Tennis: Rod the Rocket's fine rally

Ronald Atkin talks to a tennis legend about his touching recovery
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WHILE THE Williams sisters were walloping their way to the Lipton final recently, a profound occasion was unfolding on one of the outside courts at Crandon Park, Key Biscayne. Rod Laver was back on court, conducting his first coaching clinic since suffering a stroke nine months ago.

The famous left arm was guiding 11- and 12-year-old city kids through the basics of the game on behalf of the Greater Miami Tennis Foundation, and Laver got every bit as much out of the session as his pupils. "It's wonderful to be able to do this again," was his verdict.

On 27 July last year, two weeks short of his 60th birthday, the man who twice landed the Grand Slam of tennis was being interviewed at his home in Newport Beach, California, by the sports TV company ESPN for a forthcoming series on great sports people of the century.

As he answered questions about the Davis Cup, Grand Slams and his Australian contemporaries Laver became confused, dizzy and felt a tingling sensation in his right arm and leg. "I said to the guy who was interviewing me, `We'd better stop now because your words aren't making sense any more.' Then the last things I remembered were standing up, falling, him catching me and the ambulance coming."

Laver, whose incomparable skills on court required no supplementary good fortune, was lucky on this occasion. His home these days is close to the superb medical centre at UCLA and it was there that he was rushed, to wake up 12 days later in the intensive care unit. He spent five weeks in hospital, including a second spell of intensive care treatment when his recovery was weakened by a fever. Then came four months of rehabilitation and more than 40 scans as Laver set about repairing the damage, first at his Newport Beach home and then at the house he owns at the golf and tennis resort of Rancho Mirage near Palm Springs in the Californian desert.

Laver's became the most famous left forearm in tennis during the Sixties when he swept all four Grand Slam titles in 1962, turned professional and then repeated that incredible achievement in 1969, when the sport went open. He has a forearm girth of 12in and he also measures 7in around the wrist, statistics that heavyweight boxers, rather than a man standing 5ft 8in, would be proud to proclaim. As he put it in his autobiography: "My unimpressive body hangs from King Kong's forearm."

So it became a question of restoring the right side of his body enough to enable the left side to take up again the tennis and golf which kept him in trim. "I wasn't totally negative in the aftermath," he said, his spirits kept buoyant by family, friends and fans. "But I was hoping I would regain full use of my right side."

Laver is deeply reluctant to talk about what he went through, for this touching reason: "I don't want people to get the impression I'm trying to milk the situation." His smile remains slightly crooked and he walks with a barely noticeable limp; otherwise the recovery has been a remarkable one. "The same things that made Rod a champion will take him through this," predicted Laver's American wife, Mary.

Laver was back on court by late autumn last year, though at first he could only hit gently for a few minutes with his 29-year-old son, Rick. Later he was able to take part in more protracted sessions with Tommy Tucker, a good friend who is director of tennis at the Mission Hills country Club in Palm Springs. "Rod's recovery has been nothing short of miraculous," said Tucker.

"He has applied himself with all his professional determination and the improvement is steady. Now he wants to play tennis and golf every day." However, there remains some distance to travel and Laver is his own severest critic.

"When your right foot doesn't know where it is going, it makes things a little more difficult," he smiled. "But I work up a pretty good sweat out on court; I'm using tennis as an exercise to help my recovery. Nobody is yet sure whether I can come back all the way but I keep telling my right side that I'm not going to quit.

"My tennis life groomed me for a struggle like this. During my playing days, if things weren't going well I worked harder and harder until my game came together. That's how I'm approaching things now, step by step, with a positive frame of mind, determined not to give up. I haven't asked myself why this happened. I'm just happy to be making progress.

"One day recently I played for an hour and a half and afterwards I felt a tweak in my right knee. At first I thought `Oh God, an injury' but then I realised, `No, no, that's good. I can feel it'."

For Rodney George Laver, the Rockhampton Rocket, the best of the best, the fervent hope is that the news will continue to be good.