To most contemporary tennis fans, he is perhaps an ageing legend who sometimes turns up at Australian Open to give away the trophy to winners like Roder Federer and Novak Djokovic. To the older generations of tennis fans and players, Rod Laver was the ultimate player – complete in all respects. It was natural that he was the benchmark that players like Pete Sampras used to assess themselves and those who followed them, until the genial Federer came by and claimed Grand Slam crowns and hearts almost at will.
Make no mistake, Laver was to tennis what Sir Donald Bradman was to cricket, Pele to football, Jesse Owens to track and field sport and our own Maj. Dhyan Chand to hockey. It is only appropriate that, as Deccan Chronicle celebrates its 75th birthday, we look at this legend who was born the same year in which Hyderabad’s iconic newspaper was established and Don Budge became the first man to complete a Calendar Grand Slam in tennis.
One approach would be to brush up one’s reading on Laver and wax eloquent about the hawk-nosed, freckle-faced, read-headed Australian left-hander’s court craft, his mental toughness and how he was the first player to earn a million dollars from tennis. For someone who was born a year before Laver won his first Calendar Grand Slam, I have never watched him play – except on some videos on YouTube. Yet, since I grew up as a son of one of Hyderabad’s first sports journalists, it was inevitable that I admired the left-hander. I would prefer to look at some events in his life, understand the Laver phenomenon and draw lessons on handling oneself when one is the best, remaining humble in victory and praising opponents when defeated.
His graceful acceptance of Roger Federer as the greatest tennis player will be a good starting point. “Oh, I would be honoured to even be compared to Roger (Federer). He has such an unbelievable talent, and is capable of anything,” Laver said of the Swiss star who captured the imagination of the sporting fraternity in the past decade and a half.
Clearly, there has been no trace of bitterness in Laver as he made things easy for all those debating the world’s greatest tennis player. The California-based Australian did not hide behind the “In our time, the challenges were greater” or “We played most of our tennis with wooden racquets” arguments. Instead, he wore the hat of elder statesman and simply anointed Federer as the greatest player.
Cut to the time he was 15-year-old and decided to give up school so that he could devote his life to tennis. Of course, a severe a case of jaundice which meant he missed school for two months was the catalyst for that decision. He told his father, Roy Laver, that he wanted to quit school since he did not want to be the lad who finished behind others who had a head-start on him. With his father’s consent, he left school and through his coach Harry Hopman got a job with a sporting goods firm in Brisbane. He sharpened up his game in the shade of Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall and went on to become a world-beater.
Truth to tell, while Hyderabad’s own Sania Mirza is from such a school of thought as her parents let her pursue tennis actively well before she became a teenager, it is important that more and more parents in India draw inspiration and allow their children to discover their talent beyond academics. It is essential that we let our young follow their hearts and give them the right direction and support in becoming better sportspersons.
Quite obviously, you could look up any chapter from Laver’s glorious career and be inspired. Here is one such example, far removed from the 11 Grand Slam victories that contributed a great deal to the creation of the Laverlegend itself. In July 1962, an aircraft that was flying him to Hilversum in the Netherlands dived sharply to avoid colliding with another plane. Some passengers were carried off the plane on stretchers while others were left severely shaken.
Laver is said to have changed clothes, marched out onto the court and easily defeated his opponent as if nothing had happened. It is such poise in the face of difficulty that made Laver stand out. Without having access to modern sports scientists who would help train the mind, Laver showed the power of the mind in shutting off distractions and focussing on events on court. It was the same power that made him believe that his lack of height – he was only 5’8” – was actually an advantage since he had greater balance.
After helping Australia win the Davis Cup in 1962, he breathed life in the professional circuit. “I couldn’t see myself pushing cigarettes the rest of my life,” he said, referring to Australian Lawn Tennis Association’s sponsorship deal with a tobacco giant. “If I ran my business the way the Australian Lawn Tennis Association ran its, I’d be bankrupt,” he said. “I figured one day I’d wake up and be 45 years old and where would I be? I didn’t want to end up with my head in the toilet 25 years later. I wanted to make my living in tennis, and I wanted the challenge. I wanted to play the best, play Rosewall and Hoad and Gonzales and Trabert, though he was past it then. I wanted to know if I was No. 1 or No. 4?” Clearly, Laver did not mind being labelled selfish by tennis officials but he was intent on securing his life by earning by playing tennis. For, he knew little else but tennis.
He was reputed to be a man of few words, famously saying that he thought he played well after winning a Wimbledon crown. Yet, taught early by Harry Hopman not to say anything to the press, he never wanted to be the centre of attraction or to be in the middle of anything. “What is there to smile about? That’s not what I do best. I like to play attractive tennis. I talk to myself a little bit and throw a racket occasionally, but I don’t perform at the expense of winning,” he said when he was at the peak of his prowess and asked if he was shy. “Are you more popular if you’re outspoken? Open your mouth too often and what you will probably reveal is your ignorance.”
That could well be the greatest lesson we can draw from the legend.
(This piece was written for Deccan Chronicle)