Rod Laver did far more than become one of the greatest tennis players to ever grace the game. His achievements go beyond trophies and tournament success. His style of play and ability to bring in big earnings saw him pave the way for the era of the modern player in a manner unique in the history of the sport.
Keeping it in the Family
Born in Rockhampton, Australia on August 9, 1938, Rod “Rocket” Laver, as he later became known, spent his early life on his father’s cattle ranch. To say that tennis was in the blood is an understatement. His mother and father were both talented players, meeting for the first time at a tennis tournament in Queensland. In every house they moved to, a tennis court was a prerequisite.
Laver’s three siblings were all equally keen on the sport, but it was Laver who evidently had the greatest gift, and when he was 15 he left school to focus completely on his passion. He displayed early promise throughout his early years, but what was unknown at this early age was the sheer impact he would eventually have on the game throughout his illustrious and incredible career.
Laver’s career spanned a turbulent period of tennis. He first played as an amateur, then as a professional, and finally in the Open era when the guidelines for what we now know about the game were set in place.
His real break came at Queen’s Club in 1958 when, after spending one year in the Australian army, he beat Barry Mackay, a top-seeded American, in the second round. Although he did not go on to win the tournament, he became noticed for the first time by an international audience, and sowed the seeds for his future success.
The following year, Laver was selected to represent his country in the Davis Cup. He lost twice during the tournament, but Australia triumphed over America and his impressive performances were duly noted.
The next season, he reached the three finals of Wimbledon, winning the mixed doubles but losing the other two. However, it wasn’t until 1960 than his first major title came at the Australia National Championships. His victory over Neale Fraser marked the first major step at the beginning of a remarkable decade for Laver.
In 1961 Laver won the Wimbledon singles title for the first time and was subsequently offered $33,600 by Jack Kramer, the organizer of professional tennis, to ditch his amateur status and go pro. However, he refused to take this offer with the ambition of going on to achieve what he had long held in his sights – Grand Slam glory.
And this he achieved in no uncertain terms. In 1962 he became one of only a handful of players to win ‘The Grand Slam’, taking all four major singles titles in one year. This momentous achievement was followed by his decision to finally go professional, which he did in December 1962 for a guaranteed $110,000 over the course of three years.
Laver’s professional career got off to a slightly rocky start, losing all of his first four matches. However, things soon picked up and he was back to his winning ways, ending 1963 as the professional Number 2 in the world and taking 4 major titles.
The problem with the professional circuit was not only the harsh travelling conditions which players had to contend with, but also their inability to play in any of the Grand Slams. Having achieved the rare and elusive prize of taking them all in one year, Laver held onto the belief that he would get to play in them again. The opportunity arrived in 1968, the year which marked the beginning of the Open era that we know today, when Laver once again took the Wimbledon singles title.
The Second Grand Slam
Laver had already achieved the incredible, but in 1969 he went on to do the miraculous by winning the Grand Slam for a second time, the only man who has ever been able to do this. He was tested on a few occasions, not least in the Australian Open, when Tony Roche put up a mighty challenge in the semi-finals, forcing out a four-hour match in the Australian heat, which included a second set that was taken to 22-20.
However, he took the game and then the championship when he went on to beat Andres Gimeno in the final in straight sets. This was followed by success at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, where he faced Roche again and beat him in four sets.
This is widely recognised as one of the greatest achievements in tennis. Although it could be argued that his 1962 Grand Slam success was less significant due to the lack of many of the best players of the day who had turned professional, his 1969 triumph could not be faulted.
The Money Man
The following year seemed to indicate a period of underachievement for Laver, and he lost all of the Grand Slam titles that he had acquired the previous year. He also lost the US Pro Title for the first time since 1966, suggesting that his best was behind him.
However, while he was losing more frequently on the court, his bank account was making up for it. During that same year he became the first player in the history of the game to exceed $200,000 in annual earnings.
This was built upon to a greater extent the following year which, although far from his most successful, saw him become the first ever career millionaire. Through Laver, the world was witnessing the birth of the modern tennis player, not only in terms of how the game was played, but also in terms of the new and startling amounts of money that were there to be made. However, modern players owe far more to Laver than a healthy bank account.
Defining an Era
Laver’s playing style is widely acknowledged to be one that has defined the modern era of tennis. Although not a large man, being 5 feet and 8 inches in height, and weighing in at 155 pounds, he made up for this perceived weakness in strength.
A left-handed player, he developed the muscles in his left arm to almost comical proportions, but his opponents were certainly not laughing. His serve, although not quite on the huge scale that is witnessed today, was well placed, and his serve and volley style was near-perfect. His main strength, however, came from the back of the court, where he was lethal.
Rod Laver remains, quite simply, one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Away from his famous two Grand Slam triumphs, and his status as the first tennis millionaire, his career saw him take away 11 major titles, 47 professional titles, and the feat of spending 13 years in the top ten.
In terms of Wimbledon victories alone, he was the only player since World War One to win the championships four times in a row before the arrival of Bjorn Borg, and he also set the record of 31 consecutive wins at the tournament, again lost to Borg in 1980.
What Might Have Been
Laver was an incredible player, ushering in the era of the modern player throughout his long and distinguished career. However, one has to ask just what he might have achieved at the Grand Slam tournaments between the years of 1963 and 1967 had he not turned professional.
It is a question that we will never know the answer to, and we can only guess at what records would still be waiting to be broken if he had not turned professional.