Rod Laver’s guide to becoming a pure hero

Australian legend who won all four major titles in a year twice tells Paul Newman that Rafa Nadal is currently closest to achieving on-court perfection

Imagine that Novak Djokovic, the Wimbledon champion, had also won the Australian and French Opens this year and was going to the US Open later this month chasing the pure Grand Slam of all four major titles in the same year. Imagine, then, that he reached the final at Flushing Meadows. On the black market you would be able to name your price for tickets to the final.

Rewind 45 years and Rod Laver was in exactly that situation. In the very first year that all the Grand Slam tournaments were open to every player, including those who had turned professional, Laver faced his fellow Australian, Tony Roche, in the US Open final. Remarkably, however, the stands at Forest Hills were half-empty. Bad weather saw the final delayed until the Monday, as a result of which fewer than 4,000 spectators watched Laver achieve the greatest feat in the history of men’s tennis, winning 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 to secure his Grand Slam.

Laver, who today celebrates his 76th birthday, is one of only two men to have achieved a pure Grand Slam, Don Budge having been the first to do so in 1938. Laver did it twice, having also won all four major trophies as an amateur in 1962.

A few have gone close to achieving the Grand Slam in recent years – most recently Rafael Nadal and Djokovic won three of the four titles in 2010 and 2011 respectively – while Laver is convinced that Roger Federer would have done so had he not been competing in the same era as Nadal. In 2004, 2006 and 2007 the French Open was the only jewel missing from Federer’s Grand Slam crown, the Swiss losing to Nadal in the Roland Garros final on the latter two occasions. Rafael Nadal, pictured, lost the first set to Kei Nishikori, but the Japanese player was forced to retire Rafael Nadal is the closest to perfection, according to Laver

“I definitely think Roger would have done it if Nadal had not been around,” Laver said. “I love Roger’s all-court game, the way he prepares, the way he plays matches. He has all the ground strokes, all the volleying abilities. The way he approaches tennis is different to so many of the players. Even when he’s in the fifth set he looks like he’s just started the match. I think that’s what makes him the player he has been for the last 10 years.”

Laver’s respect for Federer is such that he invited the Swiss to write the foreword to his recently published autobiography, though he also has huge admiration for Nadal. “Every point is important to Nadal, which I think is the one thing that puts him so far apart from the other players,” Laver said. “He doesn’t have a weakness. It used to be the case that he didn’t volley very well, but now he plays just as well at the net as he does on the baseline.”

One of the lessons to take from Laver’s book is the sheer size of the task in achieving the Grand Slam. In 1962 Laver went close to defeat on several occasions. Martin Mulligan, his quarter-final opponent at the French Open, had a match point in the fourth set, only to be surprised when Laver played serve-and-volley on second serve.

“I missed the first serve and wondered what on earth I should do next,” Laver recalled. “I decided I would serve to his backhand, come to the net and cover the line, because he went down the line all the time. He went down the line and I hit a backhand cross-court, which got me out of trouble.”

Because it was achieved against former professionals and amateurs alike, Laver regards his 1969 Grand Slam as his finest hour. He very nearly fell at the first hurdle but held firm to beat Roche 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3 in a four-hour Australian Open semi-final played in ferocious heat.

Laver, who comes from Rockhampton in Queensland, was known as the “Rockhampton Rocket” but the nickname was initially ironic. Harry Hopman, the legendary coach who was a mentor to many Australian players, was asked to look at a teenaged Laver and was concerned that he was too slow. Meanwhile Charlie Hollis, Laver’s coach in his schoolboy years, thought that the future champion’s two older brothers might be better prospects.

“My middle brother turned professional and taught a lot of players in Rockhampton,” Laver said. “The eldest was  talented, but he just got angry on the court when he wasn’t playing the way he wanted to play. I think I was more prepared to put in the effort and to accept that sometimes you lose and you don’t play well. I guess that I persevered.”

Hollis taught Laver to chase down every ball – advice which stayed with him. “Even when I knew I didn’t have much of a chance of getting to the ball I tried,” Laver said. “Charlie Hollis and Harry Hopman always emphasised that you can get to more balls than you think you can.”

Nobody had a greater influence on Laver’s early career than his parents. His father, who built a court in the family’s back yard out of silt from the Fitzroy River and illuminated it with four 1500-watt light bulbs strung down the middle of the court, used to take him to tournaments that were seven or eight hours’ drive away.

“Almost every small town had a tournament and I think that was one of the reasons why so many of us Australians became pretty good tennis players,” Laver said. “There wasn’t a lot else to do. There was tennis and cricket. A lot of us were too small to get into football or rugby, so tennis was our outlet.”

‘Rod Laver: An Autobiography’ is published by Allen & Unwin (£16.99)

New Articles
tvDownton Abbey Christmas special
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
News
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
art
News
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashion
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all