Rod “Rocket” Laver is considered by many to be the greatest tennis player of all time. He is the only player to have won the “Grand Slam” of tennis twice: once as an amateur in 1962, and then again as a professional in 1969. He won Wimbledon four times and was runner-up twice. Laver’s Wimbledon record is even more impressive in light of the fact that, due to his professional status, he was ineligible to play in the tournament for five years during his prime.
Laver won Wimbledon as an amateur in 1961 and 1962. He turned pro in 1963 and consequently was ineligible to play in that tournament from 1963 through 1967. However, in 1968 Wimbledon opened its doors to professionals as well as amateurs. Laver returned and won the tournament in 1968 and 1969. If Laver had been allowed to play from ’63 through ’67, which were his best years as a player, he could very possibly have won Wimbledon nine times!
In any discussion of Laver’s playing style, attention becomes inevitably focused on his exciting groundstrokes. Called the ultimate shotmaker, Laver hit both forehand and backhand with extremely heavy topspin. Since topspin pulls a ball down in flight, Laver was free to hit the ball just about as hard as he could; the topspin would keep the ball in the court. From the baseline, Laver would swing from his heels, taking truly ferocious swipes at the ball. Facing shots that would potentially “blow your head clean off!” (to quote a certain unclean cinematic police detective), when Laver’s opponents approached the net they did so very carefully indeed.
Moreover, when Laver aimed the ball low over the net the topspin would pull it down sharply just as it crossed the net. As a consequence, Laver was able to obtain astonishing angles for his passing shots, seemingly without regard for how well positioned at the net his opponent might be. Too, when his opponent was entrenched at the net, Laver was also capable of looping the ball over his opponent’s head with a fierce topspin lob that he could hit with equal facility from the forehand or backhand. Laver certainly did not invent the topspin lob but one could well argue that he perfected it.
Although Laver’s groundstrokes tend to receive the most interest, in truth Laver won most of his points at the net with big, swinging volleys and a ferociously powerful overhead. With regard to overheads, Laver had something of a secret weapon: at 5′ 8″ in height, Laver’s relatively short stature would often cause opponents to misjudge his vulnerability to a lob, particularly when he would belly up close to the net, which he very much liked to do. However, Laver could backpedal almost as fast as he could run forward and consequently it was not so easy to lob over his head. On numerous occasions, believing Laver too close to the net, an opponent would try to flick a quick lob over Laver’s head, whereupon Laver would backpedal frantically, leap high at the last possible second, and smash an overhead winner.
Most tennis experts claim that the weakest aspect of Laver’s game was his serve. Weighing slightly under 150 pounds, Laver served with reasonable but certainly not overpowering pace. Nevertheless, and particularly on a fast court, Laver’s serve was very effective. A left-handed player, Laver’s primary service weapon was a left-handed slice that came in fast, skidded low, and curved away from what would be a right-handed opponent’s backhand side. Since most players are right-handed, and since most players have a weaker backhand than forehand, the majority of Laver’s opponents found his serve very difficult to handle.
Of course, against another left-hander things were not as easy. Nevertheless, in that case Laver used, very effectively, a powerful twist serve that would bounce in the opposite direction – to a left-handed opponent’s backhand.
It will probably never be possible to say, with complete certainty, that this player or that player was the greatest of all time. Nevertheless, what can be said with complete certainty is that, in any such debate, Rod Laver will always have his own fiercely supportive advocates.
Rod Laver was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1981.