James Lawton: My champion of champions? It has to be Laver
Saturday 20 June 2009
In a rush of Murraymania founded, indisputably, on the growth of Britain's most serious talent since Fred Perry and the purist's desire, now frustrated by the defending champion's injury, to see a Federer-Nadal re-match that many would regard as the all-time championship of the tennis world, Wimbledon may just be in danger of serving a double fault.
The great tournament could be slipping too easily into a massive historical oversight. It may be casting aside, without proper reflection, that time when it seemed inconceivable that the world would ever see a better tennis player than Rod Laver.
His feats were extraordinary and his consistency staggering and it was also true that there were times when he appeared to have invented a new game with his little wooden racquet At a time when Pete Sampras, who may well be passed by the revived Federer on the record Grand Slam mark of 14 these next few days, was crowding the tennis horizon, it was put to Laver that he was indeed in danger of becoming, at the very highest levels of career assessment, the game's forgotten man.
"Every age has great players, mate," he said at the West End dinner table, "and I reckon the best you can hope for is that you are recognised in your own time.
"Before I finished I knew I was seen as someone who had had a pretty big impact and maybe most important of all is that I knew I had not wasted any of my talent. I had given it a good go, right to the end, and when you do that, well, you think, 'Let history look after itself'."
History has done this quite vigorously these last few weeks since Federer drew alongside Sampras by winning the French Open title that was beyond the great American – and we know the verdict will be even more resounding if it should happen that Federer adds a sixth Wimbledon title.
But has history been a little slipshod? Has it failed to apply all the data on the little man – 5ft 8 in – from Rockhampton, Queensland, whose left forearm became so huge with the sheer weight of brilliant usage? Imagine a career in open tennis closed down between the ages of 23 and 30 by the need to go professional but still yielding 11 Grand Slam titles – just three less than Sampras, whose uninterrupted career stretched over 15 years, and Federer, who is 27.
The conservative estimate is that Laver, who came to dominate such formidable rivals as Kenny Rosewall and Pancho Gonzales in the process of winning four straight US professional titles, would have won a minimum of 20 majors if he had continued to eke out a modest living as the man who had demolished all amateur opposition when winning the Grand Slam of 1962, a feat he reproduced, uniquely, in 1969 when he launched tennis's open era with powerful evidence that his exile had created nothing so much as a single missed heartbeat.
It was then that the voice of Wimbledon, Dan Maskell, issued an assessment that seemed proofed against the merest whiff of revision.
Maskell, whose commentary style tended to favour a brief exclamation at the end of a blistering rally, most famously, 'I say', committed himself to arguably the longest sentence of his life, saying, "Laver is technically faultless, from his richly varied serve to his feather-light touch on drop volleys, plus a backhand drive carrying a destructive top spin when needed or controlling slice when the situation demanded it." Maskell's verdict was one for the ages. Laver was superbly talented, innovative, and, yes, surely unsurpassable.
It is the old dilemma, of course, the one that makes time travelling in sport such an imprecise business. Best or Ronaldo? If you cannot re-produce the precise arena in which they performed, if you cannot balance the power and the speed, the training and the nutrition, the sheer evolving of the human machine, how can you make any true verdict? You can't but you can acknowledge the witnessing of genius – and you can defer to certain achievements and the relative significance to their time and their competition.
Laver, as it happens, could scarcely be more generous when he considers the meaning of Federer, his beautiful technique, his smooth athleticism and his natural grace.
"Tennis," says Laver, "is privileged to have a champion like Roger."
Two years ago he was asked if the Swiss was indeed the best ever player. Laver replied, "I have to believe it because he has every shot in the book. He knows the safe zones and he knows when to hit out and go for winners.
"Yes, I believe Federer is probably the best player I have ever seen. For any opponent, he's got too many shots, too much talent, in one body.
"It is hardly fair that one person can do all this – his backhands, his forehands. Volleys, serving, his court position – the way he moves around the court you feel like he's barely touching the ground, and that's the sign of the greatest of champions." But then pretty much the same was said of Laver at that time he was effectively reinventing the world of tennis.
Ted Schroeder, the American winner of Wimbledon in 1949 having overcome a career disruption of his own, the Second World War, said shortly before he died, "You take all the criteria, longevity, playing on grass and clay, amateur and professional, his behaviour, his appearance, Laver is the best player of all time."
Schroeder didn't live to see the apex of Federer's career but his compatriot Tony Trabert, the winner of five Grand Slam titles, has done so – and seen no reason to change the assessment he made last year.
Said Trabert, "I still maintain that Rod Laver is the best player who ever played the game because he did things no one else has in our sport; he won two Grand Slams, as an amateur and then a professional. If someone in some other sport had an achievement like that, there would be no debate."
Laver will no doubt continue to believe that a champion can do no more than be the best of his day, dealing gracefully with the issue that still has supporters including the American doyen of tennis writing, Bud Collins, moving to his defence.
Laver says, "I guess I'm proud of his [Federer's] career as well as my own. About my own achievements, I think it is the feeling of a different era. Wooden racquets were being used in my time. Now of course you have so much more speed with grooving and the spin of the ball.
"But then I also have to say that Roger has something I don't think I had. It is the amount of champions in the draw. The whole world is playing the game of tennis now and there are so many new players contending and it's hard to challenge and say that my era was tougher than his."
It is the concession of a gracious man indeed, especially when you remember that quite apart from his duels with the demi-god likes of Gonzales and Lew Hoad, the list of his Grand Slam final victims include Roy Emerson, John Newcombe and Rosewall.
In 1989 Collins, among others insisted, "I remain unconvinced there was ever a better player than Rod Laver." However, 13 years later as editor of Total Tennis, the Ultimate Tennis Encyclopedia, he was somewhat more equivocal, making arguments for both Gonzales and Tilden. And then there was first Sampras, then Federer, the man who still beguiles the tennis world and who will be occupying entirely his own terrain if he overcomes Murray at Wimbledon.
We can hardly quibble about such status, and aura, and especially if we listen to Laver. However, history sometimes has a tendency to deal in neat absolutes. Sometimes a great man's ultimate glory comes at another's expense. If it is true it means that in tennis there has never been a more sublime casualty than Rod Laver.
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