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Legend Laver still so humble after all these years

Rod Laver (AUS) winning the Gentlemen's Singles Final in 1962 against Martin Mulligan (AUS) in straight sets.
by Dan Imhoff
Tuesday 1 July 2014

Truly revered people in any walk of life often possess an aura capable of turning the idols into the idolisers.

Rod Laver is one such person.

While acknowledged as among the greatest players ever to have picked up a racket, the humble Australian – the only man to complete the Grand Slam twice – is not one to bask in the accolades.

He is, after all, quick to push Roger Federer’s and Rafael Nadal’s cases for being the greatest the game has produced.

Federer’s outpouring of emotions after losing a five-set final to Nadal at the 2009 Australian Open final speaks volumes. He had been consoled by Laver and later broke down as he was presented with the runner-up trophy by the 11-time Grand Slam champion.

“I said on the day, ‘A tough loss, Roger. You didn’t play as well as you would have liked to have, but that’s the way life is. You’ve performed in many places where you did play your best tennis’,” Laver recalled.

Nadal, for his part, requested a photo on his phone after chatting with the tennis icon at last year’s Australian Open. This, not from a starstruck teenager, but a 14-time Grand Slam champion.

Technically flawless is the term commonly bandied about when discussion about the left-handed Laver’s game arises, but it is the modesty and composure with which he carried himself throughout his career, which often commands as great a respect.

Speaking from the leafy back yard of a quiet Wimbledon village house on Tuesday morning, “The Rocket” was typically down-to-earth as he chatted about his early days playing small regional tournaments in his native Queensland before comparing his rise to Grand Slam glory with the advent of the modern game.

“It was amateur tennis when I came along. Yes, I turned pro for five years, thinking I had to say goodbye to Wimbledon, never see it again. I did accept that. I just had to grin and bear it that the money game was more important to me than ... the amateur world,” Laver said. “You can play for another 10 years and not make anything, or you could turn pro. Open tennis came along, the bigger-headed rackets brought a whole new influx of players. It’s what you see today. Playing on the Centre Court [at Wimbledon now], if you win it you’re going to get almost £1.8 million. That’s not too bad.”

Four times Laver would claim the Gentlemen’s Singles title on Wimbledon’s lawns. It was his most successful major. His combination of all-court flair and being the pillar of good sportsmanship had him pinned as the quintessential champion.

“Getting to go to Wimbledon in 1956 like I did and then having the chance to come through and be a winner [five years later], that was probably the best tennis I ever played, was at Wimbledon,” he said. “I think it was the concentration I had more than anything else. I think walking onto that Centre Court, it wasn’t a game of nerves. I never seemed to get that nervous. When I got keyed up I played well, but I also concentrated as well as ever on such a court and on an occasion like that.”

Martina Navratilova, regarded as the greatest left-handed player in the women’s game and another who produced her best on the grass at Wimbledon, recalls watching Laver playing an exhibition match in Prague when she was eight. She immediately knew his was a game she wanted to emulate.

“What I took from watching Rod play the game was of course the way he played, but more so how he carried himself and the attitude that he had. Every time he played, he was the ultimate professional,” Navratilova said. “Because I was a student of the game and respected the sport, he was a role model and set the bar pretty high. We had to carry on in the same vein.”

Laver said the only time the two great lefties shared a court was to practise in Rome.

“It was actually a thrill to me, even if you might think the other way around,” the self-effacing Laver said of the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion.

It is the same attitude Laver extends to whoever he meets, Grand Slam champion or not.

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