Rodney George Laver — that one person that no one argues about, the first name to pop up when there is a debate about who is the greatest tennis player of all time, the Bradman, Pelé or Ali of his sport.
Nicknamed the “Rockhampton Rocket”, the Australian maestro, is undoubtedly the “Godfather” of the sport, who helped shape modern tennis as we know it today. Laver has inspired generations of tennis players — starting from John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Navratilova to Roger Federer — to pick up a racket and try and mimic him on court.
Born in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia, Laver was a young boy when he left school to pursue a career in tennis. Who knew the Southpaw, whose first racket was a wooden hand-me-down with a shaved handle at the age of six, would go on to play for more than two decades (24), creating a host of records that stand tall even today?
Laver is the only player, male or female, to win two Calendar Grand Slams in his career twice, a feat that requires the utmost of dedication, focus and effort to accomplish.
The red-haired Aussie first clinched all four Slams as an amateur in 1962, becoming only the second player to do so since American Don Budge in 1938. He then became the first and only man ever to achieve the feat twice in 1969, this time as a pro, stamping his authority on two entire years of tennis in the 1960s.
Laver’s 1962 and 1969 sweeps are crown jewels in a glittering career.
Before the dawn of the Open Era in 1968, professional players were not allowed to compete in Grand Slams because the four tournaments were reserved for amateur players. As Laver turned pro in 1963, the years between 1963 and 1968 was a time when he was not allowed to compete in Grand Slams. Despite the five-year hiatus, he won 11 singles Grand Slam titles, including four Wimbledon trophies, three Australian Opens, and two French Open and US Open titles each.
Laver, who was ranked number one in the world for seven straight years between 1964 and 1970, won a whopping 200 titles in his career — including 20 Grand Slams in singles, doubles and mixed doubles spanning both the amateur and Open eras — the most in tennis history. The remarkable achievement will most likely never be matched.
He also holds the record for most titles won in a single year during the amateur era (22 in 1962), during the touring pro era (19 in 1967) and during the Open Era (18 in 1969). The first to break the $1,000,000 barrier in earnings, Laver, a keen team player was also a stalwart in Australia’s dominant Davis Cup side, winning five titles, including 4 consecutive years between 1959 and 1962. His record of reaching 14 consecutive major finals between 1964 and 1968 is another notable achievement.
Reflecting on his illustrious career, Laver once said “I was certainly in awe of myself in many ways, because I was thinking, ‘how did I do all this’. If you can be the best in your era, that’s all you can expect.”
Laver, who legend has it had a forearm bigger than Popeye, dominated the tennis world due to his all-around ability. He excelled on all court surfaces of his time — grass, clay, hard, carpet, and wood/parquet.
The Australian, who was slightly short and of medium build, developed a technically complete serve-and-volley game with aggressive groundstrokes while also managing to be steady from the baseline.
His left-handed serve was well disguised and wide swinging. His groundstrokes on both flanks were hit with topspin, as was the attacking topspin lob, which Laver developed into a weapon. His stroke technique was based on rapid shoulder turns, true swings, and accurate timing. His backhand, often hit on the run, was a point-ender that gave him an advantage. Laver was also very quick and had a strong left forearm.
Dan Maskell, the Voice of Wimbledon, once described him as “technically faultless.”
Comparison with modern day greats
It’s difficult to compare Laver with modern day champions like Federer and Rafael Nadal because of the changes in equipment, especially rackets, and playing surfaces while the amateur/professional divide also comes into play.
During Laver’s time, players weren’t accompanied by nutritionists, masseuses, physios and personal trainers. He played in the time of self-help, wooden racquets and little financial reward. But during this time and later, the five-foot eight-inch Laver stood tall.
Additionally, many events have been renamed and restructured while tournaments like the Davis Cup, have lost much of their significance, which may downplay the true nature of some of Laver’s accomplishments. The Davis Cup was equivalent to a Grand Slam title during that era.
Many also believe that had he not missed out on those five years, Laver would have Grand Slams in excess of Federer and Nadal’s current joint record of 20.
During his time as a pro, Laver took part in ‘Pro Slams’ and the Southpaw from Queensland, unsurprisingly, secured another calendar year win in 1967, for a total of 8 Pro Slam titles.
If we add his Grand Slams tally (11), Pro Slam victories (8) and Davis Cup wins (5), Laver won a whopping 24 major titles, which is well beyond even the Big 3’s (Federer, Nadal and Novak Djokovic) achievements.
His playing days may be over but Laver still continues to influence the sport. He is extremely popular in the tennis circuit. In January 2000, the centre court at Melbourne Park, that hosts the Australian Open, was renamed Rod Laver Arena in honour of his achievements.
In 2003, Laver was honoured with his portrait on a postage stamp by the “Australia Post Australian Legends Award”.
In 2017, Federer organized a new team competition called the Laver Cup in honour of the Australian great. The tournament pits six top European players against six of their counterparts from the rest of the world. Former rivals Bjorn Borg of Sweden (Europe) and USA’s John McEnroe (World team) served as the captains of the two teams.
For Federer, who himself is touted as the greatest of all time, there is no debate who actually holds the title. “I have always been a big admirer of Rod. I enjoy his character, how humble he is, what he meant to the game. For me, he is the greatest of all time. What he is done is completely amazing.”
“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. He was master of a left-handed topspin that overwhelmed his opponents, who also struggled to counter his tremendous speed around the court,” wrote Lisa Clausen in a Time magazine retrospective of the 100 sports greats of the twentieth century.
Over the years tennis has seen a lot of champions, however, it is highly unlikely that someone like Laver will grace the courts once again.