A phenomenon beyond compare

A man, with such unalloyed and essentially earthy emotions, unaffected by the fact that he had climbed what was unclimbable to the average human being, comes only once in centuries. By R. K. Raghavan.

(2014) Allen & Unwin, London. Pp. 398.

I never know what he is thinking. Every time he swings the ball one has the feeling it could fly for a perfect winner or shoot along the ground with the speed of a Bradman drive.

— Adrian Quist, (the famous Australian tennis player of the 1930s & 40s) on Rod Laver, on the eve of the Australian Nationals final in 1960.

If you are tired of ‘legend’ because it is a cliche, the English language throws up hardly any acceptable equivalent to describe someone who defied all the limitations set by a slender 5’ 8” frame — remember that there is hardly anyone less than 6’ who is making waves in the current tennis scene — to intimidate and bamboozle his opponents on the tennis court. It seems almost irreverent to write on one who was the God himself, and who did everything possible on a 78’ x 27’ turf. For all this Rod Laver was incredibly human and humble. He is categorical in his autobiography — first written last year and revised in 2014 — that success is fickle and one has, therefore, to handle it with poise and balance.

Rising from the dust bowl that was rural Queensland, Laver climbed to the dizzy heights of Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Forest Hills with the help of unmatched dedication that was aided by 100 per cent physical fitness and a steely mind.

Born on August 9, 1938 to Melba and Roy Laver, in Rockhampton (Queensland), Rod Laver proudly records in his absorbing autobiography that he came from a well-knit, down-to-earth family that thrived on a rugged outdoor life. The senior Laver was “a cattleman, a loving, caring father, but like most bushies, a tough hard bloke who treated his own farm injuries.” His favourite sport was tennis. The family “carted great quantities of ant bed… and loam, laid it in the yard, surrounded it with a wire perimeter fence, erected a net, scratched out some markings… and we had our own tennis court.” What more was needed to raise a future champion, who strode the tennis world like a Colossus in the late 1950s and early ’60s.

Most important happenings in one’s life can often be traced to the most insignificant of events or connections. In Laver’s life it came in the form of a remarkable coach Charlie Hollis, who was a regular player at the Lavers’ home court in Rockhampton. A bachelor dedicated to instructing young children, he worked wonders on the future champion. Like many others of his ilk, Charlie used to enjoy shouting at his pupils like a Sergeant Major (“You’re playing a smash. Do what the word says! ‘Attack! Attack! Attack!’”) on the parade ground. Putting the killer instinct in Laver, the indefatigable coach convinced the skinny 11-year-old of the wisdom of not relaxing even for a second during a match and in destroying the opponent at every opportunity. It did not matter that the man on the other side of the net was just a sacrificial lamb. He saw to it that even at a very young age, Laver played on all surfaces — clay, concrete and grass — so that he can adapt himself to the “idiosyncratic tricks and turns of each surface.” Very early in his career the master encouraged his student to impart a heavy top-spin on both the flanks, so that his groundstrokes were hard and not too deep. No practice session ever ended before the harried youngster hit at least 200 shots with top-spin. If Laver ever successfully masked the surprise element in his game, he again owed it to Charlie.

It was Laver’s good luck that Charlie had an amazing friend in Harry Hopman, who was running a tennis clinic in Brisbane and was already Australia’s Davis Cup captain. Just 13, Laver was placed under Hop’s tutelage by Charlie. By this time Laver had already won the Port Curtis Open and the Queensland under-14 championships.

Hop was a perfectionist; he saw many shortcomings in the young kid from Rockhampton and griped especially about his obvious lack of speed and strength. It was Hop who christened Laver as “Rockhampton Rocket”. There was intended sarcasm here because, in Hop’s first impression, Laver was far from a rocket and was one of the slowest in the class. But we know that behind their bark and steel, many outstanding task-oriented coaches and school teachers hide a soft and caring heart. Hop and Charlie were certainly among them. To this day Laver is grateful to both of them. An interesting fact is that Roy Emerson, who was to be Laver’s nemesis in many close encounters — a head-to-head 18 to 49 — was also at Harry’s clinic, and the two became great friends despite their epic battles on the court. Inspired by the top players of the time such as Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad (Laver’s hero), Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales and others, Laver spent a lot of time analysing their strengths. The benefits that accrued to him from this arduous exercise were reflected in the run of successes that followed, especially in the Pro days of 1962 to 1968.

In his first tour (1956) abroad — as part of the Harry Hopman troupe — Laver lost in the first round at Roland Garros (against Kurt Nielsen), Wimbledon (Orlando Sirola) and Forest Hills ( Ham Richardson). Learning from his failings during that ignominious summer, and buttressed by sheer hard work, an indomitable spirit and a native genius, Laver climbed to the top of the tennis world. Winning one Grand Slam (Australian, French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open Championships in a calendar year) in 1962 as an amateur was achievement enough.

To come back in 1969 and win it again — this time as a Professional in the Open era — was nothing short of a miracle. On that historic September evening, when he achieved the second enviable Double at Forest Hills, what Laver desperately wanted to do within minutes of the match, was to call his wife Mary in the West Coast. This was in the pre-mobile phone days. He badly needed a 10 cents piece to get through to her, and that was precisely he didn’t have. Seeing that he was panicky and was struggling to find a coin, a reporter in the vicinity quickly loaned that precious commodity! It is not difficult to guess how grateful the champion was to an utter stranger. One more thing that Laver recalls about that momentous day was his mentor Charlie messaging him: ‘Now, do it again!’ No congratulations, but a stern reminder that Charlie didn’t want his disciple to relax and be lost gloating over his two Grand Slams! Such was the iron man who shaped the icon and who believed that nothing was beyond his celebrity pupil’s reach.

Of all the accolades heaped on him, Laver treasures one from Bjorn Borg, who first saw the former only at his last Wimbledon in 1971, when Laver lost to Gorman. Bjorn said in his autobiography (My life and game): ‘Before that I had watched him (Laver) (only) on TV, but its only influence on me was how he behaved on court, not his strokes. I admired his concentration and straight face. He never got upset’. This summed up the core strength of the champion of all times. Laver strongly believed that if you got flustered by a bad call or the mischievous antics of your opponent, you will be playing into the hands of your adversary. Few can dispute the wisdom of this advice if you reckon all good players since Laver, who had the talent but threw it away because of a ragged temperament.

Laver’s decline started in 1970 when he won no major tournament. Early 1971 he lost to Tom Gorman in the quarterfinals, both at Queens and Wimbledon. The Guardian’s ‘obituary’ reference at that time said that Laver’s exit was one of ‘a condemned man’s walk to the scaffold’.

The last four chapters of this unputdownable autobiography are touching to the core. The most unexpected setback in his health in 1998 in the form of a stroke that decimated Laver, and the death of his wife Mary (who was 10 years older to him) in 2012, form the melancholic part of an otherwise sunny memoirs. Married to Mary for 46 years, Laver ‘never stopped seeing her as a beautiful girl with deep tan, twinkling eyes and dazzling smile’. Acknowledging her important role in his life he adds: ‘I owe her everything. She gave me love, and widened my horizons far beyond tennis’. Possibly the best tribute a man could give his departed wife.

What has been nearly, equally painful to Laver has been his decision to make California his home. His love for his home country is abiding. While he may live in the U.S., he says, his heart resides in Australia.

A man, with such unalloyed and essentially earthy emotions, unaffected by the fact that he had climbed what was unclimbable to the average human being, comes only once in centuries. His greatest legacy to posterity, however, will be this autobiography, an objective account of his life, one lived as it ought to be, and one that would certainly elude lesser mortals like us.

In the ultimate analysis, the key to Laver’s phenomenal success was his divine equanimity. He lived up fully to the famous words of Rudyard Kipling in his celebrated poem ‘If’, inscribed above the entrance used by players walking on to the Centre Court at Wimbledon:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two impostors just the same. (The writer is a former CBI Director.)