Rediscovering Rod Laver

By Nick Carter

Laver with the U.S. Open trophy in 1969. Screenshot: U.S. Open

The GOAT debate is a subject I can’t help myself on sometimes, to the point it was one of the first things I wrote about when I first joined Popcorn almost exactly a year ago. In short, I don’t think it can be settled solely by statistical achievements. Stats are the starting point for the conversation, to qualify the candidates. They confirm who the best players of each era were. However, to compare people who played decades apart is very difficult because the way the game is played has evolved over time. I don’t doubt that people who have been successful now could also have been in the past and vice versa. There’s no way of knowing for sure. For me, the greatest players are the ones who not only are the best in their sport but also transcend it. They are recognised by non-fans for their status or known for using their celebrity to be a force for change, either in their sport or even wider (although given most tennis players seem to be introverts, going beyond their specific sphere is rare). 

We are very fortunate in the current era of men’s tennis that three of the greatest male players of all time are pushing each other beyond limits established by history. However, they seem to be the only options for the grand GOAT mantle to recent generations of fans. Yes, they are breaking statistical records but those aren’t enough to fully understand a player’s impact and legacy. Hopefully there’s more pieces on players of the past to come, because their stories are fascinating. More than that, we should explore who else could be considered in the mix for the greatest tennis player of all time, even though that question cannot truly be answered. Greatness is timeless, and is not necessarily always improved upon with every generation.

Just over fifty years ago, on September 10th 1962, Rod Laver completed the ‘Grand Slam’ – winning all four majors in a calendar year – becoming the second man in history to do so. Laver was (and still is) seen as the ‘GOAT’ by many. Until Roger Federer came on the scene (and later Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic), such a title did not seem clear cut. Pete Sampras had the numerical record, but he never won Roland-Garros, let alone completed the Grand Slam. Bjorn Borg was probably the biggest tennis celebrity in history, but even his great rival John McEnroe called Laver the greatest.

Laver has a few unique distinctions, especially when it comes to his dominance during the 1960s. His 1962 ‘Grand Slam’ also included the Italian Open (now known as the Rome Masters), which at the time was regarded by some to have major status. He is the only man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ as a professional, something Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all fallen short of achieving. He is also the only man to have won the ‘Pro Slam’, winning all three of the biggest professional championships in the world in 1967 (four if you include a one-off high-profile event held at Wimbledon).

Here’s a quick history lesson for those who may be confused by this statement, as the biggest professional titles should be the four majors we know today: the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open. However, they weren’t always tournaments for professional players, even though they were still the biggest prizes in tennis. Before 1968, they completely banned professional athletes from taking part. Now is not the time to go into the full history of amateur and professional status, but it is safe to say much of tennis back then was driven by greed, sexism and classism. All this despite the claim that the highest calling was to play sport for the sake of excellence, not for money. 

All this did was create a divide in tennis, from the 1930s to 1968, between the amateur and professional games. As soon as a player reached the top of the amateur game, and began consistently winning, he (and it was almost always a man) would be offered a lucrative contract to play professionally. As a result, the best players were on the professional tour, but the biggest prizes were on the amateur tour. It was like NFL teams and players not being allowed to play for the Super Bowl, Premier League teams not being allowed to compete for the FA Cup or the situation the Super League almost created where the biggest teams in Europe wouldn’t be able to compete in their domestic leagues or the Champions League. 

Rod Laver was caught up in all this, which is why despite winning the ‘Grand Slam’ twice, he has a total of 11 major singles titles, still tied at 6th with Bjorn Borg on the all-time list. However, the Pros had their own ‘majors’ until ‘open tennis’ started and they faded in significance or just discontinued altogether. They were the US Pro Tennis Championships (on Indoor Hard and later Grass), the French Professional International Championships (on clay) and the Wembley Championships (on an indoor court made of wood). From turning pro in 1963 to returning to the ‘true’ majors in 1968, Laver won the biggest professional prizes in tennis a total of eight times. His first was the 1964 Wembley Championships and the final one was the 1967 US Pro championship, averaging at around 2 per year during those four seasons. If you treat these as of similar status to majors, then Laver’s total would go up to 19. Add in a one-off professional event hosted at Wimbledon in 1967 (part-organised by the BBC) at which all the top players appeared, and you can increase the total to 20, which is in the same league as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. There will always be an asterisk to this, as three opportunities to win a major every year is very different to four. Who knows, if Laver had the opportunity, maybe he could have won over 20 majors. Even so, he is recorded as winning a record 200 titles in his career, which is a number no one is ever likely to reach again. This is where comparison issues come in once again, as records of most results before 1968 are difficult to find, especially for amateur events. However, these results are enough that Laver’s record should be enough to include him in the conversation for greatest (male) player of all time. 

Like today’s ‘Big 3’, Laver had a rival: fellow Australian Ken Rosewall. Rosewall also could have had ‘Big 3’ level of major titles, having won eight ‘official’ ones and 15 ‘pro’ ones over a 20-year period, bringing him to a total of 23 big titles. Ken was a few years older than Rod, having won majors as an amateur before turning pro in the late 1950s. At first, he had the measure of Laver when the latter first turned pro, however from 1964 onwards Rod turned the tables as he dominated the professional scene, edging the head-to-head when they finished their careers. Even though Rosewall had the edge on clay, Laver still managed to nick a couple of big titles on the surface from him (including the 1969 Roland-Garros title). The 1960s were similar to recent great decades of tennis in that respect, with exceptional players pushing each other to greater heights.

Recently, Jeff Sackman of Tennis Abstract used his ELO rating system to rank players throughout the last century in his “Heavy Topspin” blog, and placed Laver at the top of the list. ELO is calculated based on wins and losses against opponents, weighted depending on their own rating. Despite often losing to his rivals initially, Laver would turn the tables over the years to finish with the advantage. His two calendar slams probably also boosted his rating. This was impressive given the quality of players he came up against. As a pro he faced Rosewall and the legendary Richard Gonzales and Lew Hoad, but also Roy Emerson, Tony Roche, John Newcombe and Arthur Ashe. All great players, yet Laver had an edge over his peers that, according to Sackmann’s method, no player in other eras appears to have had.  

With this context, now we need to look at Laver’s game to see what he brought and how it might have influenced the sport. Laver was at his peak when wooden racquets were used, even though more recognisably modern technology was just around the corner. Watching the gameplay from the 1960s and 1970s, contact points were smaller (as were racquet heads) and string tensions were a bit higher but still gave tremendous feel and power due to being made of gut rather than a polyester hybrid. Follow-throughs on strokes seemed less extreme, especially on the backhand, players seeming able to produce plenty of controlled and effective shots with shorter swings. There is an assumption that it was serve-volley dominated, but this was something more seen in the 1990s. Serve-and-volley was important then, but players demonstrated much more of an all-court game. That is, they used every part of the court they could, whether in position or placement. Baseline and net play were mixed together, often in the same rally. Likewise, there was plenty of variety in shot selection as well. The pace was also very different–a shot clock definitely wouldn’t have been necessary as the players were almost instantly ready for the next point.

Fortunately, there’s some footage of Laver out there so we can see how he played, including the full final of the 1969 US Open where he beat Tony Roche to win his second calendar ‘Grand Slam’. It’s not a classic, neither player seemed to be at their best and the conditions weren’t great, the match taking place on a damp grass court. There was also a bit of controversy as Laver had an advantage over Roche in terms of his footwear from midway through the first set onwards. It was definitely nowhere near as intriguing as their Australian Open semifinal epic earlier in the year, but at least it was competitive for a set and you can see Laver producing some magic as the match went on. It is worth watching if you want to get a feel for the era and see beyond the highlights and watch a full match involving a past legend, and it’s the best quality footage out there. 

Three things stood out to me when watching Laver’s highlights: his forehand, backhand and movement. He was great at all aspects of the game, of course. The serve was powerful and precise, the volleys silky smooth yet brutally effective. His return was so good too, often setting him up well for a point, only really missing in off-moments. But it was these three aspects that jumped out the most.

Laver’s forehand (a lefty) produced an incredible amount of power at times, able to hit winners from anywhere on the court if given any opportunity. This was due to his massive left forearm. Watching it in action, it’s easy to forget the racquet he is using is very different to the ones used by the tour today. Most players wisely kept the ball away from that wing as much as they could. The backhand, a single-hander as was standard at the time, is a fascinating stroke. Laver could produce a startling variety of shots on the backhand, which very few players of any era can replicate. He could hit through it with pace, add some wicked slice or add any form of spin to extend the rally and give him any edge he could find. In fact, he had incredible feel on the ball from both wings. It was all in the wrist, and the spin he played with was impressive especially for the time.

Rod was known as “The Rocket” not just because of his power but also because of his speed around the court, and it is easy to see why (though it may have originally been an ironic nickname). He seemed able to run down any ball, making him very hard to hit through. It was very much the cornerstone of his game. Not only that, he could somehow hit winners from a defensive position, or hit wonderful shots from less than ideal angles. However, he could still get pretty much anywhere he needed to. (Which was necessary for a man only 5’8’’, which is short compared to most players, even from his era.)

According to former ATP Tour player John Bartlett, whose career began in the latter years of Laver’s dominance: “As a player, he was doing a lot of things that the modern players are doing. He hit with enormous top spin and power, with a wood racquet.” As a 21st century viewer, I can see this. Bartlett also had an opportunity to practice with Laver once during his career. “When he hit a backhand, he turned so much, all you could see was his back. He also teed off on every ball, and just put varying amounts of topspin on.” Laver was clearly an incredibly versatile player and incredibly skilled with his wrist and ability to control a tennis ball.

Sometimes, Laver could realise where to go milliseconds before striking a shot. He could hit winners if he saw the opportunity but he wasn’t looking to always hit an overly aggressive shot. He was an excellent frontrunner in matches, using this mindset to establish dominance. This didn’t mean he was immune to errors or nerves, but like other greats, he managed them better than most. Even when he was behind, he grew more motivated rather than less, continuing to search for anything that would give him a solid footing in the match. Like many other great players, he could raise his game and come up with something special when needed. If you wanted to win against Rod Laver, you had to go out and beat him.

All of these attributes have been ascribed to one or all of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in recent years as well, be it aggression, movement or determination. If you gave prime Laver a modern racquet, he’d probably adjust pretty quickly to the current era. Watching him, you can see where John McEnroe got his inspiration (although the Australian was far better behaved on court). No one at the time seemed to produce tennis like he could. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen any other player like him, especially on the backhand wing.

It is clear that Laver has had a massive impact on the sport. Greats tend to be either innovators (Suzanne Lenglen) or perfectors (Novak Djokovic). Arguably, Laver was both, mastering all aspects of the game, whilst his spin-heavy style made him a leader amongst his generation. No wonder players like McEnroe, Borg, Sampras, Federer and Nadal all looked to him as a role model in attitude and play style, despite being from different generations. He didn’t just inspire the greats, plenty of people picked up a racquet because of him. 

Greats go beyond achievements in an arena. As Laver began to wind down his playing career through his 30s, he began to focus more on growing the sport. He wrote several books, provided coaching and set up clubs for people to try out tennis. Unsurprisingly, he is incredibly knowledgeable about the sport, really understanding what it means to play well. As a result, Laver helped continue to inspire people beyond the stadiums and the television sets. (Baseline Tennis did a great video on his impact on tennis.) 

However, Laver eventually withdrew from tennis as much as he could, trying to live a quiet life in the US. Off the court, he was a mild-mannered man. Despite being a ruthless competitor and revolutionary on court, he was still a traditional tennis gentleman and this earned him plenty of respect from his peers and tennis figures across the generations. The humility he has still comes across today, yet with an incredible tennis brain that gives him great insight into the game and probably was a big part of his edge as a player.

This humility and quietness means that whilst he is willing to do occasional interviews or be a guest of honour at the Australian or US Opens, generally he prefers to stay out of the public eye. When he does talk to Australian media, it’s often to comment on the nation’s current generation of players. He has praised Ash Barty, although his comments on Nick Kyrgios have been more mixed. I asked Australian journalist Todd Scoullar about Laver’s reputation in Australia, as sports stars’ impact is often more at home: “He is greatly revered in Australia and I would definitely say the majority of sports fans know who he is. And obviously because one of our most widely used stadiums is named after him, it’s probably fair to say the majority of the population know who he is. Whether they know exactly what his achievements are, it’s hard to say.”

Nowadays, Laver has faded into legend. The great man is still with us, but there are generations of fans who never saw him play live. It is definitely true that the greats are most appreciated in their time. The excitement is always focused on the here and now, whilst the past is stored in record books, grainy footage and faded memories. To remain relevant, either you set unbreakable records that fans and media continue to care about, or you set yourself apart through character and endeavours outside of playing a sport. Rod Laver will keep himself in the conversation of all-time greats for as long as he is the last man to have won the ‘Grand Slam’ and as long as he is the only man to have done it twice. However, it’s worth going and looking at why he remains an all-time great, you won’t be disappointed. You will find him to be the prototype of the modern player in so many ways, whilst still wonderfully unique and a breath of fresh air for a modern fan. We need to keep players like Laver in discussion about the ‘greatest’ athletes in our sport, and not get swept up in the moment. No one has to draw a definitive conclusion, but just remember that “Rocket” has a very good case.

You can read Jeff Sackmann’s full piece on Laver here: https://www.tennisabstract.com/blog/2022/12/21/the-tennis-128-no-1-rod-laver/

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