Today we celebrate Australia Day, and there is no person in the history of Australian Sport, who is more deserving to wear the title “Living Legend” than Rod Laver. There is so much that can be said about Laver that a newspaper article just won’t do justice. However, in this one, I will attempt to hopefully give you some understanding of the man, behind the racquet.
Rodney George Laver is the only player in tennis history to win two calendar Grand slams in tennis singles in both 1962 and again in 1969. Whilst records are meant to be broken, and many times they are, it can take decades to achieve. Laver’s hasn’t been challenged in more than 40 years, and it is highly unlikely it will be broken in the near future.
When you look back on his career, after Laver won his first Grand Slam in 1962, he was barred as all amateurs who turned pro were until the “Open Era” began in 1968. Had he not have been barred, it is highly likely he would have added another third or even forth Grand Slam title to his game.
Rodney George Laver was born to Roy and his wife Melba, in rural Rockhampton, Queensland on the 9th August, 1938. They had a total of four children, 3 boys and a girl, Laver being placed at number three. Both Roy and Melba played tournament lawn tennis, and met each other at a tournament in the Queensland town of Dingo. Laver’s parents would travel to all the tournaments with the family and his father often joked that one day one of his boys would make it to a Wimbledon Grand slam.
Laver was introduced to the game when he was six years old. Tennis was a staple in the Laver household, and wherever they lived, they had a tennis court in the backyard.
With a hand me down racquet that had it’s handle shaved down to fit into his tiny left hand, Laver often challenged his two older brothers to matches. In his first professional match, at the ripe old age of 13, Laver lost to his brother Bob in the Central Queensland junior final.
Older brothers Trevor and Bob showed promise right from the get go and when Charlie Hollis came to town he gelled into the family quite nicely. He coached all the boys. Hollis always knew that he had a champion in the making with young Laver. Laver was the only left handed player in the family. At that age, laver could time the ball, he could catch it, he could run after it and return it, but he doesn’t recall how good or accurate he was. He just enjoyed playing. It took Laver quite some time to generate his accuracy. He found himself sitting in what he called the “cheap seats” very often.
When Hollis thought Laver was good enough, he took him down to the teaching clinic that was run by Harry Hopman. At first Laver was intimidated by Hopman. Everyone knew and admired the tennis great. He was a great player of the game, and later captained the Australian Davis Cup team.
When Hollis first introduced Laver to Hopman, Hopmans’ first initial thought was, well he’s little, and was a bit to scrawny looking to become a player.
Hopman named Laver the “Rockhampton Rocket” but it wasn’t because he was fast, in fact his sister Lois thinks it was because he was exactly the opposite. Laver wasn’t slow, but he needed to work a lot on his speed around the court. The nickname “Rocket” was cemented in his career.
Laver remembers Hopman as stern, but in a nice way with the kids, and often good humoured. Here he was coaching Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall who were about to burst forth as tennis grand slam contenders, and then there was a scrawny, short, skinny kid looking on tentatively.
When Laver threw away an education in 1953 and left home to go and live in Brisbane he was only 15 years of age.
Laver recalls that he was a shy, skinny, red headed, freckle faced kid, who certainly wasn’t going to win any beauty contests, but he wasn’t there for his looks. He thinks that is probably why he was so shy, he was embarrassed about his appearance.
Laver: Tennis in many ways, took the shyness out of me.
Laver only ever played tennis for the love of it, but he was extremely competitive.
Lois: He liked to win, don’t get me wrong, he just had to learn to win, there is a difference.
Over time, as Lavers’ shots got stronger, he was able to pull off shots that many who watched, thought had to be a fluke, and Laver felt that they thought a lot of time when he won, he had no right winning.
Hopman as the Captain of the Davis Cup, and after meeting him, encouraged Laver to set his sights onto one day, playing Davis Cup tennis, under his captaincy.
When 16 year old Laver showed promise through the ranks of the Australian juniors, he was asked to play in the Davis Cup team.
Laver had a huge left forearm shot, and used a lot of wrist movement with his shots. Laver said one of the exercises he would do is he would get hold of an old tennis ball or squash ball and squeeze it in and out to help build muscles in his forearm and fingers. He always kept and old ball in his pocket and would exercise whenever he could throughout the day. Lavers’ left forearm was twice the size of his right, if you believe what fellow countryman Ashley Cooper says.
Back in those days, there were the two very distinct ranks of players. There were the amateurs and the professionals. As an amateur you would win a trophy, as a professional, you won a trophy and money. As an amateur you could play in all the grand slam tournaments, Davis Cup and if you were really good, and you could just make a living out of it.
If you could play well and win Davis Cup you got local recognition and if you made it to Wimbledon, you gained international recognition.
The glamour of course was on the amateur side. The Professionals had their own circuit and this included 8 to 16 guys, who travelled around and played their own tournaments. They often played exhibition matches against each other and it was a hard life, night after night, town after town, but the upside, they made great money.
Back in those days also they didn’t have sponsors to invest in them like they do today, so they relied on making a living from a percentage they would receive from the gate after everyone else took there portion.
After the American dominance in the post war years, a new nation emerged as a force to be reckon with. Australia was the first country to view tennis as a team sport. The Australian’s roomed together, slept together and ate together. There mateship and unbreakable comradery still lies at the heart of the Australian Sporting Arena.
Considering the players could be travelling anywhere up to 6 months at a time, Hopman was looked upon by the players as somewhat of a father figure to them. Hopman had this image that clearly ruffled and intimidated the other coaches and players on the circuit. Hopman was a tough disciplinarian. Girls were not part of the social scene whilst Hopman was around. If he thought a team member was up to no good, he would make that player bunk down with him. Newcombe was one who Hopman kept a keen eye on and he bunked with. In Hopman’s eyes, there was no time for girlfriends, focus had to be on the game, so back in those days, Laver didn’t have one.
All the expenses on tour were controlled by Hopman, so if the players misbehaved or they did something bad on the court like throwing their racquet, he would fine them. He would often hide behind trees and bushes with binoculars checking that they boy’s were in fact doing what they were suppose to be doing.
Laver was no pet, but he did what had to be done, so he was never fined, like his teammates. Yes he was disciplined, but Laver said that was one of the things he thrived on and made him a better player and person, “The Discipline”.
All Australia’s great champions, were able to win with humility and lose with humility. They handled their rising fame with such dignity and grace especially Laver and Rosewall.
With Lavers game, he would be playing for an hour or so, and not playing that great, then just like a switch in his head, it would click over and he would dominate the game.
From 1959, Laver represented Australia in Davis Cup tennis and in 1961, he won his first Wimbledon Grand Slam Single title. Some fifty years ago, they didn’t have roofs over tennis courts. You just had to play out in whatever conditions, the weatherman dealt you.
Laver considers Wimbledon the number one tennis club in the world. Every time he walked out onto centre court there, no matter how many times you have played, the nerves just kick in and take over.
After Lavers’ first Wimbledon win, he returned to Rockhampton to a ticket tape parade through the streets, onto the town hall steps where he was given the keys to the city by the Lord Mayor. Laver recalls that all the fuss made him just as nervous as playing at Wimbledon itself.
The following year in 1962, Laver became only the second player in history, to win the four Grand Slam tournaments in one year.
Laver: “It was a thrill to come off the court and know that I had won all four titles in the one year”. But I never felt the ‘best’. I just felt that I was lucky enough to have a good year”
LAVERS CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
- In his first amateur match, at the ripe old age of 13, Laver lost to his brother Bob in the Central Queensland junior final.
- He first toured overseas in 1956, and his first outstanding success was winning the Australian doubles championship with Robert Mark and the Wimbledon mixed doubles with American Darlene Hard in 1959. Sadly that year, Laver was defeated in the singles final by Alex Olmedo.
- The following year, Laver signed up for the ‘Australian Championships’, wining in five sets against Australian player Neale Fraser.
- 1961, saw Laver win his first singles title at Wimbledon.
- 1962 Laver won seventeen tennis matches along with four Grand Slam tournaments. The only other person to equal this was former professional player Donnie Budge. Also in 1962, Laver was part of the Australian team who won the ‘Davis Cup’ tournament. This win established Laver as a professional world tennis player along with Lew Hoad, Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall and Andres Gimeno.
- 1963 – 1970, Laver had established himself as the No.2 player in the world.
- 1964, Laver beat good friend Ken Rosewall at the Wembley Championship and later Pancho Gonzales at the US Pro.
- 1965 saw Laver establish himself as No 1. In the world rankings after a total of seventeen tennis championship victories.
- 1966 Laver won a total of sixteen championships
- The taste of victory was in the air again with nineteen tournament wins to his tally. These wins included ‘US Pro Championships’, the ‘Wembley Pro’, the ‘Wimbledon’, and the ‘French Pro’. In the ‘Wimbledon’ final, he defeated fellow Australian Rosewall by 6–2, 6–2, 12–10.
- In 1968, enter the “Open Era”. The Open Era began when Grand Slam tournaments agreed to allow professional players to compete with amateurs. Before 1968, only amateurs were allowed to compete in Grand Slam tournaments and other events organized or sanctioned by the ILTF, including Davis Cup.
- 1977 – Laver retires from tennis.
The same year, Laver played ‘Grand Slam” matches becoming the first person to win the ‘Open Era’ championship at Wimbledon. Laver won in straight sets against fellow Aussie Tony Roche in the final.
- 1968, Laver continued to win prestigious tournaments including the US Professional Championship played on grass and the French Pro Championship played on clay thus earning the world No 1. ranking.
- 1969 Laver played several tournaments winning all the four Grand Slam Championships. He also won the South African Open, the Philadelphia US Pro Indoor Championship, the US Professional Championship, and the Wembley British Indoor Championship. He was thus victorious in 106 matches out of the 132 he played.
During the same year, Laver also signed contracts with the National Tennis League (NTL) and the World Championship Tennis (WCT) League. This meant he only had time to participate in five Grand Slam Championships in two years.
- 1973, Laver won several championships including the Davis Cup.
- 1974 Laver won only six championships and his world ranking dropped to No. 4.
- 1977 He signed up with the World Tennis Team. (WTT) a tennis league.
1969 – ABC Sportsman of the year
1970 – Laver made the Queens Birthday Honours list and was awarded the title Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)
1981 – Laver was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame
1985 – Laver was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame
2000 – Centre Court at the National Tennis Centre, Melbourne Park was renamed Rod Laver Arena.
2000 – Laver was awarded the Australian Sports Medal
2000 – Laver featured on a postage stamp issued by Australia Post to commemorate The History of Australian Legends stamp series.
2002 – Legend of Australian Sport
2009 – Laver was inducted into the Queensland Tennis Hall of Fame
2009 – As part of the Q150 celebrations, Laver was announced as one of the Q150 icons of Queensland for his role as a sports legend.
2016 – In the Australia Day Honours List, Laver was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC)
Laver also was awarded the title of “Australian Living Legend”.
A footbridge in Brisbane connecting Teerongpilly rail station to the Queensland Tennis Centre is named after Laver.
In 1998, Laver suffered a stroke during an interview on ESPN-TV in the United States for their Sports Century 20th Century Sports retrospective. With the best of medical care at his disposal, Laver has made a good recovery.
Laver no longer plays tennis due to arthritic problems in his wrist.
In his spare time, Laver enjoys attending the San Diego Chargers games.
In Lavers private life, he married Mary Shelby Peterson, a divorcee with three children from her previous marriage. The marriage took place in California, and was attended by fellow tennis friends, Ken Rosewall, Barry McKay, Mal Anderson,Roy Emerson and Lew Hoad. After the ceremony, the men listed above, all stood outside the church with raised tennis rackets that formed an archway for the newlyweds to walk under.
The couple later had their own son.
Mary passed away aged 84 at their home in Carlsbad.
Family has always been very important to Laver, and he has always been a very private, person.
Laver owns various properties in California, Santa Barbara and Australia, but doesn’t live an affluent lifestyle at all.