he faced them. By the second year, however, the Rocket was into its next stage and coming fast. And one afternoon at Wembly before an uncommonly large crowd of 10,000, he defeated Rosewall in five sets "and realized then I could win as a pro. Kenny had me 5-3 in the fifth set. I strung a bunch of returns together, broke service and won, 7-5. They said it was the best match England had ever seen."
By 1965 Laver had established his superiority. But though the money was there—he had equaled his guarantee before the third year—the scrounging for it was terrific, taxing the players' stamina and interest. Over one period Laver played 70 matches in 3½ months. He played in five countries in 27 days. Night appearances often dragged into the morning, to one or two a.m., and the plane to the next town left at six. They played in arenas where the lighting system was a 250-watt bulb over the center court, hanging down, or a light in each corner, shining in their eyes. The crowds were often dominated by curiosity seekers, clients of the sponsoring land developer who had brought the pros in to push real estate. There was no continuity to the game. No glory. No security.
And finally, one night in Grenoble, Laver came within an ace of packing in.
"I was out on the court and it hit me: 'What the hell am I doing here? I don't feel like playing. I don't want to play.' The floor was poorly lit, with tapes marking the lines. The balls were like rocks. They would hit the tape and skid. The fans were way back beyond a bicycle track, and when the ball ran off the court it ran for 50 yards. You made a good shot and four people clapped. I thought, 'They don't care, why should I?' Mental fatigue. You know the guy across the net is trying to beat you, and you have your reputation and your pride, and it still doesn't come, and then you start making the wrong shots or not making any shots at all. It stops being fun then, and tennis had always been fun to me. I lost and all I cared about was that it was over. I was sick of it all."
The feeling passed, of course. And Laver acknowledges that "the one-night stands made a better player of me. I never saw the bottom of a suitcase, but I had the best competition possible. In the amateurs you might have two tough matches in an entire tournament. This was a tough match every night—Hoad one night, Rosewall the next and so forth. I had to get better."
So, ultimately, did playing conditions. A banker in Boston named Ed Hickey had a 12-year-old daughter who had met Laver and liked watching him play in his floppy while hat and she couldn't understand why the big amateur tournament at Longwood didn't have him in it. The banker began to wonder, too, and one dollar led to another until he had his bank putting together a $10,000 pro tournament. "It seemed like 10 million," says Laver. The Longwood tournament is currently the $50,000 U.S. Pro Championship. And in 1968 holy Wimbledon opened its doors to the pros, and the other major tournaments followed. World Championship Tennis, headed by Lamar Hunt, then absorbed the National Tennis League and the guts of the pro tour became a series of $50,000 tournaments. Touchdown.
To make the new life even more pleasant, Laver had taken a wife. During a layover in Los Angeles he had noticed a girl with a deep tan at a club there. "The girl," says Mary Laver, "was me." She says she had an idea that his heart belonged to Mary the day Rod went home to Australia from South Africa by way of Los Angeles.
The best way to play Rod Laver today would appear to be in 1981. There are those who do not agree he dominates the game. These people are known as "diehards." Dennis Ralston, for example, says, "Laver does not dominate. Ten or 12 of us on the pro tour could beat him." Ralston has beaten Laver twice in 14 matches. "You know the guy's the best in the world, you just don't know if he's going to be the best tomorrow," says Arthur Ashe. Ashe has never had a tomorrow and they have played 13 matches.
Obviously having to face the Rocket gets to a man after a while. Even beating him does not swell a confidence for very long. Immediately after upsetting Laver at Aventura, Cliff Drysdale was heard to say, "You have not seen Rodney at his best."
Most of the theories on how to cope with Laver start off positively enough, then lapse into sighs of introspection. "You always think you can beat Rocket," says Gimeno, "but you know you will not if he is the real Rocket." Gimeno holds to an interesting theory that Laver hits the ball sooner than anybody else, a fraction of a moment that makes the difference. Roche says there is nowhere to attack Laver because he is dangerous both forehand and backhand, deep or at the net. Rosewall says Laver's shots from impossible, unorthodox positions boggle the concentration. Gonzales used to talk about the Laver "discipline" and how it "wears you down."
It is generally agreed that only Tony Roche comes near to having the assortment of flavors Laver can produce, and only Lew Hoad, among recent players, was capable of as much maddening spin.
The special ingredient in Laver's game could well be something entirely different from all these things. The symptoms of that ingredient are these: when Laver is behind, he appears to be—he is—more dangerous; when he is forced into the extremes of the court, into the corners, he has an astonishing faculty for drawing back and ripping through his best shots. There is a suspicion around that he is only at his best when he is behind and has to rally. He seems always to be making it back from 15-40, or two sets to love.
On a plane ride to Los Angeles one afternoon recently, Laver took stock of these phenomena and agreed that at those most precarious times a kind of calmness settles over him; and whereas before he might not have made a certain shot, or in the previous set he had been drab and inconsistent, he comes to the realization that "they can't shoot you if you lose," and the pressure dissolves. Then, the blitz.
"If I'm in trouble, I attack. It's my game. If I have the choice—play this ball back, just dump it back or try to hit it out—I go for the winner. Why just lob it back? You're liable to miss either way. Why go down with an easy shot? Better to put more pressure on the other player. Make him wonder what you are going to do.
"Sometimes in those situations I don't know what I'm going to do, but I do know I'm going to make the effort. I'm going to go for everything. Unless you give it a good run, how do you know if you can make the shot? I have hit a lot of silly-looking shots, balls off the end, drives off the throat, that were winners because I didn't give up on a ball. After a while, it can become a psychological thing. Run one down at 15-40 and make it, and you are only a point from being even. If you have hit a winner under pressure like that when the other guy thinks you wouldn't dare, you have got something else going. You've got him thinking.
"So even in practice I go for everything. Even balls that are way out—wide, off the fence, anywhere. Even a drop shot I have to take on the second bounce. A lot of the boys just catch the ball when it's out. How do they know the next time they're in an awkward position they'll be able to return one that's at their feet or past them? You might not look good doing it, but how you get the racket there doesn't matter. The fact you get it there does.
"I don't let the past bother me. I try to forget bad calls as soon as they happen. I don't want them to nag me. If a call is wrong in my favor, I say so and clear my conscience. If I double-hit one, I say so, or say no if I don't think I did, and then I think ahead."
There are moments when Laver's brilliance on the court is so sharply defined, so beautifully conceived, that the witness of it crowds a man's throat with pleasure and even the most unsophisticated tennis audience is heard to gurgle and ahhh. In a match against Drysdale, there were those moments. There was a time when the two of them were at the net, ebbing and flowing like waves in a bathtub, probing hard for an advantage, and Drysdale put in a drop shot that was unretrievable. Except Laver retrieved it, and not only manufactured a better model but pulled it off cross-court, angling it away, and when it struck down it was within inches of the net and running back. Drysdale dropped his racket and applauded with the crowd.
And there was a moment of sheer madness in the next set when Drysdale slammed him deep, then accepted Laver's return lob and slammed him again; then again; then had to wait again as Laver miraculously retrieved and lobbed it back, except this time with such fantastic spin the ball appeared to U-turn in the air, and when it came down it was so deep to the baseline that Drysdale's return was softened. Laver had him. Down the line he came with a scorching top-spin backhand that, were it allowed loose on a city street, would have been arrested as a fire hazard.
There are times even on his second service that Laver puts so much kick on the ball that even an old playing partner like Emerson has to jump to keep from being clipped on the chin. There are times, as he floats across the baseline, that Laver's ability to get to shots defies physics. "Experience gets you there," Laver says. "Experience and anticipation. Reflex makes the shot."
Laver says his reflexes are sound as ever; there are no signs of deterioration in his compact little body, and he notes, with some pride, that Drysdale appeared more tired than he after one match. Drysdale is 30, two years younger. The hurts and sicknesses Laver has suffered—yellow jaundice as a boy, tennis elbow, some vertebrae floating in his back that must occasionally be pampered by a chiropractor—have been spaced out almost as if by design and have never given his rivals false hope.
There are times, however, when he gets tired of talking about tennis, when the common denominator that got him the acquaintance wanes as a topic and he hears himself answering "That's a secret" to some sincere interrogator who wants to know how to correct a flaw in his own game by adopting this or that grip, stroke or incantation. "I'm not really trying to be flip," Laver says. "I just can't envision helping a fellow if I don't know for sure that he's not holding the racket between his legs."
There are times, too, when he talks wistfully about having his own plush tennis camp for advanced young players, in Atlantic City, say, where he would become a gentleman tennis teacher. It would be nice, he says, to be considered the greatest tennis player who ever lived, but he reckons there is, after all, no way of telling. And a fellow has to think about the time when he must leave being the best to some other bloke. Honest.
But right now, you see, there is this book to promote, and some razor blades that haven't been endorsed yet. And if it is really true that the great Tilden could put four out of five right on the baseline, wouldn't it be nice to see if you could do it nine out of 10?