With a repertoire of dazzling shots and a remarkable calm in any circumstance, Rod Laver maintained dominance over many opponents to claim the elusive calendar-year Grand Slam not once, but twice. ALAN TRENGOVE is among the true believers who still consider “Rocket” the best male player of all time.
Some say Australia’s 74-year-old Rod Laver is still the best male player of all time. Others insist that recent performances of the 31-year-old Swiss Roger Federer have consolidated the role for himself. (Though not me, mind you – not the true believers!)
I was there at Brisbane in 1960 at the virtual start of Laver’s career. Already he was displaying his repertoire of daring shots: the dazzling serve and wristy ground strokes, the speed and power, the deftness of it all.
On a critical point, Laver went for a risky shot and brilliantly brought it off. The match turned and he won a desperate cliff-hanger.
Laver had all the game he needed that day, but it was his flair, the unexpectedness of events that undid his opponent, Neale Fraser.
Federer, too, can play with that sort of arrogance when he wants but he is loath to take risks and often bides his time analysing opponents and giving them the chance to gain confidence.
Furthermore, there’s at least one obstacle for Federer to overcome before his fans get too carried away. He may be regarded by many as the greatest player of all time, but he has the devil of a time convincing Rafael Nadal of that.
Back in July, Federer won Wimbledon for the seventh time. It was his 17th Grand Slam singles title, and a marvellous coup. But how can you be proclaimed the best player that’s ever lived when you’ve lost a series of matches to another player – in this case, Nadal? The head-to-head record between the two now stands at 18-10 in Nadal’s favour. The stats at Grand Slam level also favour Nadal – by 7 matches to 2.
Whether Nadal will ever fully recover from his jousts with the knee surgeons, and whether Murray can build on the new confidence he displayed at Flushing Meadows is anyone’s guess. And let’s not forget Novak Djokovic.
In contrast, Laver’s head-to-head record against his contemporaries, when he was at, or near, his peak, shows just how dominant he was against them all.
For instance, he frequently wrong-footed triple Wimbledon champion John Newcombe, beating him 16 matches to 5.
He also regularly gave Arthur Ashe a hiding, and finished with a 21-3 winning margin. In fact it took Ashe – himself a winner of the Australian, Wimbledon and US titles – 18 matches before he could convert even one match point against Laver. The red-haired Queenslander also had a winning record against such giants as Pancho Gonzales, Lew Hoad and Roy Emerson.
As for Ken Rosewall – perhaps the most underestimated tennis star of all – Laver always had to fight hard to beat him. He did so more often than not.
According to one internet authority, “Laver had a long-running, friendly rivalry with Rosewall between 1963, when he started out as a pro, and 1976, when both were semi-retired from the main tour. Including tournaments and one-night stands, they played over 130 matches, all of them as professionals, with some results from the barnstorming pro tours lost or badly recorded. Over all, a match score of 79-63 in favour of Laver can be documented.”
The New York Times recently named the years 1963 to 1967 “Laver’s empty years” because he got lost in the confusion that surrounded the introduction of open tennis.
It’s difficult to determine an all-time ranking list of greats in men’s tennis considering the frequent changes in racquet technology and production of increasingly venomous racquet strings. However Rod’s mastery of his equipment and of the court surfaces on which he played added to his effectiveness. He could be as lethal on clay as on grass or hard courts.
Not so, Federer, who often looked decidedly uncomfortable at Roland Garros until he won the French title in 2009. It has been his only triumph there in 14 appearances – a stark difference from Laver’s two triumphs from eight visits.
Over the last 60 years many great players have attempted to complete a Grand Slam, which entails winning the championships of Australia, France, Wimbledon and the United States in a calendar year.
Great players such as Hoad and Rosewall, Borg, Agassi, Sampras and Nadal gave it a go. All would have been ecstatic to achieve the Grand Slam once but only Hoad got close.
Amazingly, Laver performed the feat twice – in 1962 and 1969.
Whatever lies ahead for the Swiss maestro, I’ll remain a true believer.