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Rod Laver was so scrawny and sickly as a child in the Australian bush that no one could guess he would become a left-handed whirlwind who would conquer the tennis world and be known as possibly the greatest player ever.
A little more than a month before Don Budge completed the first Grand Slam, Rodney George "Rocket" Laver was born August 9, 1938, at Rockhampton, Queensland, Australia. Despite lack of size and early infirmities, Laver grew strong and tough on his father's cattle property and emulated Budge by making the second male Grand Slam in 1962 as an amateur--then became the only double Grand Slammer seven years later by taking the major singles (Australian, French, Wimbledon, U.S.) as a pro.
Few champions have been as devastating and dominant as Laver was as amateur and pro during the 1960s. An incessant attacker, he was nevertheless a complete player who glowed in backcourt ad at the net. Laver's 5-foot-81/2, 145 pound body seemed to dangle from a massive left arm that belonged to a gorilla, an arm with which he bludgeoned the ball and was able to impart ferocious topspin. Although others had used topspin, Laver may have inspired a wave of heavy-hitting topspin practitioners of the 1970s such as Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas. The stroke became basic after Laver.
As a teenager he was sarcastically nicknamed "Rocket" by Australian Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman, "He was anything but a Rocket Hopman recalled. "But Rod was willing to work harder than the rest, and it was soon apparent to me that he had more talent than any other of our fine Australian players."
His initial international triumph came during his first trip abroad in 1956, when he won the U.S. Junior Championship at 17. Three years later he was ready to take his place among the world's best when he won the Australian singles and, Bob Mark, the doubles, and was runner-up to Alex Olmedo for the Wimbledon championship. The Australian victories were the first of Laver's 20 major titles in singles, doubles and mixed placing him fifth among all-time male winners behind Roy Emerson (28), Rod Laver (25), Frank Sedgman (22), Bill Tilden (21). Jean Borotra also won 20. His 11 singles (equaled by Bjorn Borg) were second to Emerson's 12.
The losing Wimbledon final of 1959 was the beginning of an incredible run of success in that tournament. He was a finalist six straight times he entered, losing in 1960 to Neale Fraser, winning in 1961 and 1962, and--after a five-year absence because professionals were barred until 196--winning again in 1968 and 1969. Only two others had played in six successive finals, back before the turn of the century: Willie Renshaw, 1881 through 1886 and Wilfred Baddely, 1891 through 1896. Borg played in six straight, 1976 through 1981. While winning Wimbledon four straight times (the only man since World War I to win four prior to Borg) and proceeding to the fourth round in 1970, Laver set a male tournament record 31 consecutive match wins, ended by his loss to Roger Taylor, and eclipsed by Borg in 1980.
The year 1969 was Laver's finest, perhaps the best experienced by any player, as he won a open-era record 17 singles tournaments (tied by Guillermo Vilas in 1977) of 32 played on a 106-16 match record. In 1962 he won 19 of 34 on 134-15.
Unlike his Grand Slam year of 1962 as an amateur, he was playing in tournaments that were to all, amateur and pro, and this Slam was more impressive. It was endangered only a few times--Tony Roche forcing him to a fifth set exhausting 90-game semifinal in the Australian championships 7-5, 22-20, 9-11, 1-6, 6-3; Dick Crealy winning the first two sets of a second-rounder in the French; Premjit Lall winning two sets of a second-rounder at Wimbledon; Stan Smith threatening in the fifth set of a fourth-rounder at Wimbledon; Arthur Ashe and Laver pushing him to four sets in the Wimbledon semifinal and final (6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4); Dennis Ralston leading 2 sets to 1 in the fourth round of the U.S.; Roche winning the opening set of the mucky U.S. final, 7-9, 6-1, 6-2, 6-2 (which Laver played in spikes).
But that year Laver could always accelerate to a much higher gear and bang his way out of trouble. The closest anyone came to puncturing either Slam was Marty Mulligan, who held a point in the fourth set of their French quarterfinal in 1962, 6-4, 3-6, 2-6, 10-8, 6-2.
After his second year running as the No. 1 1962, and helping Australia win a fourth Davis Cup, Laver turned pro. It was a life of one-nighters, but Pancho Gonzalez was no longer supreme. Kenny Rosewall was at the top and gave Laver numerous beatings as their long, illustrious rivalry began. Rosewall beat Laver to win the U.S. Pro singles in 1963, but the next year defeated Rosewall and Gonzalez to win the first of his five crowns, four of them in a row beginning in 1966. He had a streak of 19 wins in the U.S. until losing the 1970 final to Roche.
Gonzalez pointing for a ninth crown in the 1964 final, was a formidable afternoon. Astonishingly the show went on--the pros were that way in that day--in a raging nor'easter that swept Boston with a blustery downpour, turning Longwood's grassy stadium to a bog. They slipped and fell, but both proud men were up to it, somehow producing fabulous shots. In the rain Laver signaled the end of Pancho's reign, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, 6-4.
When open tennis dawned in 1968, Laver was ready to resume where he'd left off at the traditional tournaments, whipping Roche in less than an hour, 6-3, 6-4, 6-2, to take the first open Wimbledon.
In 1971 Laver won $292,717 in tournament prize money (a season record that stood until Arthur Ashe won $338,337 in 1975), the figure enabling him to become the first tennis player to make a million dollars on the court. Until the last days of 1978, when he was playing few tournaments, Laver was still the all-time leading money-winner with $1,564,213. Jimmy Connors then surpassed him.
In 1973 all professionals were permitted to play Davis Cup, and Laver honed himself for one last effort, after 11 years away. He was brilliant, teaming with Rod Laver to end a five-year U.S. reign, 5-0. Laver beat Tom Gorman in five sets on the first day and paired with Laver for a crushing straight-set doubles victory over Stan Smith and Erik van Dillen that clinched the Cup, Laver's fifth. Of all the marvelous Aussie Davis Cup performers he was the only one never to play in a losing series.
He was also a factor in winning three World Cups (1972, 1974-75) for Australia in the since disbanded team competition against the U.S. In 1976, as his tournament career was winding down, Laver signed with San Diego in World Team Tennis and was named the league's Rookie of the Year at age 38!
During a 23-year career that spanned the amateur and open eras, he won 47 pro titles in singles and was runner-up 21 times. Laver was elevated to the Hall of Fame in 1981.
His 13 years in the World Top Ten ranged from 1959 to 1975. No. 1 in 1961, 1962, 1968 and 1969. His last year there was No. 10 at age 37.
Tournament wins of Laver in 1969 (with reconstructed matches in those events) Credits to aka "Urban" TW poster:
1. Australian Brisbane (grass, 64- draw): wins Di Domenico 62,62,63, Emerson 62,64,36,97, Stolle 64,18-16,64, Roche 75,22-20,9-11,16,63, Gimeno 63,64,75;
2.Philadelphia (indoor, 32-draw): included since qf Pasarell 61,63, Rosewall 64,62, Roche 75,64,64;
3.Orlando: f. Rosewall 63,62;
4. LA pro (hard,16+ draw): since qf Ralston 57,62,62, Newcombe 62,64,f Riessen 64,108;
5.Johannesburg (hard,96 draw):Krog 75,64,63, Schwarz 60,63,36,61,McMillan 62,64,62, Hewitt 62,64,62, Drysdale 61,16,61,62, Okker 63,108,63;
6.Anaheim, f. Ron Holmberg 31-16,31-28 (VASS scoring);
7. New York MSG (indoor): f. Emerson 62,46,61;
8 Wembley BBC II (indoor, 4 men event): Okker, Rosewall 86,60;
9 RG (clay, 128-draw): Watanabe 61,61,61, Crealy 36,79,62,62,64, Marzano 61,60,86, Smith 64,62,64, Gimeno 36,62,64,64, Okker 46,60,62,64, Rosewall 64,63,64;
10 Wim (grass, 128-draw): Pietrangeli 61,62,62, Lall 36,46,63,60,60, Leschly 63,63,63, Smith 64,62,79,36,63, Drysdale 64,62,63, Ashe 26,62,97,60, Newcombe 64,57,64,64;
11 Boston (hard, 32-draw): incl. since qf Okker 63,63,108, Rosewall 63,57,62,63, Newcombe 75, 62,46, 61;
12 St. Louis f. Stolle 75,36,75;
13 Binghamton f. Gonzales 61,62;
14 Fort Worth (hard, 16+ draw): incl. since qf Moore 46,86,63, Okker 26,63,62, Rosewall 63,62;
15 Baltimore f. Gonzales 63,36,75,46,86;
16 USO (Grass, 128-draw): Garcia 62,64,62, Pinto-Bravo 62,75,64, Fillol 86,61,62, Ralston 64,46,46,62,63, Emerson 46,86,13-11,64, Ashe 86,63,14-12, Roche 79,61,62,62;
17 London, Wembley (indoor, 32-draw):incl. since qf Taylor 16-14,108, Okker 86,62, Roche 64,61,63;
18 Madrid (indoor): f. Taylor 63,62.
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