Dispelling the Myths of "Rocket" Rod Laver

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Dispelling the Myths of

August 25.

A dreary day, marked with a few scattered showers. That hardly mattered though, as the tennis genius prepared to close out another Slam final.

Leading 5-2 in the fourth set, the contest had not been competitive since the opening moments.

A spotted crowd at Forest Hills Tennis Club, who braved the weather, were about to witness history being made. Tony Roche was the only man alive who could prevent the inevitable, but even he found it to be an overwhelming task to stop the 31-year-old Rocket.

Again.

In a matter of moments, another calendar Grand Slam went into the record books. Roche's countryman Rod Laver had completed the feat for the second time in seven years.

The victory was impressive, as it usually was from Laver. The score line read 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2.

It didn't come easily, by any definition. After fending off an American college product in five sets, he needed to dispose of legendary foe Roy Emerson and local hero Arthur Ashe before even thinking about getting to the final.

In each of his three previous matches at the U.S. Open, Laver needed bonus tennis to win a set. The tiebreak had not been implemented yet. It would be another year before the tiebreak would go into effect in Slams, but it had certainly been seen in other tournaments.

It was the "Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System," but you can just call it V.A.S.S.S.

Which brings up the first Rocket Rod myth.

Myth No. 1: Rod Laver was aided by the non-existence of the tiebreak.

Answer: False to the fourth power.

The main case for this myth is that tiebreaks gave the underdog a better chance to win a match. In theory, that is. The tiebreak system allows a set to be won without needing a break of serve. In a first-to-seven minigame sprint, anything can happen.

Really.

When the VASSS was first seen in Slams in 1970, its primary criticism was that it promoted bigger hitting and bigger serving. At the time, the "Rocket" was one of the biggest hitting players alive.

His heavy topspin forehand was only the beginning, as many players after him would utilize the shot—Borg, Vilas and Nadal today. With many players on tour using backspin as a primary shot, a fast-paced tiebreak would have only assisted Laver even farther.

As classical tennis was played, a service break was a necessary and accepted part of the match. If a player was unable to take a game from his opponent's service, he did not deserve to win that particular set.

Fair enough.

So Laver, needing "extra" tennis on a regular basis, had to work even harder to win sets. But there was nobody better at playing in high-pressure situations. Serving with the match or set on the line made Laver feel right at home.

And because of that, his ground game had to be technically flawless. It usually was, too.

As a boy, Laver grew up in Rockhampton, Queensland.

Standing at 5'8" on a good day, Laver was primarily coached by Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, who gave him the nickname "Rocket."

That name however, had nothing to do with his court speed. Instead, the untamed power in his left arm caused his game to be extraordinarily erratic as a young player.

Although the Rockhampton Rocket won the U.S. Junior Championship as a stick-like 18-year-old, he earned tremendous respect around the tennis community for his performance at Wimbledon in 1959.

As an unranked player, he played an 87-game semifinal against fifth-seed Barry MacKay—one of the most challenging matches of his career. An 11-13, 11-9, 10-8, 7-9, 6-3 victory put him through to the finals, but it would only end in despair, as he fell to world No. 1 Alex Olmedo of Peru.

His true breakthrough did not come for another year. A late bloomer by most standards, he finally managed to put it all together in the early stages of the 1960 season.

Now at a ripe age of 21, Laver needed five agonizing sets to defeat doubles specialist Neale Fraser at the Australian Open. The young man from Queensland looked overwhelmed and dejected after falling in a two sets to love hole, but he dug deep and prevailed 8-6 in the fifth.

It was only the beginning for the world of tennis. The Rocket Revolution was upon us.

Laver's amateur career hit full stride in April of 1960, winning eight titles to close out the season. From there, the tiny hole that had been poked in the dam four years previous had finally exploded.

He won 16 singles titles in 1961, half of them coming from beating fellow Australian Emerson. But he only managed to capture one Slam title, Wimbledon. He won that almost too easily, as Chuck McKinley provided no match whatsoever.

At that point, there was no stroke that Laver could not hit for a winner, from any point on the court.

An arcing topspin attack lob. Forceful swinging volleys. Incredible angles that most players could only dream of pulling off.

Coach Hopman said it best: "It soon was apparent to me that he had more talent than any other of our fine Australian players." 

That became increasingly obvious as Laver burst out of the gates in 1962 and never looked back. The trophy room in his home was already too small, and the addition of 22 more titles only made it worse. A figure that most players could only gape at, it wasn't even the most impressive part of his season.

In late August, he became only the second man in men's tennis history to complete a calendar Grand Slam, as he defeated Roy Emerson for the 16th time in a final.

"As a player, it's tempting to play it safe when it got tight. Rod did just the opposite. He had the guts and the skill to pull it off constantly," said fellow Australian and rival John Newcombe on Laver's ability in pressure situations.

And just like that, Laver had won six majors in 32 months.

But late in 1962, he made a choice that would forever change his career forever. Deciding that amateur events were too simple for his liking and feeling that he could make a legitimate living playing tennis, he joined the Professional Tour in 1963.

Which brings up the second Laver myth.

Myth No. 2: Rod Laver did not win a major from 1962-1968.

Answer: Insanely false.

Most people in tennis will say that Rod Laver won 11 Slams, six from 1960-1962 and five more after 1968.

And that is true. He won Wimbledon four times, the Australian Open three times, and the U.S. and French Opens twice apiece.

But what mostly everyone fails to realize is that Rocket Rod also won eight additional "Professional Slams." Those Slams included the U.S. Professional Championships at Chestnut Hill, the French Professional Championships, and the London Indoors at Wembley Arena.

These tournaments paid very well and fielded the best players in the world, like Ken Rosewall, Pancho Gonzales, Andres Gimeno and Alex Olmedo.

Any professional player was therefore barred from playing in any of the four Slams as we know them. Those were only open to amateurs.

For some reason, these Professional tournaments have never been acknowledged by the ATP, or really by anyone for that matter. The Association, formed to protect the ever-growing number of professional players, also helped in establishing a better ranking system.

Although the ATP did not go into effect until 1972, the need for better records of matches and a more advanced method of keeping statistics was an immediate necessity. Thus the Open Era began in 1968.

That hardly justifies omitting five years of Championships from the record books, though.

It was in the early stages of 1963 that Laver finally met a true match in Ken Rosewall. The Rockhampton Rocket struggled initially, falling several times to Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales in his first few months as a professional.

Even though he won a few minor tournaments towards the end of 1963, it would be nearly two years since the '62 U.S. Open before he won another major title. He claimed the U.S. Professional Championship in style from Gonzales, coming from behind to win in four sets.

By that time, six of his seven major titles were on grass and he was a world-renown master of the lawn.

After his growing pains, Laver was back to his old self again, winning tournaments nearly at will. From 1965-1967, he won 52 singles titles. For reference, that mark is more titles than Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg or Thomas Muster won in their respective careers.

1965 also saw his rivalry with Rosewall come into full bloom, and then some. The two met an incredible 18 times, mostly in finals, with Rocket Rod winning 13 of those encounters.

In the final year before the Open Era, Laver completed the rather unknown Professional Grand Slam. He defeated Andres Gimeno twice and then Rosewall in five sets at the Wembley Indoors to complete the trio.

Now, back to "reality."

The dawn of '68 saw professionals allowed to enter the four Slams once more, and Laver was licking his chops at the very opportunity.

Note: Nobody has a clue how much Laver could have won had he remained an amateur. Maybe we don't want to know either.

Despite falling in the French Open final to Ken Rosewall, he blasted through an overwhelmed field at Wimbledon without facing many difficulties. That included a straight sets domination of No. 1 amateur player Arthur Ashe in the semifinals before dumping Tony Roche in the final.

To close out the 1968 campaign, Laver played what he considers to be the best match of his life, a three set victory over Rosewall in Los Angeles, 4-6, 6-0, 6-0.

He said afterwards that, "This is the kind of match you always dream about, the kind you play in your sleep."

Seems like he won with incredible ease. Which brings up the third myth.

Myth No. 3: Rod Laver never faced the level of competition that some other greats have.

Answer: 1000 percent false.

Many experts would consider the 1970s and 1980s the "Golden Age" of tennis. With players like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Guillermo Vilas and Ivan Lendl, it's very easy to think that way. The state of tennis today could also be comparable.

Newly minted Fifteen-time Slam winner Roger Federer and the best thing since the Spanish Armada, Rafael Nadal, remain one of the most intense rivalries in history- and their careers aren't even completed.

But that hardly means Laver was waltzing through a field of poppies and nobodies on the way to major championships. Let's take a peek.

  • Ken Rosewall. The diminutive Australian won 23 major titles, 132 in total, and commanded the best slice backhand in the history of professional tennis. He also beat Laver 63 times over a 13-year period.
  • Roy Emerson. Another Australian, Emerson enjoyed incredible success in all facets of the game. He is the only man in history to win all four Slams in singles and doubles. His physical fitness was second to nobody.
  • Pancho Gonzales. An American folk hero who was towards the end of his career during Laver's time, but showed no signs of slowing down in his age. He won tournaments into his 40s.
  • Andres Gimeno. Always a factor despite not winning much, he was an eternal darkhorse who could beat any top player on a given day, but could never really put it together in a string of matches.

Sounds like a few halfway decent adversaries to me.

Now, 1969 was a marquee year for Laver in a number of different ways.

It was, by most definitions, one of the finest statistical seasons ever seen, if not the very best. Rocket Rod won 17 of the 32 tournaments he entered, compiled a record of 106-16, and was the first tennis player in history to break the US$100,000 mark.

That number would be close to three quarters of a million today.

But none of that mattered much. He won the calendar Grand Slam again, this time as a professional. As he won his 19th major to complete the feat, it would sadly be his last.

Despite not winning any additional slams after August 1969, his prize money would continue to shoot through the roof. From 1969-1971, Laver earned an inflation-adjusted $3.3 million.

As John McEnroe would politely say, "He played at the wrong time."

Great segue, but here is the fourth Laver myth.

Myth No. 4: Rod Laver never won Slams on three different surfaces.

Answer: False, again.

Federer, Agassi, and Connors have won all four Slams, doing it on clay, grass and hard courts. That is a commonly known fact.

Yipee! So did Laver.

He won 12 majors on grass, two on clay, and five more on indoor wood. Yes, they played the Wembley Indoor Championship on wood.

Enough said.

Enough myth busting for one day.

For those out there who believe Roger Federer being the greatest in history is more obvious than someone saying that grass is green, look a little farther.

Would Federer beat Laver head-to-head? Almost surely. Federer is quite likely one of the best couple of men to ever pick up a tennis racquet. But there is a technical difference between the best and the greatest.

Not many would doubt that Federer would blow Laver off the court, if they were to play under today's rules and game. However, in terms of greatness, there is not much to debate. The numbers are staggering.

Rod Laver won 19 career majors. Roger Federer has 15, and counting.

Rod Laver has 199 career singles titles. Roger Federer has 58.

Rod Laver has two calendar Grand Slams. Roger Federer has zero.

But the greatest of all time certainly saw a bit of himself watching Mr. Federer win his 15th Wimbledon.

"I just see it's amazing what sort of shots he can come with from impossible positions," said Laver. "He's just naturally talented and can change where he has to change." 

Shades of Rocket, indeed.

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