Rallying with Rod Laver
Posted on June 1, 2017
The superlative “Greatest of All-Time,” or GOAT, in social media-speak, is thrown out there a lot lately. But in some conversations, it remains undiluted, as is the case with Rod Laver. During his career, “Rocket” Rod Laver dominated tennis on all surfaces with an adaptable play style that brought the ultimate triumph in professional tennis: winning all four major tournaments — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open — in a single year, also known as a “calendar Grand Slam.” Laver’s trophy case includes not only every major, but within every division, too — men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
Forty years post-retirement and at age 78, the Australian-born former tennis pro’s two-time Grand Slam record (1962 and 1969) remains unbroken despite the prolific success of the giants of the game who’ve followed him. As it says in his bio on the International Tennis Hall of Fame’s Web site, “He was that good.”
It’s interesting, then, to have the opportunity to ask Laver his opinion on the GOAT conversation. Laver deftly handles the question with characteristic humility. “I think the only way you can make any sense about it is, if you’re the best in your era, that’s about as far as you can go,” he says. “I was honored to be able to pull [the Grand Slam] off in ’62 and ’69,” he continues, “but when you’re looking at back then, it was a different world because it was wooden racquets, and maybe not quite as competitive in the depth in competition. Since open tennis in ’68, the whole prize money structure, the amount of people playing the game — it’s been amazing.” He adds, chuckling, “To see Wimbledon now, it’s like a £2 million first prize, and when I played, I got a firm handshake and a £10 voucher.”
His opinion of who he believes is the greatest is not surprising to anyone following tennis today. “I go with [Roger] Federer. I think he, at 35 now, is all of a sudden playing better tennis than he’s ever played,” says Laver, an unabashed Federer fan.
While his celebrity status in his home country of Australia is undiminished, Laver has actually been a Carlsbad resident for 16 years. He and his wife, Mary, relocated to be nearer to his son’s family following the birth of their granddaughter. Very much the proud grandfather, Laver lights up at the mention of her.
“My wife and I wanted to grow up with our little girl,” he says.Though a wrist injury prevents Laver from playing tennis any longer, he was still proud to be the Honorary Chairman at Hospice of the North Coast’s Second Annual Mary Laver Memorial Tennis Event at Omni La Costa Resort & Spa this past April. Mary had received care at HNC during her battle with neuropathy before her death in 2012; Laver calls the assistance HNC provided during that time “a blessing.” The pro-am event welcomed 12 amateur players to play with 12 former tennis pros, including Bob Lutz, Larry Stefanki, and Rick Leach. “We’re all over the hill, so to speak,” jokes Laver, “but we can still go out there and just keep the ball alive.” Proceeds from the event totaled more than $150,000, supporting HNC’s services for the terminally ill, providing comprehensive, compassionate hospice care in North County San Diego.
With tennis in his blood and his favorite player on a major tear, this adopted local legend still follows the pro circuit, but only to a degree. “I go to the Australian, last year I was at the US Open, I’ll go to Wimbledon this year,” he says. “I work with Rolex and Adidas, and so those two companies keep me involved, but [I attend] mainly because it’s a thrill for me to go to those events.” However, you won’t see him in Paris this month at the French Open. He says with an impish smile, “I can’t be everywhere!” Deanna Murphy
Portrait: Photography by Bob Stefanko Mary and Rod Laver: Photo courtesy of the Laver family