Born: August 9, 1938
in Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia
The only male or female player in tennis history to win two calendar Grand Slams in singles earned a tad more than $1.5 million dollars during his entire career. Rod Laver won a record 200 tournaments, held the No. 1 world ranking from 1964-70 and his total prize winnings in a 23-year career was half of what the USTA awards the men’s and women’s US Open champions.
While those earnings pale in comparison to our modern era, consider that Laver was the first to exceed $1 million dollars on tour and earnings are directly connected to winning, which Laver did frequently. He captured 20 major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles, which ranks him sixth all-time (currently tied with Mike Bryan) behind Roy Emerson (28), John Newcombe (26), Todd Woodbridge, and Bob Bryan (23), Frank Sedgman (22), and Bill Tilden (21). Laver won 11 of those titles in singles in a mere 16 attempts, a record when he retired, and one ultimately broken by his rival Emerson (12) and then toppled by Pete Sampras (14), Rafael Nadal (16), and Roger Federer (19). He won three Australian titles (1960, 1962, 1969), two French (1962, 1969), four Wimbledon (1961, 1962, 1968, 1969), and two US National/Open (1962, 1969) titles. Four doubles titles were earned at the Australian (1959, 1960, 1961, 1969), and one each at the French (1961) and Wimbledon (1971). Mixed doubles titles were earned at the French (1961) and Wimbledon (1959, 1960).
Sports records are meant to be broken, and many times they are, but it often takes decades. So while Laver’s major singles total was bested, his two Grand Slams, earned as an amateur in 1962 and a professional in 1969, have not been challenged in more than 40 years and simply don’t seem in jeopardy of being broken. Consider this: After Laver won his first Grand Slam in 1962, he turned professional and was banned from competing in the majors until the Open Era began in 1968. Had he not be barred, as all amateurs who turned pro were, it’s highly likely and probable that Laver would have won a third or perhaps a fourth Grand Slam.
He was that good.
When Laver’s name is mentioned, two descriptions immediately follow: Greatest player in history and “The Rocket.” The nickname has been linked to the Aussie ever since coach Harry Hopman tagged him with the moniker. But the red-headed, left-handed shot-making wizard didn’t earn Hopman’s distinction for his breakneck speed on court, his blistering strokes, or pounding serve. Laver was a slight and thin 5-foot-8, 145-pounder who didn’t overpower his opponents; he defeated them with speed and agility, a fiery competitive spirit and a developed game that had no weaknesses.
Laver was born in rural Rockhampton, Australia. His father Roy was a cattle rancher, and his mother Melba a proficient tennis player herself who met her husband at a tournament in the Queensland town of Dingo. Tennis was the fabric of the Laver household. There was always a tennis court located near their home and the young Rod began playing at age six. With a hand-me-down racquet that had the handle shaved down to fit his tiny hand, Laver challenged his two older brothers, and at age 13 lost to his brother Bob in the Central Queensland junior final.
Laver was hooked on the game, and shortly thereafter was selected to attend a tennis camp that was sponsored by the Brisbane Courier-Mail newspaper and run by Hopman. In his memoirs, Education of a Tennis Player, Laver wrote: “Going to the clinics made me very nervous at first. Everyone in Australia – and, I thought the world – knew and admired Harry Hopman. He’d been a fine player, then captained the Australian Davis Cup team of Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor that broke America’s postwar grip on the Cup in 1950. He was working with Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall who were about to burst forth as young world beaters, and here I was, getting instruction from this important man who was respected everywhere – Wimbledon, Forest Hills, Paris, Rome.” Laver said the stern Hopman had a “nice way” with kids and was good humored. “I looked like I was on hunger strike most of my life,” Laver wrote. “I was short, skinny and not too quick either. After a couple of days, Hop remarked, ‘You’re the Rockhampton Rocket, aren’t you?’ Rocket stuck.”
“He was the Rocket – because he wasn’t,” Hopman said. “You know how those nicknames are. Rocket was one of the slowest kids in the class. But his speed picked up as he grew stronger.”
And so did his legend.
Hopman’s influence on Laver was considerable. His pupil already had grit and determination, and despite his small statue, had enormous talent that just needed refining. Following the clinics, the Courier-Mail ran the story, “Hopman Praises Local Tennis Player … Has High Hopes for Rod Laver.” Hopman wrote that Laver was the “most promising boy in the Courier-Mail coaching class, and I forecast a high place in Australian tennis for him in several years’ time.” In 1953 Laver quit school to concentrate on tennis full time and in 1956 the hard work paid dividends as he won the 1956 U.S. junior championship. Laver won 54 amateur titles between 1956 and 1962, but the totals accumulated modestly for the first four years when he only won seven total, all played in Australia. From 1960 to 1962, Laver won 47 championships and the Grand Slam in 1962. His game, buoyed by relentless practicing that saw him hit thousands of balls, began to strengthen, and his left forearm became muscular and defined, like a lumberjack. His body began to fill out proportionately from his days as a tiny youth. A year spent serving in the Australian Arm (1957) toned Laver as well. At the US Open in 1968, venerable New York Times sportswriter Dave Anderson measured Laver’s left arm. His wrist was 7 inches around, an inch more than his right wrist. His forearm was 12 inches around, an inch and a half more than his right forearm. Anderson wrote that his left forearm was the same size as that of heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and an inch and a half larger than that of boxer Floyd Patterson. To strengthen his forehand and fingers, Laver would regularly squeeze a tennis or squash ball.
It was this abundant strength that provided Laver with the ability to hit a wristy forehand and backhand with heavy topspin that according to Ken Rosewall, was like “nobody else of the era.” The strength enabled him to wait until the last moment to hit the ball, making him an unpredictable opponent to read from the baseline, which is where Laver excelled. Hopman’s coaching turned Laver into an aggressive serve and volley player as well; his game was masterfully disguised and tailored his opponent, surface and playing conditions.
When Laver returned from duty in 1958, he defeated American Barry MacKay in the second round of the Queen’s Club Tournament, a turning point in his career. His first significant non-Grand Slam victory came as a member of the 1959 Australian Davis Cup team that defeated the United States. He advanced to the Wimbledon Gentlemen Singles Final that year (falling to Alex Olmedo, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4). His first major championship came at the Australian in 1960, defeating compatriot Neale Fraser in five grueling sets, 5-7, 3-6, 6-3, 8-6, 8-6. In 1961, Laver needed just 55 minutes to thump Chuck McKinley to capture his first Wimbledon title, 6-3, 6-1, 6-4. When he returned home to Rockhampton, he was greeted with a parade and given keys to the city.
That Wimbledon victory, at a place Laver says is the “greatest tennis club in the world,” paved the way for a historic 1962 season. Tennis star turned promoter Jack Kramer then attempted to woo Laver into turning professional with a $33,600 contract, but Laver put his pro career on hold for one year while he chased the Grand Slam in 1962. Up until that momentous feat, the last male to win a Grand Slam was Don Budge in 1938. Laver was a mere 24-years-old when the won all four majors in 1962. Three of them came at the expense of fellow Emerson – at the Australian (8-6, 0-6, 6-4, 6-4), the French (3-6, 2-6, 6-3, 9-7, 6-2) and the clincher on September 1- at the U.S. Nationals (6-2, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4). Wimbledon was earned over Aussie Marty Mulligan in straight sets (6-2, 6-2, 6-1). “It was a thrill to come off the court knowing I had won all four majors in one year,” Laver said. “But I never felt like I was the best, never felt that way. I just happened to have a good year.”
While amateur players lived reasonably well and were afforded perks for travel and ancillary expenses, they weren’t going to make any real money unless they listened hard to Kramer’s pitch and turned professional. After winning the Grand Slam, Laver listened intently and signed a reported $100,000 contract, ending his amateur career. “I won Wimbledon in 1961 and 1962 and got a 15 pound voucher and a firm handshake,” Laver said. “I just wanted the chance to play against the best players in the world, and that’s why I turned pro, plus the financial enumerations were an important part of tennis back in those days.” Starting in 1964 he won the US Pro five times in six years. In 1967 he added the Wembley Pro, the French Pro, and US Pro titles to his portfolio, considered the professional Grand Slam. He won 69 tournaments as a pro, 19 coming in 1967.
Laver had five empty years (1963-67) away from major tournaments, where he compiled a 142-29 record, an 83 percent winning mark. When the Open Era began in 1968, he would be competing against the best players in the world – amateur or pro – and won five of the first seven majors contested, including his second Grand Slam in 1969 at age 31. Four different opponents were dispatched when Laver made history. He won his third Australian defeating Spain’s Andres Gimeno, 6-3, 6-4, 7-5, but the semifinal against fellow Aussie Tony Roche was his finest match at the Australian Open. Playing under the brutal Australian sun for more than four hours, Laver played 90 games to defeat Roche, 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3. Rosewall was routinely defeated at the French, 6-4, 6-3, 6-4 in what Laver called the “best clay court match of my life.” Fellow Aussie John Newcombe suffered a 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 setback at Wimbledon. “He had that extra shot at just right time and it swung the pendulum in his favor,” Newcombe said. “It didn’t surprise me, because he had what it took to win.”
The US Open final was delayed several days because of rain storms and when play commenced, conditions were slippery and Laver was sliding all over the grass court, allowing Roche to take the first set, 9-7. “In any final if you win the first set you feel like you’re well on the way, but of all the players, Rod had the unbelievable ability to get out of tough situations and he had such great belief in his game.” At a changeover, Laver put on a pair of spiked shoes which he said made him feel more comfortable and led him to winning, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 for the clinching Grand Slam victory at the US Open. A “relieved, happy, and satisfied” Laver leapt over the net, which was rare for him, becoming a two-time Grand Slam champion. After 1969, Laver concentrated on playing World Championship Tennis (WCT). His Open Era career from 1968 to 1976 saw him win 77 tournaments.
Laver was able to realize his dream of playing Davis Cup for Australia, joining the team at age 21 and helping the Aussies win the Cup four consecutive times (1959-62). In 1973, professionals were allowed to play Davis Cup for the first time and Laver earned a fifth championship, 5-0 over the United States. He led Australia to three World Cups (1972, 1974-75) in an event that has since been disbanded.
During a 23-year career that spanned the amateur, pro, and Open eras, Laver was ranked eleven times in the World Top 10 between 1959 and 1975, reaching No. 1 four times (1961-62, 1968-69).
In January 2000, the Centre Court Stadium at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open since 1988, was renamed Rod Laver Arena and a sculpture depicting him in action adorns the park grounds. Those accolades are a few of many honors bestowed upon him from his homeland. He was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1985 and was classified an Australian National Living Treasure, which recognizes outstanding contributions to Australian society across many disciplines. He was also honored as a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).
“Rocket was a guy that had the respect of everybody,” said Newcombe. “The champions of today recognize that he was great, one of the greatest, but they can also sense his strength of humility that there is about him.”
In 1989, esteemed tennis journalist Bud Collins wrote in his novel My Life With the Pros, that “I remain unconvinced that there was ever a better player than Rod Laver.”
In his New York Times interview, Anderson asked Laver about his career and how many majors he might have won. Laver answered with a laugh, “I don’t figure those things out.”
The Rocket’s record does the talking for him.